NEW BRUNSWICK — The Rutgers University senior who led a social media campaign to have Ellen DeGeneres be the commencement speaker is OK with the school instead picking Little Steven Van Zandt. But she admitted she had to look him up first.

Kayla Brantley, of Somerset, told New Jersey 101.5 she was surprised by the choice and after reading up on the member of the E Street Band, said he will likely appeal to an older generation.

Bruce Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt perform live on stage during the second day of Hard Rock Calling at Hyde Park in London
Bruce Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt perform live on stage during the second day of Hard Rock Calling at Hyde Park in London (Jim Dyson/Getty Images)

Brantley said she had hoped to take the politics out of commencement after President Barack Obama spoke last year and the controversy over the choice of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2014 who eventually declined the invitation.

"(Ellen DeGeneres') whole message is to be kind, so no matter what your views are, everybody should be kind no matter they believe in or what they think.”

"He seems to be noncontroversial, though I did read some stuff that he had spoken about the Hamilton cast and (then-Vice President elect) Mike Pence and called (President) Obama 'ineffective,'" Brantley said.

Brantley hopes that Van Zandt will deliver a message they hoped DeGeneres would have delivered, "which would be to be positive, be kind and not to leave the politics to the side. It isn't Ellen, but this is who we have. I don't plan on starting a riot over someone who doesn't seem like the worst person in the world."

The journalism major said there was no buzz on campus about Van Zandt being named the commencement speaker.

"He really isn't for our generation. He's more for our parents," Brantley said.

"He's doesn't seem like the worst person in the world. It would be kind of wrong to really bash his name," Brantley said, adding that starting any kind of negative campaign against Van Zandt would go against DeGeneres' message. "That's not what Ellen would want."

Van Zandt is no fan of the Trump administration and agreed with the message of the cast of Hamilton, who lectured Vice President Mike Pence from the stage during a performance of the musical.

“We, sir, are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values, and work on behalf of ALL of us," Brandon Victor Dixon said on behalf of the cast to Pence.

Van Zandt said the cast crossed a line and that they "blindsided" Pence with their lecture. He also tweeted "apologies" for a "temporary embarrassment" when word of a tense conversation between Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull leaked out.

Brantley's campaign was highlighted by a video showing students asking DeGeneres to the commencement. She still hopes their campaign will somehow be acknowledged by her.

The campaign came too late for this year's commencement, as the nominating process had started 11 months ago .

“While we understand there has been a growing interest in Ellen DeGeneres being the speaker, Ms. DeGeneres was not nominated during the formal process last year and therefore cannot be selected as the 2017 commencement speaker," Rutgers spokeswoman Karen Smith said in a statement.

Van Zandt will receive an honorary doctorate of fine arts at the May 14 ceremony at High Point Solutions Stadium in Piscataway.

Contact reporter Dan Alexander at

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