President Obama on Sunday exhorted graduates of Rutgers University to reject cynicism and become politically active, and he took critical aim at some Republican ideas that have gained currency this election season, such as building a wall along the Mexican border.
“The world is more connected than ever before, and it’s becoming more connected every day. Building walls won’t change that,” Obama said to applause. “The biggest challenges we face cannot be solved in isolation.”
Obama spent 42 minutes addressing more than 52,000 gathered for the university commencement at High Point Solutions Stadium in Piscataway and thousands more listening at live-stream viewing venues on Rutgers campuses.
His speech contained plenty of New Jersey references — including a mention of the North-South divide over processed meat, namely the Taylor Ham versus pork roll debate — but was marked by the lofty, inspiring oratory for which he is famous.
“If you want to change this country for the better, you better start participating,” the president said, noting low voter participation rates by young people. “Contrary to what we hear sometimes from both the left and the right, the system is not as rigged as you think, and the situation is not as hopeless as you think.”
Obama gave the keynote as part of the celebration of Rutgers’ 250th anniversary. The school is the eighth oldest in the nation — dating to before the American Revolution — and Sunday was the first time a sitting president has delivered the commencement address, university officials said.
Diplomas were awarded to 17,000 students, Rutgers’ largest graduating class ever. It was a valedictory of sorts for Obama as well, as he is in his final year in office.
“By almost every measure, America is better than it was 50 years ago or even eight years ago,” said Obama, referring to the start of his presidency. And he offered a defense of a brand of incremental change that has drawn fire from candidates for his job this year.
“Have faith in democracy,” said Obama, clad in a scarlet-and-black Rutgers robe. “It’s not always pretty, but it’s how, bit by bit, generation by generation by generation, we’ve made progress in this nation.”
Although he didn’t mention any candidates by name, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump has proposed a wall on the Mexican border, to which Obama referred. And the president also offered a pointed critique of the strain of anti-intellectualism that has animated some of Trump’s populist appeal.
“In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue,” Obama said. “It’s not cool to not know what you are talking about; that’s not keeping it real or telling it like it is. It’s not challenging political correctness. It’s just not knowing what you’re talking about.”
The day felt historic all around at Rutgers, which has one of the most diverse campuses in the nation.
“This was an amazing experience,” said Chaim Gartenberg of Teaneck, a 23-year-old graduate in mechanical engineering. “To hear him talk … he was so effective and so powerful. It’s a very different experience than watching him on TV or the Internet. I really liked that he said you should stand up for what you believe is right, and that you shouldn’t close your mind to people you don’t agree with; that the right thing to do is debate and not to hide.”
Obama referenced Rutgers’ 2014 commencement when President George W. Bush’s secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, withdrew from speaking after student and faculty protests. Obama called the attempts to bar Rice from speaking “misguided.”
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“If you disagree with somebody, bring them in and ask tough questions,” the president said.
Debbie Hines, a labor studies professor, had nothing but praise for Obama’s address. “I thought it was wonderful,” Hines said. She added that she appreciated the president’s detailed knowledge of Rutgers — including a reference to the legendary grease truck “fat sandwich” — and the college’s history. But what truly resonated for her, she said, was his exhortation that students vote, that “their voice matters.”
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Doretha Webb came from Delaware to see her niece, Jasmine Vickers, graduate with a degree in public health. “The speech was excellent,” Webb said. “He touched on a lot of things they need to know, that this generation needs to hear.”
In the end, most in attendance thought the logistical hassles — the traffic, extra screening, packed shuttle buses — were well worth it.
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“It’s a hassle but this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” said Jordan Blancaflok, who received a degree in economics.
Sunday’s address is the second of three commencement speeches Obama will deliver in his final graduation season as president. Earlier this month, he told graduates at historically black Howard University that the country is “a better place today” than when he graduated from Columbia University more than 30 years ago. The president also will speak on June 2 at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.
In introducing Obama in Piscataway, Greg Brown, chairman of the Rutgers governing board, noted the president’s role in helping the country rebound after the financial crisis of 2008, championing health care expansion and leading with “diplomacy and restraint” on the international stage.
“Today, he chose you,” Brown told the cheering graduates. “He chose Rutgers; he chose a top-25 research university.”
While he is the first sitting president to address the school, other chief executives have visited Rutgers. Bill Clinton announced the creation of the AmeriCorps at the Rutgers Athletic Center, or the RAC, in 1993.
“This is huge,” Rutgers archivist Thomas J. Frusciano said. “In the context of the 250th anniversary, this is a signature event.”
He credited an active social media push from the student body and the Garden State’s congressional delegation for helping the president decide to speak at the commencement.
Obama, who also received an honorary doctor of laws degree from Rutgers, noted in opening his remarks that he receives many requests to speak at commencements and was impressed that the university started its lobbying effort back in 2013.
“You are the first to launch a three-year campaign,” Obama said. “I even got three notes from the grandmother of your student body president. That really sealed the deal. I have a soft spot for grandmas.”
Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno attended the commencement but Governor Christie did not. Christie ran unsuccessfully for the GOP presidential nomination before endorsing Trump. The governor instead was at nearby Princeton University to watch his son, Andrew, play Yale in the Ivy League baseball championship.
Olya Chernenkova traveled thousands of miles, spanning time zones and an ocean, to celebrate her sister Jenya Cohen’s graduation Sunday. “I’m very proud of her,” said Chernenkova, who hails from Russia. “I never thought it could be something like this. And the president speaking at her graduation, it’s like, wow!”
Some were less excited about the speaker. “I couldn’t be more disappointed in the last eight years,” said Vince Zangli, referring to Obama’s tenure. Zangli was there to mark his son’s graduation. “It’s about Nick,” Zangli said. “It’s about the kids graduating. I couldn’t be more proud of him.”
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