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How the University landed President Obama for commencement

Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 28, 2010

Though it was only announced last month that President Barack Obama would be the speaker at this spring's commencement, University officials have been communicating with the White House since last April to try to get the president to speak at the Big House.

According to documents obtained by The Michigan Daily through a Freedom of Information Act request, University President Mary Sue Coleman first contacted Alyssa Mastromonaco, White House director of scheduling and advance, on April 30, 2009.

Following the initial letter, Coleman sent a formal invitation directly to Obama last September. In her letter to Obama, Coleman highlighted the University’s history as one of the premier public universities in the country.

Coleman also encouraged the president to come to Ann Arbor by referencing the University’s commitment to topics important to his administration like economic expansion, developing alternative energy sources, sustainability and health care.

“The University of Michigan vigorously pursues the many issues our nation faces and that you are tackling as president,” Coleman wrote to Obama in her September letter. “Your visit would inspire and motivate continued progress in these areas.”

In her letter, Coleman also referenced visits by other presidents, including John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech on the steps of the Michigan Union. Kennedy, who was campaigning at the time, stood before a crowd of students at 2 a.m. to announce his plans to create the Peace Corps.

“That night, and in the days and weeks that followed (Kennedy’s speech), the enthusiastic response of our students helped propel that brief speech into a major national program,” Coleman wrote in the letter. “Today’s students are no less dedicated, and they would be thrilled for you to challenge them directly to meet the demands of the 21st century, as their forbears were by John F. Kennedy.”

Coleman added that the University not only has ties to past presidents but to Obama’s administration as well.

“I would be remiss to close without conveying how extremely proud we are of the many University of Michigan alums working for you and your administration, who could serve as a valuable resource as you consider this invitation,” she wrote.

But Coleman was not the only one who lobbied the president to come to campus. A group of 30 campus leaders sent a letter to Obama requesting that he speak at the Big House.

The letter from University students discussed students’ experiences on election night in 2008, when they celebrated on the Diag after Obama’s victory was announced.

“And there we stood, all united as students of University of Michigan who had witnessed history being made; shouting in one voice, ‘YES WE DID!’” the students wrote. “As members and representatives of the upcoming graduating class of the University of Michigan, we feel a special connection to this great day in American history.”

LSA senior Rebekah Sharpe, assistant secretary of the University’s chapter of the NAACP and a signatory of the letter, said she started an initiative last summer to invite Obama to this year’s spring commencement.

Sharpe said she was put in touch with Coleman’s office, which was already in the process of recruiting Obama, and the student representatives on the University’s Honorary Degree Committee, the group responsible for determining the commencement speaker and those who will receive honorary degrees during the commencement ceremony.