From the Daily: Big man at the Big House


Published February 11, 2010

The list of recent University commencement speakers includes the likes of award-winning journalists Bob Woodruff in spring 2008 and Christiane Amanpour in spring 2006, Human Genome Project Director Francis Collins in winter 2007 and who could forget former President Bill Clinton in spring 2007. But this year’s spring commencement speaker probably couldn’t be topped. This year, the field of Michigan Stadium will play host to President Barack Obama as he delivers the keynote address at spring commencement ceremonies. Obama is the perfect figure to send University graduates off as they depart from the University to pursue their careers. Obama’s history in academia and ability to demonstrate the ideals that an institution of higher learning should embody make him the ideal candidate to speak at the University’s spring commencement.

As reported in the Daily’s article yesterday evening, University President Mary Sue Coleman announced yesterday that the keynote speaker at this year’s spring commencement will be President Barack Obama. Obama is the third sitting U.S. president to speak at a University commencement ceremony, following George H.W. Bush in 1991 and Lyndon B. Johnston in 1963. On May 1, Obama is slated to address roughly 3,500 graduating students and 40,000 family members and friends in the Big House, according to the Daily report. Campus response to Coleman’s announcement has been instantaneous and uproarious.

It’s difficult to think of a more appropriate keynote speaker for the University’s commencement ceremony, even if one considers only Obama’s unrivaled ability to encourage students. Most students will never forget the rally on the Diag that ensued after the announcement that Obama had been elected as the president of the United States in November 2008. During Obama’s campaign for the White House, his message of hope and change, along with his infectious charisma, resonated with voters nationwide, and especially with students. Regardless of one’s political opinions, it’s undeniable that Obama generated more enthusiasm and excitement among students than any other political figure in recent memory. And Obama motivated many students to not only think, but to act — successfully mobilizing students in an unheard-of movement and getting them to the polls in force. It’s unlikely that anyone could be better qualified to inspire University graduates to take action to respond to the problems they see in society.

Obama’s charisma aside, he also demonstrates a strong commitment to the values that the University shares. Intellectually tenacious, committed to public service and a beacon of multiculturalism, Obama possesses leadership qualities that graduates should emulate.

Obama’s biography and life experiences allow him to speak with authority to a wide range of people as diverse as the University’s 2010 graduating class. Obama, who made history when he was elected the nation’s first black president, has lived a life that provides him with the perspective and experience to speak with authority to students from traditionally marginalized groups and less privileged backgrounds. His multiracial heritage and childhood in a single-parent family are perhaps more relevant to many students than the privileged backgrounds that often accompany distinguished leaders.

And though the prestige of being a sitting president is overwhelming, it’s important to remember that Obama is also a distinguished academic. He graduated from Columbia University with a bachelor’s degree in political science before attending Harvard Law School, where he served as president of the Harvard Law Review. He later held positions at the University of Chicago Law School, one of the most intellectually rigorous law schools in the country, first as a fellow and then as a professor. His demonstrated commitment to knowledge and intellectual courage make him uniquely qualified to address the University’s graduating class.

Obama is the right person to speak to students who intend to lead in thought and action. The University has a history of producing leaders in a wide range of fields, from former President Gerald Ford to great American playwright Arthur Miller to the entire crew of astronauts of the Apollo 15 mission. This kind of leadership could hardly be better exemplified than in Obama. As a community organizer in Chicago's South Side, Obama applied his mind to the challenges facing the area. He carried his commitment to his values into the Illinois legislature and the U.S. Senate. Now, he represents the United States in confronting major global conflicts. There is no leader better qualified to provide students with advice on leadership.

The University’s 2010 graduates face daunting challenges as they enter the job market, considering the crippling economic climate. But Obama’s career success makes him the perfect speaker for this group of students. As an academic, community activist and successful politician, he can provide University graduates with valuable insight on leadership in the real world. The University could have faired no better in the commencement speaker.