Rutgers wants Obama as 2016 commencement speaker

Sen. Robert Menendez and U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., both Rutgers-Newark law graduates, head the drive to get President Obama to speak at the 250th anniversary graduation.
Sen. Robert Menendez and U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., both Rutgers-Newark law graduates, head the drive to get President Obama to speak at the 250th anniversary graduation. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 28, 2013

After Rutgers University's president sent a letter to President Obama inviting him to deliver the 2016 commencement address, the school reached out to two prominent alumni - U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. and Sen. Robert Menendez - to lobby further.

Pallone and Menendez, both Democrats, graduated from the law school at Rutgers-Newark, Pallone in 1978 and Menendez in 1979. The two rallied the state's congressional delegation, which Monday sent a letter to Obama encouraging him to accept the invitation. The letter was also signed by Democratic Sen. Cory Booker and nine of the state's 11 other representatives.

Republican Reps. Chris Smith and Scott Garrett did not sign the letter, released Monday.

Rutgers traces its roots to the Nov. 10, 1766, founding of Queens College. The university is preparing for a yearlong 250th anniversary celebration in 2016.

"We are pleased to come together to support Rutgers University's invitation for you to address the graduates of the 250th anniversary commencement," the legislators' letter reads. "Your attendance and participation will make this important milestone in Rutgers' history all the more memorable and auspicious."

Other anniversary events have not been finalized three years out, or are being kept under wraps. A request for proposals has gone out for some events, such as a concert at the stadium in Piscataway, where the expected 16,000 graduates would walk in the graduation ceremony.

Robert L. Barchi, Rutgers' president, formally invited Obama to attend the May 15, 2016, ceremony in a letter dated Oct. 17.

"I cannot imagine a more inspirational commencement speaker on this important day in the history of Rutgers," Barchi wrote in the letter. "Your dedication to promoting education is reflected in the diverse faces of Rutgers students, many of whom are transforming the future as the first in their families to graduate from college."

Rutgers would give Obama an honorary degree, Barchi wrote, "to recognize your remarkable eight years of service to our nation in the White House as well as your tremendous support of New Jersey following the devastation of Superstorm Sandy."

In their letter, the lawmakers highlight Rutgers' status as a land-grant university, member of the Association of American Universities, and one of the original nine colonial colleges. Giving a quick run-through of the university's history, the letter cites the school's participation in the first intercollegiate football game in 1869 - in which, it makes sure to note, Rutgers beat Princeton University, 6-4.

The letter also lists a litany of awards and fellowships won by students and faculty, including Rhodes, Churchill, and Truman Scholarships, MacArthur "Genius" grants, and Pulitzer Prizes. Also, Rutgers professor Selman Waksman won a Nobel Prize in 1952 "for his discovery of streptomycin, the first antibiotic effective against tuberculosis."

Pete McDonough, the university's senior vice president for external affairs, said he wasn't sure whether a sitting president has delivered Rutgers' commencement before, but he noted that Obama would be in good company because Toni Morrison, a Nobel laureate, delivered the address in 2011. Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.

Morrison's commencement address raised eyebrows when it was reported that she would be the first speaker to be paid, receiving $30,000. Greg Brown, the vice chair of the Rutgers board of governors and CEO of Motorola Solutions, asked the university to turn his honorarium into scholarships for students when he spoke in 2012, McDonough said. Virginia Long, who retired from the state Supreme Court in 2012, turned down the money when she spoke last May.

Rutgers would offer the money to Obama, McDonough said, though he said he expected the president to turn it down. Obama has spoken at a few schools each graduation season, sometimes touching on political issues. At a commencement address at historically black Morehouse College in Atlanta, Obama discussed issues of race and fatherhood; at Ohio State University in May, he focused on civic engagement and citizenship.


jlai@phillynews.com

856-779-3220 @elaijuh

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