Obama's Commencement Speech at Rutgers Commencement Mixes Politics and Jokes with Advice for Graduates

President Obama delivers his address at Rutgers' 250th anniversary commencement to an audience of 50,000. Credits: Roy Groething/Rutgers University
Students enjoyed President Obama's references to grease trucks, campus buses and other facets of Rutgers life.  Credits: Nick Romanenko/Rutgers University
Rutgers President Robert Barchi presents President Barack Obama with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. Credits: Nick Romanenko/Rutgers University

PISCATAWAY, NJ -  Dr. Barack Obama became the first sitting President of the United States to address a Rutgers graduating class today as the university celebrated the achievements of the Class of 2016 and the 250th Anniversary of one of America's first colleges.

Obama, America's 44th President and the first African-American to hold the office, received an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree, noting that neither of his two daughters would be impressed.

The Rutgers Class of 2016 is the largest and the most diverse in the university's long history.  Indeed, Rutgers has been recognized for having the most diverse campus population in the United States. Today's audience, though beset by chilling winds, was enthusiastic in response to Obama's address.

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The president acknowledged that he was not in Piscataway to settle the "pork roll versus Taylor Ham" controversy. "I know better than to get myself into that debate," Obama said.

He began with a gaggle of familiar references to Rutgers students and central New Jersey locals: the "fat sandwiches" at the grease trucks (noting that health and fitness maven Michelle Obama would not approve of late-night snacks that feature both mozzarella sticks and chicken fingers,) the bus service among the five local campuses in Middlesex County, and last night's last call at the Olde Queens Tavern on Easton Avenue.

He praised Rutgers students for having already survived these and other "death-defying acts" during their time as students.

Obama acknowledged Rutgers' heritage as one of the original nine Colonial Colleges, "an intellectual melting pot" founded in 1766. It held its first class in a pub and has grown into one of the nation's largest academic institutions. He noted that the "progess of Rutgers has mirrored the evolution of America."

The president urged the Rutgers studtents to be be aware that "the pace of change is accelerating" and that "change offers both great opportunity and great peril."  He offered five thoughts to the graduates as they listened to his address at the High Point Solutions Stadium today, beginning by alerting them to a "good old days" mentality posited by some politicians (and even "cranky parents and grandparents.")

Obama said that America is better off than it was 50, 30 or even eight years ago, referencing his own tenure in the Oval Office. He stressed that change is incremental and that looking backward never helped anyone move forward.

"The world becomes more inter-connected every day.  Building walls cannot change that, " said the president, providing a direct reference to statements made by Republican Presidential presumptive nominee Donald Trump. Earning applause for this comment, he continued, "We can't pull up the drawbridge to keep the world out." 

Rutgers students responded enthusiastically when Obama stated, "Isolating or disparaging Muslims is a betrayal of our values. It would alienate our partners in our efforts against violent extremists."

However, the president noted that "the entire burden (of supporting democracy) cannot be shouldered by the one percent of Americans who serve in our military."

Acknowledging the role of Rutgers and other universities' impetus to grow a more informed population of voters, Obama said of current politicians "Facts. Evidence. Reason. Logic. An understanding of science. These are good things. This is what you want."

He went on to criticize the growing "strain of anti-intellectualism" in American political discourse: "In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue. It is not cool not to know whats's going on ...The internet has made us more confident in our ignorance. You can find many sites where the wildest conspiracy theories are taken as true."

Referring to the persistence of the disbelief in the science of climate change, Obama said that some "leaders often display a disdain for facts.  Experts are dismissed as elitists. He quoted New Jersey-born scientist Carl Sagan, who advised people to "Embrace what is true, not what feels good."

The president went on to encourage graduates and all Americans to have faith in Democracy and the progress in the United States. He urged young people to vote, cting that the voter turnout in 2014 was the lowest ever, among young people especially. He reminded the graduates and their guests that "Apathy has consequences."

Obama advised people to listen to those with whom they disagree, not to shut them up or disallow their voices to be heard. He referred specifically to the protest against the appearance as a commencement speaker of Dr. Condoleeza Rice at Rutgers in 2014 as "misguided."

 "Use your logic, your reason, and your words. You may have a new understanding.  You may learn to hold your ground." 

In closing, President Obama advised students to gear up for the long haul in life. "You will be frustrated and you won't get everything you want.  Be persistant.  Better is good.  Don't lose hope." Obama supported student effort, hope and positivity:  "Don't let resistance make you cynical. Cynicism never accomplished anything."

As many speakers in the Garden State do, Barack Obama offered the Rutgers Class of 2016 words of local hero Bruce Springsteen; he chose some about people who don't succeed in life: "They spend their lives waiting for a moment that just don't come."

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