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President Obama to deliver spring commencement address

Sam Wolson/Daily
Barack Obama speaking at Michigan State on Adam's field Thursday, October, 2008. Buy this photo

By Jacob Smilovitz, Editor in Chief
and Kyle Swanson, Daily News Editor
Published February 11, 2010

President Barack Obama will be the keynote speaker at this year’s spring commencement, University President Mary Sue Coleman said in an announcement yesterday evening.

“President Obama has captured the imagination and enthusiasm of many students with his inspiring words of hope and change,” Coleman said in a statement. “We are honored to welcome a leader of his distinction and look forward to his message.

“We could not be happier for the graduates who will celebrate their academic achievements with the president of the United States.”

Obama will receive an honorary Doctor of Laws degree during the ceremony.

This spring’s commencement, which will award degrees to approximately 3,500 undergraduates, will be held on May 1 at 10 a.m. in Michigan Stadium. Officials expect more than 40,000 family members and friends of students to be in attendance for the ceremony.

Obama’s first year in the country’s highest office has been plagued by the ongoing financial crisis that has crippled many industries throughout the country — like the financial sector and the housing market.

However, the Great Recession has fallen especially hard on Michigan’s auto industry, causing the state’s unemployment rate — which is now the highest in the country — to skyrocket. And while unemployment nationally has begun to decrease recently, the fiscal picture for the state continues to be grim as legislators in Lansing face a $1.5 billion budget deficit in the next fiscal year.

Amid that economic uncertainty, Communications and Political Science Prof. Michael Traugott and Political Science Prof. Kenneth Kollman said they wouldn’t be surprised if Obama uses his commencement address at the University to launch a new initiative or make a strong policy statement.

Kollman stressed the unique example Michigan represents as a state mired in the troubles of its old manufacturing economy but also one where a transition to a new economy could yield limitless possibilities.

Obama will be the fourth United States president to deliver the commencement address in Ann Arbor.

In 2007, former President Bill Clinton gave the address and President George H.W. Bush spoke at commencement in May 1991. Lyndon B. Johnson was the first sitting president to address the University’s graduating class when he spoke in 1964.

Presidents John F. Kennedy and Gerald R. Ford also gave notable speeches in Ann Arbor, though they did not speak at commencement ceremonies while they were president. Ford, however, did give a commencement address at the University while he was vice president.

Kennedy announced the formation of the Peace Corps from the steps of the Michigan Union on Oct. 14, 1960, and Ford launched his presidential campaign at a packed Crisler Arena on Sept. 15, 1976.

Obama, the 44th president of the United States and the nation’s first black president, is a graduate of Columbia University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and is also an alum of Harvard Law School, where he was the first black president of the Harvard Law Review.

Last year, Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.”

In an interview last night following the announcement, University Regent Denise Ilitch (D–Bingham Farms) said she was incredibly excited to hear that Obama had accepted the invitation to speak at commencement.

“I think it is an amazing opportunity for the University and very, very exciting that he will be speaking at the Big House for all of us,” Ilitch said.

“I think it just goes to show how special the University is, that we’ve had many presidents visit to give commencement addresses,” Ilitch said.