Below is the full transcript of the commencement speech delivered by President Obama at Rutgers 2016 commencement ceremony held on Sunday, May 15, 2016.
Right click to download the MP3 audio:
Robert Barchi – 20th President of Rutgers
…the most difficult and potentially catastrophic financial crisis the world has ever witnessed. In subsequent months, he cuts through the Gordian Knot of healthcare reform and he dealt with the natural disasters both here and around the world. During his Presidency, he has championed clean energy, taken a strong action against climate change. And for his entire career, he has been a tireless advocate of social justice and of access for all people to affordable education, quality healthcare, equal employment and real hope for the future. But all of these challenges and President Obama’s leadership in addressing them are well known to everyone in the audience, and if there was ever an occasion where the phrase “no introduction is necessary” was truly an understatement, this is it.
So without further ado, it is great plight and a feeling of deep humility that I have the opportunity to present President Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States with his honorary degree.
Barack H. Obama, by the authority bestowed in me by the Boards of Governors and Trustees of Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, I am deeply honored to confer upon you the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa with all the rights, responsibilities, privileges and immunities to which it is entitled, and token to this, I present you with this diploma and direct that you be bestowed in the hood emblematic of the degree.
Hello Rutgers! R-U rah-rah!
Thank you so much. Thank you. Everybody, please have a seat. Thank you, President Barchi, for that introduction. Let me congratulate my extraordinarily worthy fellow honorary Scarlet Knights, Dr. Burnell and Bill Moyers. Matthew, good job. If you are interested, we can talk after this.
One of the perks of my job is honorary degrees. But I have to tell you, it impresses nobody in my house. Now Malia and Sasha just say, “Okay, Dr. Dad, we’ll see you later. Can we have some money?”
To the Board of Governors; to Chairman Brown; to Lieutenant Governor Guadagno; Mayor Cahill; Mayor Wahler, members of Congress, Rutgers administrators, faculty, staff, friends, and family — thank you for the honor of joining you for the 250th anniversary of this remarkable institution.
But most of all, congratulations to the Class of 2016!
I come here for a simple reason — to finally settle this Pork Roll versus Taylor ham question. I’m just kidding. There’s not much that I’m afraid to take on in my final year of office, but I know better than to get in the middle of that debate.
The truth is, Rutgers, I came here because you asked. Now, it’s true that a lot of schools invite me to their commencement every year. But you are the first to launch a three-year campaign. Emails, letters, tweets, YouTube videos. I even got three notes from the grandmother of your student body president. And I have to say that really sealed the deal. That was smart, because I have a soft spot for grandmas.
So I’m here, off Exit 9, on the banks of the Old Raritan — at the site of one of the original nine colonial colleges. Winners of the first-ever college football game. One of the newest members of the Big Ten. Home of what I understand to be a Grease Truck for a Fat Sandwich. Mozzarella sticks and chicken fingers on your cheese steaks — I’m sure Michelle would approve.
But somehow, you have survived such death-defying acts. You also survived the daily jockeying for buses, from Livingston to Busch, to Cook, to Douglass, and back again. I suspect that a few of you are trying to survive this afternoon, after a late night at Olde Queens. You know who you are.
But, however you got here, you made it. You made it. Today, you join a long line of Scarlet Knights whose energy and intellect have lifted this university to heights its founders could not have imagined.
Two hundred and fifty years ago, when America was still just an idea, a charter from the Royal Governor – Ben Franklin’s son — established Queen’s College. A few years later, a handful of students gathered in a converted tavern for the first class. And from that first class in a pub, Rutgers has evolved into one of the finest research institutions in America.
This is a place where you 3D-print prosthetic hands for children, and devise rooftop wind arrays that can power entire office buildings with clean, renewable energy. Every day, tens of thousands of students come here, to this intellectual melting pot, where ideas and cultures flow together among what might just be America’s most diverse student body.
Here in New Brunswick, you can debate philosophy with a classmate from South Asia in one class, and then strike up a conversation on the EE Bus with a first-generation Latina student from Jersey City, before sitting down for your psych group project with a veteran who’s going to school on the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
America converges here. And in so many ways, the history of Rutgers mirrors the evolution of America — the course by which we became bigger, stronger, and richer and more dynamic, and a more inclusive nation.
But America’s progress has never been smooth or steady. Progress doesn’t travel in a straight line. It zigs and zags in fits and starts. Progress in America has been hard and contentious, and sometimes bloody. It remains uneven and at times, for every two steps forward, it feels like we take one step back.
Now, for some of you, this may sound like your college career. It sounds like mine, anyway. Which makes sense, because measured against the whole of human history, America remains a very young nation — younger, even, than this university. But progress is bumpy. It always has been. But because of dreamers and innovators and strivers and activists, progress has been this nation’s hallmark.
I’m fond of quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
It bends towards justice. I believe that. But I also believe that the arc of our nation, the arc of the world does not bend towards justice, or freedom, or equality, or prosperity on its own. It depends on us, on the choices we make, particularly at certain inflection points in history; particularly when big changes are happening and everything seems up for grabs.
And, Class of 2016, you are graduating at such an inflection point. Since the start of this new millennium, you’ve already witnessed horrific terrorist attacks, and war, and a Great Recession. You’ve seen economic and technological and cultural shifts that are profoundly altering how we work and how we communicate, how we live, how we form families.
The pace of change is not subsiding; it is accelerating. And these changes offer not only great opportunity, but also great peril. Fortunately, your generation has everything it takes to lead this country toward a brighter future. I’m confident that you can make the right choices — away from fear and division and paralysis, and toward cooperation and innovation and hope.
Now, partly, I’m confident because, on average, you’re smarter and better educated than my generation — although we probably had better penmanship and were certainly better spellers. We did not have spell-check back in my day. You’re not only better educated, you’ve been more exposed to the world, more exposed to other cultures. You’re more diverse. You’re more environmentally conscious. You have a healthy skepticism for conventional wisdom.
So you’ve got the tools to lead us. And precisely because I have so much confidence in you, I’m not going to spend the remainder of my time telling you exactly how you’re going to make the world better. You’ll figure it out. You’ll look at things with fresher eyes, unencumbered by the biases and blind spots and inertia and general crankiness of your parents and grandparents and old heads like me.
But I do have a couple of suggestions that you may find useful as you go out there and conquer the world.
Point number one: When you hear someone longing for the “good old days,” take it with a grain of salt. Take it with a grain of salt. We live in a great nation and we are rightly proud of our history. We are beneficiaries of the labor and the grit and the courage of generations who came before. But I guess it’s part of human nature, especially in times of change and uncertainty, to want to look backwards and long for some imaginary past when everything worked, and the economy hummed, and all politicians were wise, and every child was well-mannered, and America pretty much did whatever it wanted around the world.
Guess what. It ain’t so. The “good old days” weren’t all that good. Yes, there have been some stretches in our history where the economy grew much faster, or when government ran more smoothly. There were moments when, immediately after World War II, for example, or the end of the Cold War, when the world bent more easily to our will. But those are sporadic, those moments, those episodes. In fact, by almost every measure, America is better, and the world is better, than it was 50 years ago, or 30 years ago, or even eight years ago.