While I normally make a point of missing speeches by President Obama — I find him patronizing and superficial — I forced myself to sit through his commencement address at the 250th anniversary of Rutgers University. I not only graduated from Rutgers twenty-eight years ago, I thought that maybe Obama, like John F. Kennedy at American University, would use the opportunity to deliver a thoughtful critique of the military industrial complex. Would you be surprised if I told you he didn’t? It’s not that his speech at High Point Solutions Stadium was without its merits. President Obama did his homework. He made enough references to the local student culture at Rutgers — he even mentioned the “grease trucks” on College Avenue — to make it obvious that he had at least read the talking points the University Public Relations Department had given him. He attacked Donald Trump’s racism and Islamophobia. He mocked global warming deniers.
Alas, however, Barack Obama is no John F. Kennedy.
It would have been entirely fitting for Obama, the first African American President of the United States, to mention Paul Robeson, the third African American graduate of Rutgers, and by far the greatest football player in the university’s history. Robeson, a member of the Communist Party and a victim of the McCarthyite witch hunts in the 1950s, has already gotten an apology of sorts from Rutgers. They named a student center after him. He deserves an apology from the United States government. He didn’t get one from President Obama. At American University, Kennedy praised the heroism of the Soviet Army soldiers who defeated Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. At Rutgers, Obama did just the opposite. Two years ago, when Rutgers President Barchi — a client of New Jersey’s loathsome Governor Chris Christie — invited Condoleezza Rice to give the 2014 commencement address, a courageous group of students and faculty occupied Old Queens, the central administration building, until the invitation was rescinded. Instead of congratulating the protesters for risking their careers and reputation to shut down a lying, blood-drenched war criminal, Obama attacked them as an example of the fragile and politically correct culture of the current generation of American undergraduates, whitewashing the invasion of Iraq and the Bush Administration in the process.
Obama also pandered to the university’s pretensions of being a “Public Ivy,” correctly pointing out that Rutgers, which was founded in 1766, is older than the United States, but missing the forest through the trees. Rutgers University, which would be much more appropriately named The University of New Jersey, is no Ivy. It’s a serious university with a diverse student body, an extensive curriculum, several Nobel Prize winners, and an elite faculty, but it competes with SUNY, Penn State and the University of Maryland, not Harvard and Yale. If Rutgers played the first college football game back in 1869 against Princeton, there’s also a reason it never made it into the Ivy League. Until Rutgers became the land-grant college of New Jersey in 1864 under the Morrill Act of 1862, it was a failure as an institution of high learning, constantly broke, and constantly in danger of shutting down. It only became the official State University of New Jersey in 1956, ten years after a massive influx of new students, largely veterans of the Second World War, who funded their college education though the GI Bill. Rutgers is a public university, built on public land, that survived only because of taxpayer money. It has a very different mission from its neighbor Princeton. Where Princeton is an elite university designed to train future bankers, corporate lawyers, and war criminals, Rutgers is a democratic university designed to serve the people of New Jersey.
The current cost of tuition at Rutgers is $14,131 dollars a year for in -state students and $29,521 dollars a year for out of state students. Total cost of attendance is $31,286 dollars a year for in-state students and $46,676 dollars a year for out of state students. Compared to many American colleges and universities, this is a bargain. It’s also too much for the typical 18-year-old. President Bernie Sanders would make public universities like Rutgers free. Since New Jersey is a small, compact, state and since Rutgers has satellite campuses in Newark and Camden, the vast majority of public high school graduates could live at home and commute. Free tuition would open Rutgers up to an even more diverse body of students than the one Obama praised at Highpoint Solutions Stadium. You could be unemployed and flat broke, and still get a university education. Free tuition, not spending millions of dollars on Big Ten Football, or trying to brand itself as a “Public Ivy,” would move Rutgers to the next level as an institution of higher learning. This Sunday, on its 250th anniversary, President Obama had the opportunity to use Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, as a great stage to endorse a visionary plan to make higher education more available to working-class Americans, and to free the next generation from the massive student debt burdening the Millennials. He missed it.