Following in Footsteps of Past Presidents, Obama Speaks at Rutgers

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ–In one of his final commencement addresses as US President, Barack Obama gave graduating students at Rutgers University advice for the future, and paid homage to the history of the 249-year-old university on May 15.

"The truth is, Rutgers, I came here because you asked," said Obama, who cited a "three-year campaign" undertaken by students and university officials to convince him to visit the school in time for its 250th anniversary celebration.

In between references to the local culture, including shout-outs to the "fat sandwich" and the "EE" bus, the President gave students, and everyone else watching, five pieces of advice:

  1. When you hear someone longing for the “good old days,” take it with a grain of salt. 
  2. The world is more interconnected than ever before, and it’s becoming more connected every day.
  3. Facts, evidence, reason, logic, an understanding of science — these are good things.
  4. Have faith in democracy.
  5. Fear yourself for the long haul. 

It was a historic moment for the university: the first time a sitting President spoke at the commencement ceremony.  But Obama was hardly the first President to visit Rutgers or New Brunswick.

For more than 200 years, many of the country's top political leaders have interfaced with the Rutgers community, either as candidates on the campaign trail, serving in a lower office, or announcing new policy initiatives while serving in the White House.

To date, seven US Presidents, including Obama, have received honorary Rutgers degrees, an honor that usually goes hand in hand with giving a speech to the graduating class.

The first two were Martin Van Buren and James Buchanan, who were both secretaries of state when they received their degrees in 1829 and 1849, respectively.

A little over fifty years after President Buchanan became an honorary Scarlet Knight, future president Woodrow Wilson received his honorary degree in 1902.

Wilson became the President of Princeton University that same year, and went on to be New Jersey's Governor before winning the 1912 Presidential election.

In 1920, Herbert Hoover was awarded an honorary degree by Rutgers, nearly a decade before he won the nation's highest office.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, unable to be physically present to receive his degree in 1933, participated in the commencement ceremony via telephone, in stark contrast with Dwight D. Eisenhower, who, while being honored in 1948, addressed a throng of people at Rutgers about the challenges facing American democracy.

“I think it’s no exaggeration to say that democracy as we know it is facing its decade, probably its quarter century, of greatest trial, certainly of its greatest trial since the days of our own war between the states,” Eisenhower told the crowd at Rutgers.

Over the years, presidents have also viewed New Brunswick as a convenient spot for campaigning.

On May 24, 1912, President William Howard Taft campaigned for re-election in New Brunswick’s Monument Square, followed the very next day by Theodore Roosevelt, who came to the same location in an attempt to win the Republican nomination himself.

Taft won the Republican nomination, but Roosevelt, already an ex-President, started his own "Bull Moose" party and ran in the general election.

Roosevelt's campaign was the most successful third-party run in American Presidentail history, but Woodrow Wilson prevailed in the election.

John F. Kennedy, during his 1960 campaign, spoke from the steps of the Middlesex County Courthouse, located on a block that has since been named for him: "JFK Square."

“For six years, I represented Middlesex County, Massachusetts, in the Congress," Kennedy told the crowd of about 6,000 people. "Now, I would like to represent Middlesex County, New Jersey, in the White House.”

Though Bill Clinton beat George H.W. Bush in the 1992 Presidential election, both men used speeches at Rutgers to highlight a particular topic of importance to them–Bush about lupus, an autoimmune disease, in 1991, and Clinton about the establishment of AmeriCorps two years later.