Students push for President Obama to speak at 2015 general commencement ceremony

Obama Commencement
Carli Baker/File

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UC Berkeley junior Elias Saigali has a dream — to hear President Barack Obama deliver the 2015 general commencement address on the dawn of his transition from the university to official adulthood.

Saigali is swiftly garnering support for his idea. On Wednesday, the ASUC Senate unanimously voiced its support of Students for Change, his organization that is rallying for Obama to speak at the ceremony.

Those in support of the measure preached that Obama’s speech would be independent of his political affiliation and rather would support a mental and emotional reinvestment in public education.

“(This is about) the value of young people going into politics and the value of public service,” said ASUC Senator Caitlin Quinn, a co-sponsor of the bill. “Even though many have political discrepancies, we still support him as one of the faces of change.”

Saigali iterated that the campaign to bring Obama to campus has gained traction, and critical figures in higher education have voiced their approval — including UC President Janet Napolitano.

Saigali is now drafting a formal invitation to Obama, which he hopes will be signed by some notable figures, including UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and former UC Berkeley School of Law dean Christopher Edley Jr., who previously taught Obama at Harvard Law School.

Once the letter is delivered to the president — Saigali hopes either Napolitano or the campus’s government relations department officials will send it — Saigali intends to turn his efforts toward a video campaign that would feature Dirks and ASUC senators and detail the significance of supporting public education.

“Berkeley has been politically active for over half a century, and we are exposed to many angles of political concerns,” Saigali said. “(Students for Change) is not here for Berkeley to unite for Obama. We’re here for Berkeley to unite under the importance of public education.”

If Obama accepts the invitation, he will be the first government official to speak at UC Berkeley’s general commencement in more than a decade — and only the second president to do so. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Eric Holder spoke at the political science department and Berkeley Law commencement ceremonies, respectively.

Recently, Obama has spoken at various public institutions, including Ohio State University, University of Arizona and University of Michigan. Saigali thinks UC Berkeley is an optimal place for the president to humanize his push for higher education.

“I think bringing national attention (to UC Berkeley) and pushing for public education would do no harm,” said ASUC Senator and bill co-author Naweed Mohabbat.

Though hosting the president would be a costly endeavor, Saigali and his organization have synthesized a potential funding model: extra tickets would be sold for a small fee to community members. This comes as a potential response to previous criticisms of heavy security and the lower number of available tickets, among other concerns, at Obama’s 2012 commencement address at Barnard College.

Berkeley College Republicans President Brendan Pinder said although the club doesn’t necessarily support all of Obama’s policies, he doesn’t see a problem with Obama speaking at the ceremony, considering that the campus is one of most liberal in the country.

“Who else is going to bring Obama to speak?” Pinder said.

Contact Zoe Kleinfeld at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @zoekleinfeld.