President Barack Obama urged Barnard graduates to fight for women's rights and pursue leadership roles on Monday afternoon at a commencement ceremony marked by high security and high emotions across campus. It was his first appearance at Columbia since becoming president.
Obama, CC '83, largely avoided campaign rhetoric in his keynote address, focusing on women's rights during an election year in which women's issues have increasingly entered into the political dialogue. He stressed the importance of female leaders in society.
“Don't just get involved—fight for your seat at the table,” he told Barnard students. “Better yet, fight for a seat at the head of the table.”
Obama also touched on the sometimes strained relationship between Barnard and Columbia. But he didn't address the campus controversy caused by his decision to speak at Barnard's graduation instead of his alma mater's.
And even though he wasn't giving his usual stump speech, Obama didn't shy away from talking about other hot-button issues, including gay marriage and the economy. He referred several times to his recent endorsement of same-sex marriage rights, eliciting loud cheers.
“The trajectory of this country should give you hope. Previous generations should give you hope ... That's how we achieved women's rights,” he said. “That's how we achieved voting rights. That's how we achieved workers' rights. That's how we achieved gay rights.”
Barnard graduate Liza Darvin said that even if “some of it was political rhetoric,” she enjoyed Obama's personal anecdotes. Another graduate, Laurie Kladky, said she appreciated Obama's sense of humor.
“I expected it to be more campaign-y,” Kladky said. “He only told us to vote once.”
Women and politics
While addressing graduates, Obama also described the women “who shaped my life,” including his mother Stanley Ann Dunham, his wife Michelle, and his half-sister Maya Soetoro-Ng, BC '93. He told Barnard students to “ignore our pop culture obsession over beauty and fashion, and focus instead on studying, inventing, competing, and leading.”
“We are better off when women are treated fairly and equally in every aspect of American life, whether it's the salary you earn or the health decisions you make,” he said.
He joked that his wife would have something slightly different to say about beauty and fashion, though.
“Michelle will say, Nothing wrong with caring about it a little bit,'” Obama said. “You can be stylish and powerful too.”
But for all the time Obama spent discussing women's issues during his half-hour address, he didn't explain why he chose to speak at Barnard rather than Columbia College, his alma mater. The March announcement that he would speak at Barnard prompted hundreds of online comments, many of them sexist and misogynistic, on Spectator and Bwog, and highlighted the tension that sometimes exists between Barnard and Columbia—a tension that Obama referred to only tangentially.
“I will begin by telling a hard truth,” Obama joked. “I'm a Columbia College graduate. I know there can be a little bit of a sibling rivalry here.”
He did talk briefly about his time at Columbia College, pointing out that women were first admitted to CC in 1983, the year he graduated.
He added that music at the time “was all about Michael [Jackson] and the moonwalk,” although he responded to cries of “do it!” from the crowd by saying there would be “no moonwalking today.” He also noted that in 1983, Columbia's neighborhood was more dangerous that it is now, and that Times Square was “not a family destination.”
“But for all the differences, the class of 1983 actually had a lot in common with all of you,” Obama said. “For we, too, were heading out into a world at a moment when our country was still recovering from a particularly severe economic recession.”
“This country would be better off if more Americans got the kind of education you receive here at Barnard,” he added.
Organic and resonant'
Obama arrived on South Lawn for the ceremony at around noon, when his motorcade turned from Amsterdam Avenue on to College Walk. Barnard seniors, as well as students from other undergraduate schools who won tickets for the event in a lottery, greeted him with ecstatic applause.
“I'm so excited. I can't believe he's actually coming,” Barnard senior Elizabeth Goodman said before the ceremony. “I'm really honored to be part of Barnard today.”
Barnard graduate Julia Feld said before the ceremony that she avoided watching videos of Obama's past commencement speeches, worried that, if they were too similar to his address on Monday, she might feel that his appearance at Columbia “isn't special.”
“I just want it to come as it comes, to kind of really enjoy it,” she said.
Reaction to Obama's speech was largely positive—and not just among current students. Andrea Hochland, BC '75, who watched Obama's address at a viewing party for Barnard alumnae at the Midtown Executive Club, said he gave a “fantastic commencement address.”
“It wasn't filled with platitudes—it was organic and resonant to what Barnard represents,” Hochland said. “He's a male speaker, but he's someone who understands the woman's situation in this country.”
Barnard President Debora Spar, who donated a total of $1,250 to Obama in 2007 and 2008, according to OpenSecrets.org, awarded Obama with a Barnard Medal of Distinction. She took on a political tone as she introduced Obama, praising many of his policies and calling his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention “as brilliant as it was decisive.”
“You have led the way on preventing hate crimes and promoting affordable health care, on reforming student loan programs, credit card and financial regulation,” Spar said.
Campus locked down
Obama's speech was only part of the story on Monday, when campus was turned upside down by security procedures.
Security concerns first entered the campus conversation late last month when administrators made the controversial decision to reschedule the School of General Studies' Class Day, which was originally scheduled for Monday morning. The decision prompted outrage among students, many of whom said that their families and friends would no longer be able to attend the ceremony.
GS Dean Peter Awn said that if the ceremony hadn't been rescheduled for Sunday, GS students and their guests would have had to arrive at campus at 5:30 a.m. due to heightened security procedures. That heightened security finally hit campus on Sunday, when residents of all dorms bordering South Lawn had to vacate their rooms by 4 p.m.
Lower campus was completely locked down from midnight on Sunday night until Obama departed at about 2 p.m. Only people attending the ceremony could access lower campus during that time, and all buildings south of Low Library were closed.
By 8 a.m., many Barnard seniors had lined up outside Lerner Hall to go through metal detectors. At times, the line stretched for more than a block, but by 10 a.m. most of the students had made it into Roone Arledge Auditorium, where they waited until the procession began at noon.
For most students, though, the excitement of getting the chance to see Obama—and receive their diplomas—outweighed any frustration with the intense security.
Natasha Cline-Thomas was the last Barnard student in the line to get into Lerner. She was unperturbed by the security measures, saying that they were necessary and that the line was “moving pretty quickly.”
“As long as I get in, I'll be happy,” Cline-Thomas said.
Feld, one of the last students in line, said that while she was excited to hear Obama, students should have been given staggered arrival times.
“They should have understood how to deal with lines in a more efficient way,” she said.
Soon-to-be graduates' families and friends, as well as lottery-winning students from CC, GS, and the School of Engineering and Applied Science, packed 114th Street. That line spanned the block between Broadway and Amsterdam several times over, as guests and students were funneled through security checkpoints at the Carman and John Jay gates.
North campus remained open before and during the ceremony, but south campus was inundated by secret service agents, police officers, and public safety officers. There were snipers on the roofs of Low and Butler libraries, and there was heavy security around some buildings with views of South Lawn.
While waiting to go through security at Lerner, English professor Helen Pilinovsky said she appreciated the security measures, adding “better safe than sorry.”
“I think it's going to make our next trip to the airport look like cake,” she said.
Awards and gifts
Obama was far from the only speaker at the ceremony. Spar, Student Government Association President Jessica Blank, Senior Class President Jaclyn D'Aversa, and Barnard board of trustees chair Jolyne Caruso-FitzGerald, BC '81, among others, also addressed graduates.
After building some suspense, Spar opened an envelope to reveal that Barnard seniors had voted Madalena Provo as the winner of the Frank Gilbert Bryson Prize, which is given each year to a senior who “has given conspicuous evidence of unselfishness and who has made the greatest contribution to Barnard during the college years.”
Provo, an improv comedian and an SGA representative to Barnard's board of trustees, was shocked by the announcement. She tried with great difficulty to figure out how to walk up to the stage before realizing that she was supposed to stay seated, and she ultimately stood up in her seat and waved to her cheering classmates.
Before presenting Obama with his Medal of Distinction, Spar gave Obama two gifts: a collection of books written by Barnard alumnae and signed by their authors, and a book containing wisdom from the class of 2012 for Obama's daughters, Sasha and Malia, who Spar said are “welcome at Barnard any time.”
For most students, hearing from Obama was the highlight of commencement. Cline-Thomas called it “the icing on the cake.”
Obama ended his address on a hopeful note.
“If you're willing to reach up and close that gap between what America is and what America should be, I want you to know that I will be right there with you,” he said. “If you are ready to fight for that brilliant, radically simple idea of America—that no matter who you are or what you look like, no matter who you love or what God you worship, you can still pursue your own happiness—I will join you every step of the way.”
Finn Vigeland and Andrea Shang contributed reporting.