Obama to speak at Rutgers; Christie calls it 'great honor'

President Obama will be the featured speaker at Rutgers University's commencement ceremony on the New Brunswick campus next month as the university celebrates its 250th anniversary.

The university and the White House announced Obama's acceptance Thursday. The Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., and Howard University in Washington also said the president would speak at their graduation ceremonies. They will be the final three commencement speeches Obama delivers as president.

"That's a great thing, great honor for the state, for the president of the United States to come to our state university and to be the commencement speaker," Gov. Christie said Thursday at a news conference at Union County College.

Rutgers first invited the president 21/2 years ago, and last week - with no response from the White House - announced that the veteran journalist Bill Moyers would speak. Moyers now will address School of Arts and Sciences graduates at a convocation following the commencement.

Christie has drawn criticism from some conservatives, including during his failed bid for the Republican presidential nomination, for his welcome of Obama to the Shore after Hurricane Sandy.

On Thursday, Christie thanked Obama "for his willingness to come to New Jersey and honor Rutgers," noting that the president each year speaks at only a handful of schools.

At Lake Area Technical Institute last year, a community college in Watertown, S.D., Obama praised the school for its job-training efforts and spoke about his proposal to make community colleges tuition-free.

"I didn't come here to inspire you. I came here because you, the graduates, inspire me," Obama said, lauding the students' decision to "invest in yourself."

The first of the president's three commencement speeches this year will be at Howard on May 7. His last will be at the Air Force Academy on June 2.

Rutgers' May 15 ceremony is set for 12:30 p.m. at High Point Solutions Stadium in Piscataway. It will be the first time a sitting president delivers a Rutgers commencement address.

"President Obama's decision is a testament to the enthusiastic efforts of Rutgers students, faculty, staff, and alumni, as well as members of the New Jersey congressional delegation, who sent numerous messages to the White House," Robert L. Barchi, the university's president, said in a statement.

Rutgers traces its roots to the Nov. 10, 1766, founding of Queens College, and has been celebrating its 250th anniversary all year.

"I cannot imagine a more inspirational commencement speaker on this important day in the history of Rutgers," Barchi wrote on Oct. 17, 2013.

He wrote that Rutgers would give Obama an honorary degree "to recognize your remarkable eight years of service to our nation in the White House as well as your tremendous support of New Jersey following the devastation of Superstorm Sandy."

U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. and U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, both alumni of the law school at Rutgers-Newark, rallied New Jersey's congressional delegation, sending Obama a letter in December 2013 encouraging him to accept Rutgers' invitation.

The letter was signed by all but two members of the New Jersey congressional delegation - Republican Reps. Chris Smith and Scott Garrett. Democratic Sen. Cory A. Booker also signed on.

"Your attendance and participation will make this important milestone in Rutgers' history all the more memorable and auspicious," the letter reads.

Last month, the delegation sent another letter.

Rutgers had announced last week that Moyers, press secretary for President Lyndon B. Johnson, would be the speaker at the ceremony, which is expected to draw more than 52,000 people to celebrate the graduation of 12,000 students.

Moyers will still receive an honorary degree and a $35,000 honorarium, a Rutgers spokesman said. Obama will not be given an honorarium.

Beginning in 2011, when the author Toni Morrison addressed graduates, Rutgers has offered an honorarium to speakers at its Rutgers-New Brunswick commencement ceremonies. The Nobel Prize-winning author received $30,000 for her speech.

Since then, two speakers have asked their money to be returned to the school for scholarships and one has turned down the money.

Earlier, the university announced speakers and honorees for its Camden ceremonies, which begin May 18 and are separated by school.

Sister Mary Scullion, the head of the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Project HOME, will receive an honorary degree at Rutgers-Camden's law school ceremony. Faustino Fernandez-Vina, an associate justice on the New Jersey Supreme Court, will speak at that ceremony.

Rutgers-Camden's business school is to give the South African businessman Raymond Ackerman an honorary degree. His supermarket chain, Pick n Pay, is one of the largest in southern Africa. His daughter Suzanne Ackerman-Berman will be the keynote speaker.

Nursing graduates will hear from Wallena Gould, founder of the Diversity in Nurse Anesthesia Mentorship Program.

Arts and Sciences graduates will hear from Lisa Ciaranca Kaplan, principal of the Andrew Jackson School in Philadelphia, who won the 2015 Escalante-Gradillas Prize for Best in Education.

jlai@phillynews.com

856-779-3220 @elaijuh

www.philly.com/campusinq

Staff writer Maddie Hanna contributed to this article.

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