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Obama to speak at UC Irvine graduation

A marketing effort — involving UC Irvine administrators and students — to draw the president pays off. He will speak at the campus' 50th anniversary ceremony.

March 20, 2014|By Jason Song and Larry Gordon
  • Wilbert Cheng, a student video producer/director, and Mamadou Ndiaye, UC Irvine's 7-foot-6 center, use a cardboard cutout of Obama as a prop for a video in which Ndiaye says: “Mr. President, we should play ball together.”
Wilbert Cheng, a student video producer/director, and Mamadou Ndiaye,… (Sherry L. K. Main / UC Irvine,…)

University of California schools are two for two in persuading the first couple to speak at graduations.

As his wife did several years ago, President Obama agreed Thursday to give the commencement speech at a UC campus, officials announced. The first lady was the speaker at UC Merced's first full graduation in 2009, and the president will deliver the address at Irvine's 50th anniversary ceremony in June.

Both schools had put on a full-court press to attract the Obamas, sending thousands of postcards, posting videos to YouTube and, in the case of Michelle Obama, mailing valentines.

When the news was announced at the UC regents meeting in San Francisco, officials and the audience gave UC Irvine Chancellor Michael V. Drake a round of applause.

"We just tried to make a compelling case for why this was the place for him to be this year," Drake said.

UC system President Janet Napolitano, who previously served in the Obama administration as U.S. secretary of Homeland Security, spoke with Obama about the invitation, Drake said. Napolitano declined to discuss that contact Thursday, but issued a statement congratulating UC Irvine.

UC Irvine will hold a large ceremony at Angel Stadium in Anaheim on June 14 for all graduating students, but each of the 12 undergraduate and graduate schools also will have their own individual or shared ceremonies.

The schools' faculty and students generally pick their own commencement speakers, who have included Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and Olympic diving champion Greg Louganis, but Irvine officials decided last year they wanted to host Obama to mark the campus' 50th anniversary.

President Lyndon B. Johnson had attended the campus' dedication and Irvine officials thought having Obama would be a nice way to close the circle, according to school administrators.

So far, Obama is not scheduled to speak at any other colleges or universities this year, the White House said, although presidents often speak at three, usually a military institution and a public and private campus.

UC Irvine administrators sent an invitation to the White House last spring and then began asking alumni and students for help recruiting the president by signing postcards and participating in videos. In one, 7-foot-6 freshman center Mamadou Ndiaye looks directly into the camera while towering over a cardboard cutout of Obama and says: "Mr. President, we should play ball together."

Administrators mailed the cards to UC offices in Washington. A school administrator this month took the cards, which filled two bins, on a visit with White House officials to pitch Irvine as a potential destination for Obama.

UC Irvine officials have spent about $1.2 million on the ceremony at Angel Stadium but said that money already had been earmarked for the school's 50th anniversary celebration. The cost will rise because of extra security and other measures for Obama, but Irvine officials have estimated that the total cost will be less than $2 million.

Students said they were excited that Obama will be speaking.

"I feel it to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Alex Liao, an international studies major who is scheduled to graduate.

Liao had been worried that there would be only one large ceremony that would deprive students of the chance to walk across the stage and receive their diplomas, but having Obama and smaller ceremonies was the "optimal solution," he said.

"Politics aside, how often do you get to be in the presence of the president of the United States, much less hear a speech from the president in person?" Liao asked.

jason.song@latimes.com

larry.gordon@latimes.com

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