On Saturday President Barack Obama delivered the commencement address before more than 30,000 faculty, students, family members and dignitaries celebrating the graduating class of the 50-year old University of California, Irvine. The address is the only commencement address the President will deliver this year. His appearance at UCI followed an intense campaign by students and alumni to first get the president’s attention, and then agreement to help celebrate UCI’s 50th anniversary. President Lyndon Johnson was on hand for the dedication of the UCI campus. To me it seems only appropriate for the president to provide a similar exclamation point to the university’s birthday celebration.
In an editorial preceding his visit, the OC Register editorial writers incorrectly predicted that the president would focus his address on the failure of his push to address the enormous burden of financial debt that college students incur in the quest for a higher education degree. They wrote:
It seems an unlikely coincidence that the event, held at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, culminates a week long push by the president to make college more affordable. Undoubtedly, the president will use his speech to an institution of higher learning to tout his recent executive order expanding the current cap on federal student loan payments to an increasing number of students straddling mountains of debt.
Currently, the only thing holding closed the flood gates on the student loan crisis is a student’s ability to repay. However, under the president’s proposal, he is expanding the number of students whose loan repayments are capped at 10 percent of their incomes, and only for 20 years. The remaining balance is forgiven, but not forgotten, as taxpayers will be expected to make up the difference.
But the rising cost of tuition is predicated on a student’s access to easy – and nearly limitless – credit. By mitigating the only risk associated with those debts – the cost of paying them back – the nation’s universities will only continue to raise tuition rates, knowing students are ready and able to pay with someone else’s money.
When Mr. Obama addresses UCI’s graduates, he would be well-advised to instruct them that hard work and personal responsibility – not government subsidies – are the keys to success, and refrain from promoting solutions that will only compound the student debt problem.
It seems to me that the Register is suggesting that only those who can afford to pay for higher education in full, and up front, should access the higher education necessary to ensure a strong, vibrant, and productive workforce, beyond minimum wage workers.
Fortunately, the primary focus of President Obama’s remarks however focused on the real threat of climate change to the future of UCI’s 2014 graduating class, and college students across the nation. But the president began by pointing out the tremendous challenges faced by this year’s class of graduates.
In your young lives, you’ve seen dizzying change, from terror attacks to economic turmoil; from Twitter to Tumblr. Some of your families have known tough times during the course of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. You’re graduating into a still-healing job market, and some of you are carrying student loan debt that you’re concerned about. And yet, your generation – the most educated, the most diverse, the most tolerant, the most politically independent and the most digitally fluent in our history – is also on record as being the most optimistic about our future.
And I’m here to tell you that you are right to be optimistic. You are right to be optimistic. Consider this: Since the time most of you graduated from high school, fewer Americans are at war. More have health insurance. More are graduating from college. Our businesses have added more than 9 million new jobs. The number of states where you’re free to marry who you love has more than doubled. And that’s just some of the progress that you’ve seen while you’ve been studying here at UC Irvine.
The president advised the graduates to guard against cynicism.
But we do face real challenges: Rebuilding the middle class and reversing inequality’s rise. Reining in college costs. Protecting voting rights. Welcoming the immigrants and young dreamers who keep this country vibrant. Stemming the tide of violence that guns inflict on our schools. We’ve got some big challenges. And if you’re fed a steady diet of cynicism that says nobody is trustworthy and nothing works, and there’s no way we can actually address these problems, then the temptation is too just go it alone, to look after yourself and not participate in the larger project of achieving our best vision of America.
And I’m here to tell you, don’t believe the cynicism. Guard against it. Don’t buy into it. Today, I want to use one case study to show you that progress is possible and perseverance is critical. I want to show you how badly we need you – both your individual voices and your collective efforts – to give you the chance you seek to change the world, and maybe even save it.
President Obama began his comments regarding climate change by pointing to UCI’s history addressing the issue.
UC Irvine set up the first Earth System Science Department in America. A UC Irvine professor-student team won the Nobel Prize for discovering that CFCs destroy the ozone layer. A UC Irvine glaciologist’s work led to one of last month’s report showing one of the world’s major ice sheets in irreversible retreat. Students and professors are in the field working to predict changing weather patterns, fire seasons, and water tables — working to understand how shifting seasons affect global ecosystems; to get zero-emission vehicles on the road faster; to help coastal communities adapt to rising seas. And when I challenge colleges to reduce their energy use to 20 percent by 2020, UC Irvine went ahead and did it last year. Done. So UC Irvine is ahead of the curve. All of you are ahead of the curve.
Here’s the challenge: We’ve got to do more. What we’re doing is not enough. And that’s why, a couple weeks ago, America proposed new standards to limit the amount of harmful carbon pollution that power plants can dump into the air. And we also have to realize, as hundreds of scientists declared last month, that climate change is no longer a distant threat, but “has moved firmly into the present.” That’s a quote. In some parts of the country, weather-related disasters like droughts, and fires, and storms, and floods are going to get harsher and they’re going to get costlier. And that’s why, today, I’m announcing a new $1 billion competitive fund to help communities prepare for the impacts of climate change and build more resilient infrastructure across the country.
Now, part of what’s unique about climate change, though, is the nature of some of the opposition to action. It’s pretty rare that you’ll encounter somebody who says the problem you’re trying to solve simply doesn’t exist. When President Kennedy set us on a course for the moon, there were a number of people who made a serious case that it wouldn’t be worth it; it was going to be too expensive, it was going to be too hard, it would take too long. But nobody ignored the science. I don’t remember anybody saying that the moon wasn’t there or that it was made of cheese.
And today’s Congress, though, is full of folks who stubbornly and automatically reject the scientific evidence about climate change. They will tell you it is a hoax, or a fad. One member of Congress actually says the world is cooling. There was one member of Congress who mentioned a theory involving “dinosaur flatulence” – which I won’t get into.
Now, their view may be wrong – and a fairly serious threat to everybody’s future – but at least they have the brass to say what they actually think. There are some who also duck the question. They say – when they’re asked about climate change, they say, “Hey, look, I’m not a scientist.” And I’ll translate that for you. What that really means is, “I know that man made climate change really is happening, but if I admit it, I’ll be run out of town by a radical fringe that thinks climate science is a liberal plot, so I’m not going to admit it.”
Now, I’m not a scientist either, but we’ve got some really good ones at NASA. I do know that the overwhelming majority of scientists who work on climate change, including some who once disputed the data, have put that debate to rest. The writer, Thomas Friedman, recently put it to me this way. He were talking, and he says, “Your kid is sick, you consult 100 doctors; 97 of them tell you to do this, three tell [you] to do that, and you want to go with the three?”
The climate change deniers suggest there’s still a debate over the science. There is not. The talking heads on cable news suggest public opinion is hopelessly deadlocked. It is not. Seven in ten Americans say global warming is a serious problem. Seven in ten say the federal government should limit pollution from our power plants. And of all the issues in a recent poll asking Americans where we think we can make a difference, protecting the environment came out on top.
President Obama wrapped up his address calling on the graduates to focus on their dreams and not lose hope for the future of their generation.
The point is, you know how to dream. And you know how to work for your dreams. And, yes, sometimes you may be “super underrated.” But usually it’s the underrated, the underdogs, the dreamers, the idealists, the fighters, the argumentative – those are the folks who do the biggest things.
And this generation – this 9/11 generation of soldiers; this new generation of scientists and advocates and entrepreneurs and altruists – you’re the antidote to cynicism. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to get down sometimes. You will. You’ll know disillusionment. You’ll experience doubt. People will disappoint you by their actions. But that can’t discourage you.
Cynicism has never won a war, or cured a disease, or started a business, or fed a young mind, or sent men into space. Cynicism is a choice. Hope is a better choice.
Hope is what gave young soldiers the courage to storm a beach and liberate people they never met.
Hope is what gave young students the strength to sit in and stand up and march for women’s rights, and civil rights, and voting rights, and gay rights, and immigration rights.
Hope is the belief, against all evidence to the contrary, that there are better days ahead, and that together we can build up a middle class, and reshape our immigration system, and shield our children from gun violence, and shelter future generations from the ravages of climate change.
Hope is the fact that, today, the single largest age group in America is 22 years old who are all just itching to reshape this country and reshape the world. And I cannot wait to see what you do tomorrow.
Here is a link to the OC Register’s coverage of the address.