TEMPE, ARIZONA - President Barack Obama will share the city with the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the stage with Alice Cooper Wednesday when he delivers the commencement address at Arizona State University (ASU).
Obama will be delivering his address to ASU's graduating class just 11 miles from the Phoenix Convention Center, where more than 10,000 supporters of the National Rifle Association (NRA) will be checking into their hotels for the NRA Annual Meeting that begins the following morning. The juxtaposition of the two events highlight the political battleground that Arizona will surely become in 2010 and 2012 (and possibly the reason that each chose to come to Arizona for such high profile events).
Alice Cooper will be opening for Barack Obama before the ceremony begins. Cooper will warm up the crowd of nearly 65,000 graduates and guests by performing "School's Out" with his son Dash. "Of all the people I've ever shared a stage with, Obama is the biggest rock star," says Cooper, adding wryly, "and I'd like to thank him, in advance, for changing the national anthem to 'School's Out'."
The ASU commencement ceremony will be the largest commencement in the history of ASU and the largest crowd Obama has addressed since his inauguration in January. More than 8,000 students are graduating, and the university expects graduates, students, staff, faculty, and guests to reach nearly 65,000.
Graduating seniors are ecstatic that the President of the United States (who was widely supported on campus throughout campaign season) will be addressing their class, but the road from announcement to event was not a smooth ride for ASU administrators.
ASU administrators have been working to combat the black market that sprung up for commencement tickets. It is, after all, a significant security risk for the president when tickets meant for people connected to the graduation are sold to complete strangers over the Internet. When tickets show up for sale on eBay, Craig's List, and other venues, ASU staff makes phone calls to the students or listing service and gets the listing removed. Stopping all ticket sales, though, is an impossible task.
Obama will only be in Arizona for about 3 hours Wednesday and yet ASU officials have been working around the clock since last week to comply with the strict security plan laid out by the U.S. Secret Service and the White House advance team.
Due to tight security, a large number of attendees, and temperatures that may reach triple digits, some graduates' relatives are choosing to skip the ceremony. Graduates must arrive at the outdoor arena by 2:00 PM, and guests must arrive by 5:00 PM (ASU calls it a "pre-event celebration"). Everyone will be required to go through airport-like security procedures.
Driving into the arena area will be difficult after 2:00 PM. That is when security forces plan to begin closing surrounding roads (including Veterans Way, the road that runs in front of the stadium). Although parking will be free, officials say parking will also be "extremely limited" (parking on the ASU campus is a nightmare on a slow day). Because of these and other logistical issues, the university is suggesting that people park at a Metro (light rail) station and ride to the University/Rural or Veterans Way/College stops. Bus shuttles will transport ticketed passengers from the Metro stop to the arena entrance.
Perhaps the biggest headache, though, for ASU administrators was the brouhaha after ASU officials told one of their student reporters that ASU would not confer the customary honorary degree on Obama when he delivers the commencement address. When it became the story du jour on cable news and the network news shows, ASU President Michael Crow insisted that he had instituted a policy in 2003, shortly after arriving at ASU, that the school would no longer confer honorary degrees on sitting politicians. That policy, however, was neither written down nor communicated to members of the committee that determines who receives honorary degrees at ASU. Crow may have thought up the policy in 2003, but it seems he did not enact it until 2009.
In the wake of the honorary degree debacle, many alumni distanced themselves from their Alma Matter and donors withheld money from an already recession-battered ASU. With the largest per capita state budget shortfall in the nation, legislators cut state funding to ASU by about a third this spring.
Some have speculated that Obama chose ASU because of the severe budget cuts by the state legislature. To help raise money for students who are suffering due to those cuts, ASU has has renamed and expanded the ASU Advantage program. The new President Barack Obama Scholars program was prematurely announced in the midst of the honorary degree scandal. The new Obama Scholars program includes a work-study component and covers tuition, fees, books, room, and board without repayment requirements for qualifying low-income students (less than $60,000 annual family income).