Obama Admin Speechwriter Responds


May 21, 2015

Last week, we published a critique of Obama cabinet members’ commencement appearances at a series of colleges that fail to evidence a meaningful commitment to socioeconomic diversity.  Below, Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s Speechwriter, David Whitman, responds.    


david whitman picI admire the work of Education Reform Now and find many of its blog posts to be thoughtful and compelling. But your recent blog post on commencement addresses by Obama cabinet members seemed unfair and off-the-mark, certainly as it pertains to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

The blog post from Hajar Ahmed concludes that “More than a quarter of the commencement speeches given by original members of President Obama’s cabinet have been at colleges that pay no regard to socioeconomic diversity.” That’s certainly not the case for Secretary Duncan. Unfortunately, your list of his eight commencement addresses omits at least nine commencement addresses that Secretary Duncan has delivered since 2009–two commencement speeches at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s), three commencement addresses at community colleges, and four commencement speeches at tribal colleges. The nine omitted speeches from your tally include commencement remarks at:

–Xavier University, New Orleans, 2010

–Fayetteville State, 2010

–De Anza Community College, 2010

–Foothill Community College, 2010

–Hostos Community College, 2013

–Sinte Gleska University, 2011

–Navajo Technical College, 2012

–Menominee Nation, 2013

–Salish Kootenai College, 2014

Whatever Education Reform Now’s judgment may be about the value of giving commencement addresses at these particular institutions, the one claim that cannot be sustained about them is that they “pay no regard to socioeconomic diversity.”

The list of commencement speeches by other original cabinet members also does not demonstrate, as Hajar writes, that Obama administration officials have disproportionately given commencement speeches at institutions that are “engines of inequality.” As Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan’s choice of commencement speeches generally carries more significance in the world of higher education than the venues chosen for commencement speeches by, say, the Secretary of the Interior. It’s not unexpected, or necessarily a sign of indifference to socioeconomic diversity, that Secretary of Energy Steven Chu gave commencement addresses at the California Institute of Technology (CIT) and the Polytechnic Institute of New York–even though Education Reform Now’s methodology brands CIT as an “engine of inequality.”

It is puzzling as well that your tally of commencement remarks omits commencement speeches by First Lady Michelle Obama during the last six years, even though institutions where Vice President Biden gave commencement remarks are included. The First Lady has given a number of high-profile commencement addresses, including commencement remarks at HBCUs–such as her recent remarks at Tuskegee University’s commencement on racial prejudice and the importance of grit and the power of education. Omitting the First Lady’s commencement speeches from the administration’s tally seems doubly peculiar, since Hajar went to the length of including commencement speeches not only by the Vice President but those given by Cabinet members at law schools or medical schools, on the theory that speaking at grad school commencements promotes an undergraduate school’s “overall brand.”

I was the chief speechwriter for Secretary Duncan from June 2009 to November 2014. And while I did not participate in deciding which commencement invitations the Secretary would accept, I am confident that Secretary Duncan’s record of giving commencement addresses at institutions that prize socioeconomic diversity will hold up well. There is no comparative information in Hajar’s blog post–i.e. there is no way to tell whether Obama administration cabinet members have been more prone or less prone than their predecessors to speak at institutions that are “engines of inequality.” But my best guess is that Secretary Duncan has delivered more commencement remarks at HBCUs, community colleges, and tribal colleges than any Secretary of Education in history. Similarly, what President has spoken more frequently at community colleges, or done more at the national level to elevate the importance of community colleges than President Obama?

If one includes the numerous commencement speeches by Secretary Duncan omitted in your tally and analysis, as well as those delivered by First Lady Michelle Obama, the administration’s record of commencement addresses would look very different–if not the opposite–of what your analysis claims.

David Whitman is a Contributing Editor to Education Post.