Inside the UI's commencement pitch to Obama

Inside the UI's commencement pitch to Obama

By all accounts, actor Nick Offerman's commencement address at the University of Illinois was a hit, even making a couple of top 10 lists of graduation speeches this spring.

He'd actually been invited last fall, along with a certain former president who ended up sending his regrets in March.

Here are a few behind-the-scenes details about the effort to bring Barack Obama to campus, courtesy of the state's Freedom of Information Act:

-- The formal invitation to Obama went out on Oct. 28, 2016.

"Dear Mr. President," Chancellor Robert Jones wrote. "When we polled students for suggestions for their speaker, you were their first choice. You were also their second, third and fourth choices. As teenagers, they watched you break down barriers to become the first African American to lead their nation.

"In your second run," the statement continued, "you were the one who brought most of them out to vote in their first election. They grew up with you as their President. To them, you represent the power and possibility of the American dream."

-- It was a personal invitation as well from Jones, the first black chancellor in the campus' 150-year history, who recounted his own journey from a sharecropper's son to administrator at several land-grant universities.

"I know firsthand how difficult it can be to choose a path that others believe to be impossible, or worse, one they say that you have no right to follow," he wrote "... There is no one who better exemplifies what can happen when education and opportunity come together than you."

-- The letter was given to UI alumnus Michael Strautmanis, vice president of the Obama Foundation in Chicago and former chief of staff for Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett. He was to hand-deliver it to Obama, and he and Jones spoke several times by phone over the next few months, records show.

-- The UI submitted a more "pro forma" request online through Obama's new website,, after the former president left office in January, just to cover all the bases, spokeswoman Robin Kaler said Monday. UI students also lobbied Strautmanis and Obama through letters and social media.

-- The campus never received an official response to the letter, according to Kaler. But on March 17, the commencement office got an email from stating that the former president would not be available.

"Thank you for your interest in including President Obama in your university's commencement plans. President Obama will be focusing on work for his foundation in the coming weeks and months, and although he will not be able to attend your event, he truly appreciates your invitation."

-- The UI didn't announce this news, instead sending out a tweet a month later, on April 19, teasing the commencement speaker:

"May want to pick up extra tickets for Commencement this year ... (sharing who our #ILLINOIS2017 speaker is April 25!)"

-- Kaler said officials still felt there was an outside chance Obama could say yes, since they hadn't heard anything directly. Plus, "the idea was to do a little bit of teasing, since people thought it might be President Obama."

-- UI students guessed pretty quickly it was Offerman after tweets featuring his co-star on "Parks and Recreation," Amy Poehler, and his passion for woodworking. Faculty weren't quite so tuned in. Even after a tweet showing the university seal altered to read, "City of Pawnee," the fictional Indiana town where the TV series was set, "we still had faculty calling to say, 'Is President Obama the speaker?'" Kaler said. "You could tell who was on social media and who wasn't."

-- Offerman had also been invited last fall but didn't realize it, as the message had "gotten lost somewhere along the way," Kaler said. Jones re-invited him in the spring, and he accepted. Offerman also agreed to produce a video used in the official Twitter announcement on April 25.

-- Schedules are tricky with celebrities, who get hundreds of such requests, Kaler said. Efforts to bring filmmaker Ang Lee and movie critic Roger Ebert to commencement in past years faltered because the event conflicted with the Cannes Film Festival, Kaler said. And before Hillary Clinton spoke on campus in 1994, the UI had given up on that invitation and invited another speaker until it learned just a couple of weeks beforehand that she was coming.

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UIUCHoopFan wrote on June 06, 2017 at 10:06 am

The pitch failed, Obama wasn't the speaker.  Where is the relevance of this story? 

The commencement exodus after Offerman's *yawn* speech was hilarious to watch.  So sad so many attended commencement for the anticipated entertainment instead of honoring the graduates. 


787 wrote on June 06, 2017 at 12:06 pm

Exactly why did anyone with the University think that the former president woud have *any* interest in *anything* south of I-80?

Sid Saltfork wrote on June 06, 2017 at 2:06 pm

The speaker is selected from a group of individuals that the students propose.  Since you were not graduating, what difference does it make? was because Obama's name was mentioned, right?  Maybe, they can get Trump next year to appease you.  At least, Ted Cruz or Ted Nugent.

787 wrote on June 06, 2017 at 3:06 pm wouldn't have mattered if he was the students' ONLY choice.     He wasn't going to waste his time on a trip to Champaign.  He thinks that he is much too important for that.   The fact that he didn't personally make any effort to decline the invitation, speaks volumes.

Yes, your hero.

Sid Saltfork wrote on June 07, 2017 at 11:06 am

Compared to the two presidents before him and the current president, I would say that President Obama is a hero.  Sadly, he cannot run for a third term.

You really did not care who spoke.  You were only reacting to Obama.  What about your boy, Trump?  Maybe, he has some experience speaking to the Trump University graduates?  He did speak to the graduates of Fawell U. this commencement season.  If he can speak at F.U., he could speak at the U. of I. next year.


BruckJr wrote on June 06, 2017 at 2:06 pm

Should have included the $400,000 check with the invitation.

Sid Saltfork wrote on June 06, 2017 at 2:06 pm

Yeah, like Mr. Khan would have received.  Come on, give the politics a break for awhile.  It was the students graduation, not yours.  If they want to invite Homer Simpson or Jarrod Kusher, it is their choice not yours or mine.

President Barrack OBAMA !!!  I had to say it.  Now, back to the Russian Investigation on TV, and the latest presidential tweets.

BruckJr wrote on June 06, 2017 at 7:06 pm


Sid Saltfork wrote on June 07, 2017 at 11:06 am

Thank you.

CallSaul wrote on June 06, 2017 at 4:06 pm

Man, certain people just can't stand being reminded that Obama's still popular.

I wonder how they feel about Obama beating Trump as the most admired man in a recent Gallup poll:

For them, it's probably just as bad as being reminded that Trump lost the popular vote by 3 million (and we know how much having to acknowledge that inconvenient fact riles them up).

Well, at least none of the local loons has mentioned the lunatic racist birther conspiracy yet... wrote on June 07, 2017 at 11:06 am

Oh many times did Barry come to CMI as a State senator   US senator candidate or elected or as a candidate for POTUS or POTUS?    The answer is 1x to come and seek the endorsement of the NG.   Michelle went to school else where and so are his daughters.   Your fawning over Barry is funny.   He couldn't find Champaign with a GPS.

CallSaul wrote on June 07, 2017 at 2:06 pm

So in your view, pointing out the facts that Obama is more popular than Trump and that Obama is in fact an American equate to 'fawning' over him...?

That's a pretty weird thing to believe, don't you think? wrote on June 07, 2017 at 9:06 pm

Saulie      who cares if Barry  your crush is more popular than Trump.    I pointed out the fact that Barry made 0 effort to ever come to CMI. He couldn't find us with a gps.... right?

Sid Saltfork wrote on June 09, 2017 at 1:06 pm

If you did not follow the news at the time, president Obama had made a previous committment to speak at the Chicago University graduation ceremony.  This junk about Obama, and the U of I graduation was written to invoke political sniping.

I realize that will not change your mind.  You are stuck hating democrats, and most of all president Obama.  Now, your boy (intellectually) is president.  How long will he last?  How many blatent lies will he tell that conflict with each other?  American Presidential Elections are a national intellegence test.  Trump lost the popular vote (one citizen, one vote), but won the archaic Electorial College vote.  Now, one third of the country supports Trump, and the other two thirds want him out of office.  The dog caught the car; but now, he has to learn how to drive it.  I am paraphrasing Speaker Paul Ryan regarding his excuse for Trump "learning to be president".

By the way, the republican congress eliminated the Dodd-Frank Act (bipartisan) this week.  Dodd-Frank was put in place so the big banks could not trigger another financial meltdown.  Now that it is gone, expect the financial bottom to fall out again,  Yep, the Rich get richer, and everyone else gets poorer thanks to the intellectually lower one third of american voters. wrote on June 12, 2017 at 8:06 am

You are aware that a U of I student starting the petiton which was then moved on by the U of I administration.   How was this "sniping"  fact remains that Barry.. the son of Illinos, never came to Champaign county except t get the endorsement of the NG... ask the NG if I am correct.

Sid Saltfork wrote on June 12, 2017 at 4:06 pm

Who cares?

Ronald Regan, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, etc..... never came to the U of I either.  Bill Taft, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter came to give speeches.  Trump has yet to visit.

Your point is that OBAMA did not come to give a speech.  Yes; Obama, Obama, OBAMA !  Your obsession on the first member of diversity (Black, and White) being elected twice to serve as the country's president borders on hate, and racisim.  Concentrate on the man who is president now, and watch more channels of news than only FOX News.  Open up your mind.