There I was wearing a cap and gown on Friday, pencil and pad in hand, at the 2014 commencement ceremony at Rowan University.
It was a special day for us graduates and a record-setting year for an expanding university with the largest-ever graduating class. It was made even more special for a political journalist like myself because there was none other than New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie delivering the commencement speech.
Christian Hetrick, a graduate there on Friday summed it up best. Hetrick, the former editor-in-chief of Rowan’s student newspaper The Whit, had his finger on the pulse of how students felt about the governor’s presence.
“It is what it is,” Hetrick said before Christie’s speech. “I think they’re more upset with the rain. I’ve heard of education majors wanting to stand up and walk out when he begins speaking, but other than that, nothing.”
When I arrived Friday at 10 a.m., the first thing I saw was a large but empty “free speech zone” tent placed outside near Pfleeger Concert Hall where Christie was set to speak to engineering students.
Because of the rain, the different schools were moved indoors to separate buildings. The ceremony was originally supposed to be held in Richard Wackar Stadium with everyone on the field. Communication students, like myself, were moved inside the Recreation Center. We saw Christie’s speech live-streamed on a big screen in the gymnasium.
Another graduate, Jeremy Rodriguez, didn’t care much about politics of Christie being there. He had a more personal reaction.
“I feel like Christie is overshadowing the ceremony,” Rodriguez said.
Christie was booed by some students in the Recreation Center when he appeared on the big screen, but after that, there was some clapping to the contrary. Kevin Kunzmann, the new editor-in-chief of the Whit, reported Christie received a standing ovation in Pfleeger Concert Hall.
The Republican governor, along with Democratic State Sen. President Stephen Sweeney and State Sen. Donald Norcross, received honorary degrees for their support of the university. In April, the school received $117 million in grants for capital projects from the state. Christie and the legislature partnered Rowan with Rutgers-Camden campus and also made our college a research institution.
“No one works harder than him or cares more about New Jersey than him,” Rowan President Dr. Ali Houshmand said of Christie.
Christie said he would keep his speech short and non-controversial. It wasn’t exactly short, but he did keep the second half of the promise. His speech was a personal and emotional one, focusing on his grandmother who was born on a boat coming from Italy to America. She worked hard and raised a family by herself, without having much of a formal education, Christie said.
“This gives you the moment now to decide what your life is to be,” Christie said to about 10,000 people in attendance. “I believe what determines your success and failure will be determined by how hard you work. ... You have a leg up that you’ve earned today, that is, the education you got here today at Rowan.”
It’s no secret Christie’s popularity has taken a dive in New Jersey since the “Bridgegate” scandal — politically motivated lane closures on the George Washington Bridge caused by Christie staffers and Port Authority appointees. The story has gotten less coverage in the press as time has passed. Christie has recently said the scandal will not affect his future career. And it’s no secret he might have presidential ambitions in the near future.
It’s not Christie’s style to back down from a challenge like others may have done in his position. Former President George W. Bush administration staffer Condoleezza Rice recently gave in to protesters from Rutgers University. She was set to give their commencement speech, but then backed out.
Of course, not backing down from a challenge is part of Christie’s appeal to voters and that was certainly the case at Rowan where he weathered the graduation ceremony storm.
It was a fitting end to my time spent at the university as a journalism major, covering Democrat U.S. Sen. Cory Booker’s debate with Republican Steve Lonegan for The Whit and attending Christie’s speech campaign stop (before his re-election win) announcing the new engineering building that will be built here. It also was nice to catch up with my friends, because I had graduated early in December.
Despite everything, the day was a celebration. Personal politics and feelings aside, I don’t think Christie ruined the day for very many people — certainly not for me.
With that said, good luck to Rowan’s future and congratulations to the entire class of 2014. You’ve earned it.