URBANA — Throw a 150th birthday party and you probably want a special guest.
How about a popular former president?
Students at the University of Illinois have launched a campaign to bring Barack Obama to campus as the 2017 commencement speaker in May, complete with a dedicated Facebook page, Twitter account and hashtag, and a full-court social-media press on the former president and his staff.
With the UI’s sesquicentennial celebration kicking off this year, it’s the perfect time for Obama to return to his home state of Illinois and celebrate with the flagship university, said UI senior Alex Villanueva, one of several student senators coordinating the campaign.
“We figured if Rutgers could do it, why couldn’t we do it?” he said, referring to Obama’s commencement appearance at the New Jersey university on its 250th birthday last May. “It’s a homecoming for him. There’s no better time for him to come to Illinois.”
A Change.org petition posted Wednesday evening had already collected 1,260 signatures as of mid-afternoon Thursday.
“We already beat Rutgers,” Villanueva said. (That petition attracted 1,059 signatures.)
President Robert Jones actually extended a formal invitation to Obama last fall, via attorney Michael Strautmanis, a UI alumnus and vice president of the Obama Foundation in Chicago. He was formerly chief of staff for Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett.
“When we’ve asked students who they’d like to have, for the past eight years his name has always been high on that list,” said campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler. “We know there’s a lot of interest, and for many of them, he’s the only president they really remember.”
The speaker is chosen from a list put together by a committee that starts working shortly after the previous year’s commencement, Kaler said. They take suggestions and extend invitations to potential speakers, and a decision is made closer to graduation day.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton spoke at the UI in 1994 when she was first lady. The campus had another speaker lined up just in case she couldn’t make it, and Clinton’s visit was confirmed just a week or two beforehand. Commencement was split into two ceremonies at that time, so Clinton spoke at one and the other speaker handled the second, Kaler said.
Kaler said the university didn’t expect to hear anything back from the Obamas until after he left office this month.
There are already positive signs, with Strautmanis tweeting in reply to former student Trustee Jaylin McClinton’s invitation on Twitter: “I’m for it!” and “let’s try to make it happen!”
Villanueva said Obama likely gets hundreds of commencement invitations a year but he’s hoping Strautmanis’ ties to the UI will help, as will other student connections to the White House.
Several recent student government leaders have landed internships there, including McClinton, Matt Hill and Sarah Hochman.
And the UI was one of the most active schools in the White House “It’s On Us” campaign against sexual assault on college campuses, which brought former Vice President Joe Biden to the UI in spring 2015.
“If he’s going to go to Rutgers and Ohio State (2013), why not come to the orange and blue?” Villanueva said, noting that Obama also spoke at Michigan in 2010.
The goal now is to get students to write letters and tweet to the Obamas and their staffs, Villanueva said. The Twitter account is @ILinvitesObama, and the Facebook event page is “Invite Obama to Illinois 2017 Commencement.”
Villanueva, who is also student body vice president, is working on the campaign with fellow UI seniors Mark Schaer and Ron Lewis, the student body president. Lewis and Villanueva posted their own letters to Obama on their Facebook pages.
“If there is anyone in America who embodies what the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign stands for, it’s Obama. A man who built his own career, fought for all of us and a champion of the great things our generation cares about. He should be the one sharing his story with us, and helping mark the end of our time at Illinois and the beginning of our careers and futures. Help bring Obama back to Illinois,” Lewis wrote on his Facebook page.
His letter said that many students in Illinois feel that the education system is “undervalued,” given the lack of state support over the past two years. It said the UI has tried to ensure students remain a priority by hiring top-quality faculty and staff and had brought in diverse administrators such as Jones.
“With so much transition going on within our university and our country, we think that you would be the best speaker to talk about your story and how it is important for students to continue to value education,” Lewis wrote.
Villanueva is a Republican who didn’t vote for Obama, but he said hosting a former president would be “an honor.”
“There’s only so many presidents,” he said. “He’s got a great story whether you like him or not. He’s got an inspiring story. That’s what students need to hear when they’re heading out.
“Every student I’ve spoken to has said, ‘Oh my god, that would be so cool.’ My job is to represent them,” he said.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the names of the UI students who were White House interns.