Harper College pitches Obama to be graduation speaker
Harper College is trying to lure former President Barack Obama to be the school's commencement speaker next year on the occasion of the Palatine-based community college's 50th anniversary.
And at least so far, Obama hasn't said no to the invitation, college President Ken Ender said.
"We weren't turned down. We're in the queue," Ender said after receiving an email Wednesday from Obama's personal office staff in Washington. "It's a long shot, but if you don't ask, you don't get."
College officials said they would plan to give Obama an honorary degree but not pay him a speaking fee -- as other graduation speakers are not paid.
The former president made his first public appearance since leaving the White House this week, speaking to a group of students at the University of Chicago. Reports also surfaced this week that Obama planned to get $400,000 for speaking at a Wall Street conference on health care in September.
Ender decided to make a pitch to the former president late last month in a letter, pointing out "there's a lot of reasons why he might want to come to Harper College," since Ender said much of Obama's education agenda fit with what Harper is doing.
For instance, Ender took to heart Obama's challenge to community colleges in 2010 to produce 5 million more college graduates by 2020. For Harper, that translated to a goal of 10,604 additional degrees and certificates -- and the college right now is more than 90 percent of the way there, officials said.
And this May's commencement speaker -- former Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan -- praised Harper's Promise Scholarship program during a visit to campus in 2015. The initiative rewards students with two years of free education for keeping good attendance, making average grades and serving their community during all four years in high school.
Ender was also appointed to a White House task force in 2013 aimed at filling the shortage of skilled workers in the manufacturing industry. It was at a committee meeting that Ender met Obama.
Then-Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, who formed the committee, was Harper's commencement speaker in 2014.
Harper spokeswoman Kim Pohl said it's too early to say who a backup 2018 commencement speaker would be if Obama turns down Harper.
"We did figure if President Obama is going to be speaking, we needed to reach out way in advance," Pohl said.