President George W. Bush ’68, whose love-hate relationship with Yale has warmed since he took office in January, has apparently agreed to attend the University’s Commencement May 21 and may receive an honorary degree at the ceremony.
White House officials told Dennis Moore, director of public relations for the University of Notre Dame, that Bush would be heading to Yale’s graduation after speaking at Notre Dame’s commencement the previous day, Moore said last week. Students moving into temporary housing on Old Campus, the freshman quadrangle where Commencement ceremonies will be held, were told Wednesday that extra security measures would be taken for an “international guest.”
Administrators did not confirm whether that guest would be Bush and said this year’s Commencement will feature a number of prestigious guests.
Yale administrators, who have fielded dozens of media inquiries about a Bush graduation appearance, did not deny Bush will be in attendance. The Washington Post first reported the possibility that Bush might speak last week.
Yale Provost Alison Richard declined to comment, saying, “there are many good reasons to uphold Yale’s tradition of announcing candidates for honorary degrees on Commencement Day itself.”
Moore said he had not spoken with Yale administrators about Bush’s visit to the two schools.
“We heard it from people in the White House when we were waiting for him to come here,” Moore said. “We were surprised that they announced here before they announced at Yale.”
Bush’s regional spokesman, Ken Lisaius, did not return repeated phone calls to the White House media office. Yale President Richard Levin is in China and could not be reached for comment.
The Hartford Courant last week cited sources in Washington saying that it was “90 percent” certain that Bush would speak at Commencement.
Several students staying in dormitories closest to the stage said they were told by student housing coordinators to remain out of their rooms from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the day of the event. Student housing coordinators said they did not know who made this security decision. Dean of Student Affairs Betty Trachtenberg and Deputy Secretary of the University Martha Highsmith both said they did not issue the order.
After declining an invitation to speak at a Yale Tercentennial event this year, Bush’s apparent decision to come to this year’s graduation ceremony is another sign that the president is opening up to his alma mater after spurning it during his presidential campaign. Despite being born in New Haven, Bush has not had any visible affiliation with the University. In January, however, he entertained Levin and his wife as some of his first official White House guests.
Honorary degree recipients do not traditionally offer a formal Commencement address. Instead, a speech is given to seniors on Senior Class Day, the day before Commencement. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 will give that address this year on May 20.
Clinton was warm to the thought of a Bush speech the day after hers.
“If that’s an official announcement, I think it would be great for the graduating class if the president returned to his alma mater,” she said last week
The University has made exceptions for speakers at Commencement, allowing two United States presidents to give an address in the past — Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush ’48, in 1991 and John F. Kennedy in 1962.
The list of honorary degree recipients is traditionally one of Yale’s best-kept secrets. Some administrators said they are typically left in the dark about who is on the list until just before graduation. Only officers of the University are generally aware of who will be accepting degrees, the administrators said.
But when former President Bush came to Yale to receive an honorary degree and speak on Commencement in 1991, administrators who said they normally do not know who is coming were aware that he would be appearing because of all the extra security measures taken.
The University has been eager for the current President Bush to officially visit Yale as soon as possible. Efforts to lure him here during the April Tercentennial alumni celebration failed.
“We tried very hard to get him here in April, but it just didn’t work out,” an administrative source said.
Bush’s father spoke at the Tercentennial event April 21.
The president received criticism in the national media for not stopping by his alma mater, even though he appeared nearby in Waterbury to give an education policy speech just days before the weekend celebration started.
Bush’s family has deep roots at Yale and his daughter, Barbara, is now a freshman at the University.
In addition to his Commencement address at Notre Dame, Bush will speak at the Naval Academy May 25.