Campus Scenes

Penn and Joe

How the vice president ruined an Ivy League commencement this year.

By From the July-August 2013 issue

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Joe Biden ruined my midlife crisis. In 2006, desperate for a more meaningful endeavor after 15 years of highly compensated toil in the hedge fund industry, I enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania’s doctoral program in history. Dreary classrooms and musty archives replaced luxurious Manhattan restaurants and spacious offices as my regular haunts. Any other 42 year old in my position would have contented himself with a shiny new Ferrari, despite the chuckles of his friends and the disapproval of his wife. Unfortunately, after seven arduous years of classes, teaching, and dissertation writing, my alma mater spoiled my victory lap when it invited Barack Obama’s vice president to address my graduating class this past May. After reflecting on Biden’s inane performance, I realize now that I would have come away less annoyed had I watched an incompetent valet parker back my imagined quarter-million-dollar sports coupe into a dumpster.

The University of Pennsylvania has earned its place as one of the United States’ premier institutions of higher learning. Established in 1740, Penn inaugurated the nation’s first medical and business schools in 1765 and 1881 respectively. The university’s founder, Benjamin Franklin, spurred the development of a newfangled practical education, balancing the needs of commerce and public service with the rigors of classics and theology. In recognition of the importance of both international trade and foreign languages to the success of the nascent North American polity, Franklin launched a school designed to inculcate an “Inclination join’d with an Ability to serve Mankind, one’s Country, Friends and Family.” Franklin’s curricular innovations have blessed the world of thought ever since. Numerous Penn alumni, such as former U.S. president William Henry Harrison, poet Ezra Pound, an assortment of Nobel laureates, and several signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, have burnished the university’s reputation while, depending on whom you ask, other graduates like Noam Chomsky, Donald Trump, and Arlen Specter haven’t.

Despite his key role in founding the school, Franklin did not attend a Penn graduation until 1763 due to his ambassadorial stints in Europe. But the Pennsylvania Gazette noted the solemnity of Franklin’s first such participation in its coverage of the university’s seventh commencement: “Everything was conducted with the utmost Decency and Order.” Yet even the erudite Franklin himself had to concentrate in order to understand the august proceedings. The morning’s events opened with one degree candidate’s “elegant salutary Oration in Latin” immediately followed by another student’s “forensic Disputation.” After a short break for lunch, the afternoon session kicked off with “a syllogistic Disputation in Latin” just before the closing remarks and the harmonious finale, “an Ode to Peace, set to Music, which was well performed by a Sett of Gentlemen and Ladies.”

Not even wars could derail Penn’s sacrosanct graduation ritual. Ignoring the hostilities raging between the United States and Great Britain, the graduate procession in 1813 ambled across Philadelphia, from the school’s former Ninth Street campus to the graduation hall on Fourth Street where they picked up their sheepskins. After less than 30 minutes of marching through the city, the degree recipients took their seats to hear their classmate “Mr. Gibbons” regale his war-weary cohort with “an Oration, on Nothing,” according to an account in Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser.

Only 50 years later, Philadelphians again recoiled in fear as the Battle of Gettysburg exploded on July 1, 1863, two days before Penn’s last day of spring classes. The graduation ceremony was to be held on the same day. The War to Prevent Southern Independence had taken a terrible toll on the university. Enrollment at the medical school shrank by 30 percent. The school’s administration shuddered at the imminent danger a possible Confederate victory at Gettysburg—just 130 miles to the west—posed to the university, the city, and the nation. With the bloodiest war in American history tearing the country apart, the graduation festivities proceeded, but not exactly as planned. The Philadelphia Inquirer attributed the convocation’s sparse attendance “in part to the warm weather and in part to the war excitement.” Four of the five planned orators gave their talks; school officials had to cancel the fifth speech after the speaker, George Strawbridge, “volunteered his services in aid of the state.”

SADLY, the proud school that first stood strong against the seemingly indomitable British army and later against its pugnacious Southern cousins wilted like a wet diploma this year against the implacable Joe Biden. In the months leading up to this year’s festivities, school officials warned eager graduates and their proud families of the extra security measures necessary for the vice president’s protection against the ever-present threat from…Ivy League English majors? Guests were “strongly encouraged” to arrive at the graduation venue, Franklin Field, Penn’s historic football stadium built in 1895, between 7 and 8 a.m. for a ceremony that did not begin until 10:15. Moreover, the jubilant spectators had to arrive empty-handed—no cameras, binoculars, or banners congratulating Junior on his accomplishment. In addition to screening graduates and their guests for firearms and “hazardous, chemical, radiological, and biological materials,” armed Treasury agents manning the metal detector gauntlet also relieved attendees of tripods, food and beverages, and umbrellas. The school promised to supply all graduates and guests with ponchos in case of rain. Even after years of prodigious study and uneventful residence on the ivy-covered campus, graduates faced the same pointless harassment the TSA foists on air travelers every day. The uninterested sorority members mumbling “congratulations” while handing each frisked-and-begowned Quaker graduate a bottle of water in appeasement hardly compensated for the assault. As a member of Penn’s 257th graduating class this year, the final memories I leave with after my seven-year slog to earn a Ph.D. are tainted by our nanny state’s anti-terror overkill. Tripping over my academic gown as I slinked back through the metal detector I had set off twice, I can still hear the Treasury thug growling, “Empty ALL your pockets this time, Mr. Graduate.” Had my dissertation committee been as rigorous in its demands, I would likely still be buried in the school’s library rechecking my footnotes and references.

Looking back on the security charade before the ceremony, I probably should have left the coins in my pocket, flung my mortarboard at the Treasury agent à la Oddjob in Goldfinger, and started my post-Ph.D. job search right then and there. But in typically confused academic fashion, I wandered into the stadium where my teutonically punctual wife—now frozen to the metal bleacher after waiting three hours in the abnormally frigid spring weather—glared at me as I looked for my seat. 

But then things got worse. Armed with the Wall Street Journal, I erred in thinking I had inoculated myself against the platitudinous nonsense every graduation speaker spews at his captive audience. In truth, I had not braced myself for Joe Biden’s infinite supply of blarney, or his garish visage. After a few generic compliments about the school and hearty congratulations that “eleven states have already moved on marriage equality—that’s you, that you” (well, not me), the Vice Blowhard told us, “Don’t listen to the skeptics.” At the very least, I do appreciate Biden acting on his beliefs. Former Senator Amtrak, whom the American public has told four times in presidential primaries that it does not want him or his hair plugs and fake teeth to lead the country, continues to ignore his own nationwide army of skeptics. He pushed on with his prattle, simultaneously insulting students from China—a large contingent of the graduates—and their country, our indebted nation’s most important creditor. Chattering away, the federal government’s highest-ranking plagiarizer publicly discounted the political prospects of China’s new president, Xi Jinping. “He has the look of a man who is about to take on a job he’s not at all sure is going to end well. I mean that seriously,” Biden warned us. After taking his reassurances to heart, one Chinese graduating senior from Penn’s Wharton School of Business, Zhang Tianpu, scolded the vice president in writing the next day, telling him to “save nationalistic criticisms of other countries for your campaigns.” Sadly, Zhang’s complaint provides still more evidence of the rot afflicting America’s educational system, even at its highest levels. Her comments prove that Penn’s Wharton School failed to teach its students anything about America’s never-ending 21st-century presidential campaign cycle or our overlords’ belief that captive audiences make reliable guinea pigs for political trial balloons. Ms. Zhang’s protest might have gotten wider coverage if she had just asked, “Biden said it; but who wrote it?”

Vice President Biden now joins a long list of illustrious commencement speakers—President Ford, John Foster Dulles, J. Robert Oppenheimer, among others—who have sent Ben Franklin’s heirs out to take on the world armed with their new Penn degrees. But what others have built, one man and his battalion of armed bouncers have now sullied. College graduations used to matter. In 1913, Colonel George Washington Goethals, the chief engineer of the Panama Canal, outlined his mammoth project’s “influence upon the tide of human affairs” for Penn’s graduates at the very same Franklin Field. None of those pondering the importance of Goethals’ work that day were frisked, insulted by government lackeys, or forced to leave their belongings at home. Nor did they have to endure anything like the latest political assault on common decency from Delaware’s undying gift to America. Perhaps next year Penn might consider reprising the 1813 “Oration, on Nothing” of its long ago alumnus Mr. Gibbon’s as an improvement on this year’s farce. 

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About the Author

Mark G. Brennan teaches ethics at New York University.