TEMPE, Ariz. — President Barack Obama didn't shy away from the "snub" by Arizona State University officials who said he didn't deserve an honorary degree because he hadn't accomplished enough yet. In a commencement speech Wednesday to a stadium full of young graduates, he said the officials were right.
"I come here not to dispute the suggestion that I haven't yet achieved enough in my life," Obama said. With a smile he added: "First of all, (first lady) Michelle (Obama) concurs with that assessment. She has a long list of things that I have not yet done waiting for me when I get home."
"In all seriousness, I come to affirm that one's title, even a title like 'president of the United States,' says very little about how well one's life has been led," the president said.
Obama challenged the graduating class to find new sources of energy, to improve failing schools and never to rely on past achievement. While he congratulated them on earning a degree, Obama told them that the next steps mattered more than a piece of paper or tassel.
"I want to say to you today, graduates, class of 2009, that despite having achieved a remarkable milestone in your life — despite the fact that you and your families are rightfully proud — you, too, cannot rest on your laurels. ... Your own body of work is also yet to come," the president said, wearing a black gown with red embellishments.
Guests who deliver commencement addresses typically are awarded honorary degrees as a sign of respect and appreciation. Arizona State University officials, however, did not award any honorary degrees this year.
"His body of work is yet to come. That's why we're not recognizing him with a degree at the beginning of his presidency," university spokeswoman Sharon Keeler said shortly after the school's student newspaper first reported the decision.
To quell the controversy, the university instead renamed a scholarship for the nation's 44th president. At the beginning of his remarks, Obama thanked the school for the gesture.
While the dispute over Obama's honorary degree colored the buildup to the ceremony, a sweltering — and packed — Sun Devil Stadium seemed to care little. About 63,000 people crowded into the stadium to watch 9,000 students walk across the stage and into a marketplace that has lost 1.3 million jobs since February.
An official at the university's emergency operations center said about 95 people were treated for heat-related illness in hundred-degree temperatures while waiting for Obama's address. None of the illnesses were considered life-threatening.