President Clinton Celebrates Diversity during California’s Affirmative Action Debate

On May 5, 2013, U.S. President Barack Obama kicked off this year’s college commencement season by delivering the address at Ohio State University. Although his words have been endlessly pondered by graduates and the media, this is not the first time that a sitting U.S. President has addressed college graduates. Since 1914, the President has continued the commencement tradition with a series of annual commencement addresses. In some respects, the formalized nature of a President’s commencement speech can be compared to the annual State of the Union address. Both are annual traditions, broadcast live and show the President’s conscious awareness of the political landscape. However, the U.S. Constitution does not oblige the President to deliver any college commencement speeches.[1] Rather, Presidential commencement speeches are aimed at an academic community to convey a memorable, nationally-minded message.

In the first of a five-post series to celebrate commencement season, EM&P will look back on several notable presidential college commencement addresses.  The institutions selected are just as diverse as the policy topics discussed. In the past, Presidents have often acknowledged public debates, defended recently-enacted policies or defined their political philosophy. Although every speech is unique, each offers intimate clues on a President’s then-current policy views. This week, EM&P will focus on President Bill Clinton’s response towards affirmative action in his 1997 commencement address at the University of California—San Diego’s Preuss School.


In 1996, California eliminated affirmative action through the passage of Proposition 209. Supporters felt that Proposition 209 decreased diversity in the workplace, as well as in educational institutions. In response, the Preuss School was chartered on the campus of the University of California—San Diego (UCSD) in La Jolla, CA. The goal of Preuss was to prepare underrepresented students for competitive admission to the University of California (UC) system. Instead of focusing on minority status alone, a student’s low-income financial status would earn an entry into a unique lottery system.

However, reviews for the school’s ideology were initially mixed.[2] Despite the eventual compromise, many opponents were still angry because the randomized odds downplayed academic merit. Unlike Preuss’s lottery system, they argued that affirmative action never took into account a minority college applicant’s financial status, but rather  was used only for admissions purposes. Likewise, opponents argued that Preuss’s lottery system was simply a “numbers game,” not a conscious decision to admit a minority applicant based on merit.

Bill Clinton’s Address

During the ongoing debate on June 14, 1997, President Bill Clinton visited UCSD and delivered the commencement address. After his congratulatory address, Clinton spoke at a luncheon, giving a more candid commentary to the Preuss School controversy. The luncheon, in many ways, can still be considered a commencement address, as it was delivered by an incumbent President in the presence of the entire graduating student body.[3] Clinton began:

Now, we know what we will look like, but what will we be like? Can we be one America respecting, even celebrating, our differences, but embracing even more what we have in common? Can we define what it means to be an American, not just in terms of the hyphen showing our ethnic origins but in terms of our primary allegiance to the values America stands for and values we really live by? Our hearts long to answer yes, but our history reminds us that it will be hard. The ideals that bind us together are as old as our Nation, but so are the forces that pull us apart. Our Founders sought to form a more perfect Union. The humility and hope of that phrase is the story of America, and it is our mission today.[4]


President Bill Clinton was famous for diplomatically highlighting both sides of an issue in the public realm. This case is no different, as he began his speech broadly by posing several questions to promote deep thought on the issue. He acknowledged at the beginning that there has been considerable focus on an individual’s skin color, as well as their ethnic background.

However, he implored those present to look beyond these external characteristics. Instead, they should focus on the innate characteristics that make them a part of humanity— whether it makes them stand out or embody common traits. For Clinton, he felt that everyone who calls America their home—regardless of their religious, ethnic, racial or socio-economic background—had a commitment to American values—one of these being diversity. Without diversity, America would not be the dynamic country that it has been for over two centuries.

            Indeed, President Clinton wanted to remind his audience of America’s record of appreciating diversity in the public realm. He continued:

Consider this: We were born with a Declaration of Independence which asserted that we were all created equal and a Constitution that enshrined slavery. We fought a bloody Civil War to abolish slavery and preserve the Union, but we remained a house divided and unequal by law for another century. We advanced across the continent in the name of freedom, yet in so doing we pushed Native Americans off their land, often crushing their culture and their livelihood.[5]


Clinton highlighted American history because he wanted to show that the United States’ commitment to diversity did not begin overnight. Even when Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” minority groups such as African-Americans still remained disenfranchised. While slavery was abolished through President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 “Emancipation Proclamation”, the problem was not solved until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. As Clinton pointed-out, even if progress was delayed, it was still better than no progress at all. In fact, even just an inkling of progress showed that diversity and equal rights was not impossible.

            As his commencement speech progressed, Clinton addressed the specific roots that were causing disunity. On one hand, proponents of affirmative action felt that minority groups were being disenfranchised. On the other, opponents of affirmative action felt that other, more-represented races were being disenfranchised. He addressed the latter group because they were the group causing the controversy. He remarked:

Let me say that I know that for many white Americans, this conversation may seem to exclude them or threaten them. That must not be so. I believe white Americans have just as much to gain as anybody else from being a part of this endeavor, much to gain from an America where we finally take responsibility for all our children so that they, at last, can be judged as Martin Luther King hoped, not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.[6]


Rather than addressing each group individually and then addressing both groups as a whole to build unity, Clinton’s rhetorical strategy was different. At first, Clinton attempted to bring the two groups together by citing past American history. The history between the 1770s through the 1960s brought unity because he illustrated a period at which all people—especially African Americans—could progressively be treated equally in the social and legal realms. Equal treatment is particularly important because both sides would want to envision this as their end goal. As such, the end is the same for both groups, but the means of accomplishing the end is quite different.

            Moving further, President Clinton subsequently wanted to once again unite the proponents and opponents of affirmative action. He used a rhetorical technique called pathos to appeal to the emotions of his audience. He pointed-out:

I am a Scotch-Irish Southern Baptist, and I'm proud of it. But my life has been immeasurably enriched by the power of the Torah, the beauty of the Koran, the piercing wisdom of the religions of East and South Asia—all embraced by my fellow Americans. I have felt indescribable joy and peace in black and Pentecostal churches. I have come to love the intensity and selflessness of my Hispanic fellow Americans toward la familia.[7]


Clinton wanted to appeal to affirmative action proponents by citing just a few of the many religious and ethnic groups that make up America. Similarly, he could reach out to affirmative action opponents because he showed that everyone—including himself—came from a myriad of different roots. Likewise, the term “diversity” does not just focus exclusively on race alone. Diversity, among other facets, can also focus on ethnicity and religion as well. In this light, it is no accident that he brings up tenets of race (Hispanics), ethnicity (Scotch-Irish) and religion (The Jewish Torah, the Muslim Koran, East and South Asian Religions and Pentecostal Churches).


            Nearly twenty years after Bill Clinton spoke at UCSD, his diplomatic viewpoint towards affirmative action remains relevant. Regardless of whether one is supportive or opposed to affirmative action, Clinton’s address showed Americans that diversity can hardly be confined to race. Rather, diversity is what allows differing characteristics—race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, income, viewpoints and so many others—to show America’s commitment to diversity and democracy. Today, it is perhaps no surprise that the Preuss School is still operating—thriving on the ideals of diversity and inclusion that Clinton spoke of many years ago.



[1]Refer to Article II, Section 3 of the United States Constitution.

[2]Lisa S. Rosen and Hugh Mehan. "Reconstruction Equality on New Political Ground: The Politics

of Representation in the Charter School Debate at the University of California, San Diego.” American Educational Research Journal 40 no. 3 (Autumn, 2003): 656. “The proposal generated both considerable support and tremendous controversy; eventually, it was rejected when it failed to garner the full support of either the faculty of UCSD or its new chancellor, Robert Dynes. The ensuing public outcry, negative publicity, and pressure from the Regents resulted in a more comprehensive plan, which called for a newly configured charter school, a research center to serve as an umbrella organization over the school, partnerships with public schools, and a unit to evaluate the university’s multifaceted ‘outreach’ activities. That plan was approved by the chancellor and the faculty.”

[3]The venue was a departure from more “traditional” venues, such as sports stadiums and quads. However, like the traditional venues, the luncheon was still on campus grounds.

[4]"Remarks at a Commencement Luncheon at the University of California San Diego in La Jolla June 14, 1997." (accessed September 3, 2011)



[7]Ibid. “La Familia” in Spanish translates to “the family” in English.