Despite a menacing sky and unseasonable chill, over 8,000 gathered in Dover Saturday to celebrate commencement at Delaware State University and hear Vice President Joe Biden deliver the keynote address.
Biden largely avoided partisan rhetoric in his 35-minute speech, instead reflecting on his lengthy political career and exhorting graduates to solve the myriad challenges of a fast-changing world.
“You enter to learn and now you have to go and serve,” Biden said in his closing remarks. “It’s your obligation.”
It was a landmark occasion for both the speaker and the host institution.
The speech was likely one of Biden’s last in his home state as the sitting vice president.
He reminisced about his 36-year career as Delaware senator, a career that began when he first ran for the office at age 29. He recalled seeking the help of Delaware State students during that campaign despite having, in his words, “no money” and “no real background.”
“It really did start here,” Biden said. “The only reason I got elected then was because of this campus and the community it represents.”
Delaware State, meanwhile, is celebrating its 125th anniversary. The historically black college was founded in 1891 as the State College for Colored Students. Back then, according to university president Harry Williams, the school had three faculty and 12 students. Today DSU has 4,560 students spread across 53 undergraduate degree programs, 25 master’s degree programs, and five doctoral degree programs. On Saturday, roughly 700 students graduated, according to a DSU spokesperson.
Perhaps to drive that point home, graduates heard from Tony Nie, a dean at Ningbo University of Technology in China, with which Delaware State has a partnership. The school’s aggressive recruitment of international students and non-black students has helped it remain competitive in an era where many historically black schools have floundered.
“You’re graduating from a truly great university,” Biden said. “It’s real. It’s not hyperbole.”
The ceremony started an hour late amid ramped-up security. Snipers watched from an adjacent building while security guards filtered attendees through metal detectors. Still, the crowd let loose an enthusiastic cheer when Biden—perhaps the most recognizable figure in Delaware political history—was formally introduced by the co-chair of the commencement committee.
Although he avoided mention of the presidential race, Biden did take a moment to survey the political landscape as he exits the arena. He made clear he doesn’t like what he sees.
He chastised the proliferation of mud-slinging and partisan brinkmanship, particulary in his old stomping grounds, the U.S. Senate.
“That’s what’s wrong with the place…I loved for 36 years,” Biden said. “When you disagree it’s because you’re in the pocket of some interest or you’re not a God-fearing person or you are whatever. And nothing, nothing gets done.”
To draw a contrast, he described a conversation during his first months in Washington with then-Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana. Biden remembers griping to Mansfield about an adversary who opposed legislation related to people with disabilities, going so far as to tell Mansfield the opponent had no redeeming value. In response, Mansfield told him that the opponent had adopted a disabled child after reading about the child in a newspaper.
Biden said he learned then to never question other people’s intentions, even if you contest their judgment.
“My advice to you is build real relationships, even with people with whom you vehemently disagree,” Biden said.
The vice president also spoke fondly of Delaware, the state that incubated his political career. He described the way Delawareans comforted him after his wife and young daughter died in a car crash just months after he became a Senator.
“Because in Delaware it’s personal, everyone embraced me,” Biden said. He added, “I owe this state a great deal.”
More than simply a commencement exercise, the event was also a convocation of sorts for Delaware’s political class: past, present, and future.
Junior U.S. Senator Chris Coons spoke briefly and senior U.S. Senator Tom Carper introduced Biden. Also in attendance were a handful of local legislators, including State Senator Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, who last year, at 34, declared that he would run for Delaware’s open congressional seat.
When Biden urged the graduates to hold steady in a world of great turbulence, it could have just as well been a message to his colleagues as he cedes the political stage.
“You’re graduating into a world where your hands are on the wheel because everything is in motion,” Biden said.