White House sends official to Morehouse to address concerns ahead of Biden's speech

WASHINGTON — A senior White House official met with a small group of students and faculty at Morehouse College on Friday, amid some objections on campus to having President Joe Biden deliver the commencement address there this weekend, according to a White House official and a Morehouse administration official.

During the meeting with Steve Benjamin, who heads the White House Office of Public Engagement, some of the students expressed concerns about Biden overshadowing their graduation, the White House official said. The official added that some students were worried in particular about the controversy surrounding Biden’s policy toward Israel and his handling of the war in the Gaza Strip taking center stage at Sunday’s ceremony.

They also told Benjamin they do not want to hear a campaign speech, the White House official said. Benjamin, in turn, tried to assure the students that Biden’s appearance at their graduation would focus on celebrating their accomplishments and his hopes for their futures.

The previously unreported details of the meeting highlight the challenge college commencement season has become for Biden and other top administration officials as protests against Israel’s war in Gaza have taken shape on campuses across the country. Biden is scheduled to deliver two commencement addresses — one at Morehouse College on Sunday and another at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on May 25.

The president’s Morehouse visit comes as his re-election campaign is trying to win over young and Black voters, particularly in battleground states like Georgia, as polling shows his support from those constituencies has softened since 2020.

Nine students and faculty members attended the meeting, which the Morehouse official said was scheduled for 90 minutes but lasted more than two hours. The official said the group represented a range of views on the college’s decision to have Biden deliver its 2024 commencement address — from those who are looking forward to Biden’s address to others who have concerns or oppose the decision. The official called it “a fair representation of all voices and opinions.”

“Everyone was given the freedom to speak to exactly the way they feel,” the Morehouse official said.

The New York Times first reported that Friday’s meeting took place.

Since Morehouse College announced last month that Biden would deliver its commencement address, some students and faculty members have raised concerns and apprehension about Biden delivering the address, though the school has not seen the large protests that have played out on other college campuses.

The Morehouse official said Friday’s meeting was scheduled before the commencement speaker announcement in anticipation of the backlash from some students and faculty members.

Both the White House and Morehouse officials characterized Friday’s meeting as productive.

The White House official said Benjamin spoke to the group about the work the Biden administration believes it has done to benefit college students and Black communities around the country.

The official said Benjamin brought students’ thoughts back to the White House, though conceded it was unclear if the meeting had changed any of the participants’ minds. Morehouse declined to share the names of any of the attendees.

Aaron Gilchrist reported from Washington, and Nnamdi Egwuonwu from Atlanta.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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