Valerie Jarrett looks to ‘next chapter’ at NEIU commencement

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Valerie Jarrett, former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, delivers the commencement address for Northeastern Illinois University’s graduation ceremony at the UIC Pavilion on May 8. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Likening herself to the Northeastern Illinois University graduates she was addressing on Monday afternoon, Valerie Jarrett said she is still figuring out her plans after eight years as President Barack Obama’s closest adviser.

“We are both embarking on our next chapter, and that inevitably brings out a range of emotions,” she said before about 900 graduates at UIC Pavilion. “I’m sure right about now you’re feeling some combination of exhaustion, fear and exhilaration.

“And I get it, because after eight years in Washington, believe me — I have very similar mixed emotions. For different reasons,” Jarrett quipped.

Jarrett, who wore a black robe and stood out as the only person on stage without a mortarboard, said that she has enjoyed getting regular sleep, seeing loved ones more often and reading more books for fun.

“And I’ve been watching a backlog of TV programs. Three of my favorite programs — ‘Scandal,’ ‘House of Cards’ and ‘Veep’ — no longer seem so far-fetched,” she said in one of several apparent jabs at the new administration, though she did not address President Donald Trump directly.

She did, however, recount her time alongside Barack and Michelle Obama, much to the crowd’s pleasure. Jarrett was the longest-tenured adviser to serve any president.

“I loved my boss, President Obama, and his first lady,” she said to raucous applause. “And I have respected them for as long as many of you have been on this earth. Twenty-six years ago this summer I met them.

“I believed in his guidance and his moral compass, and I believed in his vision for this country,” Jarrett said.

She touted the administration’s success in lowering the poverty and unemployment rates despite entering office in the wake of 2008’s financial crisis, but expressed disappointment at what she called the “painful toxicity” of partisan bickering in Washington.

“I believe a country as large and diverse as ours must have a willingness to compromise, and it cannot be ‘My way or the highway,’ ” she said.

During the 25 minute speech, Jarrett encouraged graduates to “listen most closely to those with whom you disagree” and to follow their “true north” in terms of their dreams.

She also encouraged them to pursue careers in public service, dropping the names of NEIU alumni including U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis.

“My hope is that they inspire you to follow in their footsteps,” Jarrett said.

The university’s arrangement with Jarrett came under fire last month when the Chicago Sun-Times reported that she had accepted a $30,000 speaking fee from the cash-strapped Northwest Side school, which had slashed three days off the end of this school year and imposed unpaid furlough days on faculty and staff to close a massive spending gap.

The school, which has handed out five-figure fees for commencement speakers every year since 2013, announced that an anonymous donor had stepped forward to cover Jarrett’s fee after the Sun-Times report.

She ended up returning $28,500 to the school, keeping $1,500 for travel expenses.

The school has blamed its financial issues on the state’s historic budget impasse, a political issue that interim NEIU president Richard Helldobler briefly mentioned in his speech at the ceremony.

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