‘Never did I think he would become President’

How SU law graduate Joe Biden became U.S. President

Ahead of Wednesday's inauguration, learn how Syracuse College of Law graduate Joe Biden became the university’s most notable alumnus.
Published: January 18, 2021 | Updated: January 22nd, 2021 at 1:45 pm
President Joe Biden will be Syracuse University's most famous alumnus. Biden graduated from SU's College of Law.

Joe Biden loves commencement speeches.

In his four decades of public service, there’s been Harvard, Colby College, Columbia and a handful at his alma maters, including Syracuse University’s 2009 graduation ceremony and four SU Law School convocations in the last 15 years.

In 2017, the former Vice President spoke to thousands decked in caps and gowns from another central New York school.

“I have loved Cornell,” Biden said. “Cornell is one of the great, great universities in the world. And I want you to know that there are three great ones — they’re all land grant schools — MIT, Cornell and Delaware.”

The crowd of graduates and their family members laughed along at Biden’s nod to including his first alma mater, the University of Delaware, with the more prestigious schools. Then, he brought up the other school 50 miles north on Interstate 81.

“I almost came here for [Cornell] law school, but I couldn’t get enough financial aid,” Biden said. “Y’all think I’m kidding. I’m not. Part of that was I barely got in. So I ended up going to Syracuse University.”

“Everybody thinks I went because they gave me a full scholarship, which they did,” he continued. “That’s not the reason. I went to Syracuse because they get more snow than you get here off the lake.”

While Biden may have joked about his choice of law schools simply boiling down to snowfall totals, the now President-elect’s relationship with Syracuse is complicated. Unlike Delaware, where he received his bachelor’s in history and political science and has chaired the Biden Institute at the university’s School of Public Policy and Administration since 2016, Biden’s most public moments of his time at SU are linked to some of the lowest points of his life.

Biden and his first wife, Neilia, studied together at SU between 1966 and 1968 and forged the bulk of their memories in central New York before her tragic death in 1972. A plagiarism scandal made its way above the fold of The New York Times’ front page more than 20 years after he graduated from Syracuse and derailed his first presidential campaign in the late 1980s. And despite graduating from SU Law School more than half a century ago, Biden’s class rank — 76th out of 85 students in 1968 — has also been used against him to denigrate his intelligence, even in his latest presidential election.

Still, Biden has said that he looks back on his time at Syracuse fondly. It’s where he got married and bought his first home. His son, the late Beau Biden, followed in his father’s footsteps as an SU Law School graduate in 1994. Over the years, Biden has also supported the Orange men’s basketball team in the Final Four, name-dropped SU on occasion and has, of course, come back to speak for major events.

“We are indebted to Syracuse,” Biden said about his family and SU in 2016. “Not only for the support, but for the affection.”

‘College can make a difference’

Biden’s first introduction to central New York came from Neilia. She was from Skaneateles  — 30 minutes away from Syracuse — and a senior at SU while Biden was still at Delaware as an undergrad. They met in the Bahamas while both were on spring break trips.

In his autobiography entitled Promises to Keep, Biden recalled telling Neilia that he would marry her after their first couple of days together. His next step was getting into a law school nearby, as Neilia began teaching at a local Syracuse middle school herself. But his first year wasn’t as smooth as one may expect for a future U.S. president.

Biden said he failed his contract law course and almost flunked another in property law if it wasn’t for his professor dying mid-semester. He wasn’t sure if he bought all the required textbooks for his courses. Biden even referred to himself as a “less-than-frequent visitor” to his classes. “Law school was like college,” he wrote in 2007. “All I had to do was get through to graduation, and I could get moving on to real life.”

Richard Dietrich, a 1966 graduate of Colgate, was one year behind Biden when they were both at SU Law School. The two had overlapping friend groups, according to his daughter Alexa Dietrich. As Biden’s political career would extend throughout the next couple of decades all the way to presidential aspirations, Richard, who wasn’t a Democrat, thought back to what Biden was like in law school.

“(Richard) always commented that if Biden became the nominee he would have to consider voting for him, because he was known to be such a ‘good guy,’” Alexa Dietrich said in an email interview. “In spite of not agreeing with him on certain policy issues, he believed Biden would always be fair, and that he was fundamentally decent and that that would be of great value in a president.”

In 1986, then-U.S. Senator Joe Biden penned a story about the
In 1986, Delaware Senator Joe Biden penned a story about the "ideological purity" test of appointment to the federal judiciary for a SU Law School publication.

As more campaigns cycled through the news since his 1968 graduation, other classmates have shared similar sentiments. Legendary Hall of Fame SU running back Floyd Little talked highly of Biden when they both went to law school together and the President-elect referred to Little as his “dear friend” after Little’s recent death

Edward Moses, an attorney in Onondaga County, recalled in 2009 that Biden would often “befriend a lot of kids who were outcasts.” Both Biden and Neilia were both residential advisors to pay for room and board, which meant they spent time with undergrads. In his book, Biden recalled mentoring a freshman named Bruce Balmuth by trying to build up his confidence, like teaching him to beat his stutter in front of a mirror. 

“He did what he could to help them,” Moses said to Syracuse.com. “He’s a compassionate person.”

Biden’s first semester in law school was rocky, but his grades went up as he started to pay attention to school and politics more than he did before.

In the 1960s, especially the early 1960s, most American college students came from a fairly homogeneous background without a great deal of political activism or awareness of inequities and injustices,” said higher education and public policy historian John Thelin. “But, college can make a difference. I think it did on Joe Biden.”

By the end of his two years, Biden read off his letter of recommendations from professors, one of which said, “Mr. Biden was a late bloomer, but in his last year has shown great promise.

Commencement 2016 COL College of Law Vice President Joseph Joe Biden Speaker
Nearing the end of his time as Vice President, Biden spoke at SU Law School's 2016 convocation.

With his soon-to-be wife teaching in the Syracuse city schools, Biden began contemplating his own ambitions locally. During law school, he lived at 608 Stinard Ave. in the Strathmore neighborhood. 

“I figured it was prudent to get to know the political landscape in upstate New York in case Neilia really wanted to stay home,” Biden wrote in 2007.

Not long after Biden and Neilia were married on Aug. 27 1966, Biden’s father helped him purchase a Corvette — a car Neilia often made fun of him for. The two also adopted a dog, which they named, fittingly, “Senator” and moved to Wilmington to start their married life together.  

Four years later, Biden would run for the U.S. Senate in Delaware with Neilia playing a crucial role on the campaign trail. But in December after his successful election, Neilia and their infant daughter Naomi were killed in a car crash.

“Sometimes it just overwhelms me,” Biden said about Neilia and Naomi during a SU Law School convocation speech in 2009. “When you get (to Syracuse), it’s almost impossible not to feel it.”

The times Biden has returned

Being a U.S. Senator comes with acclaim, but Biden became one of SU’s most notable alumni when he was elected to the second-highest office in the United States. Colin Fanning, a 2009 VPA graduate, remembered the campus’s excitement around Barack Obama’s victory more so than Biden’s seat as vice president. 

“Just personally, it wasn’t so much that, ‘Wow, there’s an SU alum at the White House,’ as there was a kinda broader feeling of this feels like a new sort of political moment,” Fanning said.

Biden’s role running the country’s affairs meant he would return to Syracuse more than before as one of its most high-profile visitors.

Just before the 2008 election, then-first-year law student Archana Prasanna remembered looking out a window in the law school and seeing a group of black cars roll up to the building. When she got word about the unannounced Biden visit, Prasanna got really excited because she recalled having conversations with classmates about him and seeing his yearbook photo in one of the law school’s hallways.

The visit was short but came as a surprise, Prasanna said as she thought back to the crowd that surrounded Biden and how he went around shaking student’s hands.

Vice President Joe Biden Visit & Meeting On Middle Class Working Families
Joe Biden meets with law students and alumni during a 2015 visit on middle class working families.

“I remember being proud that he could potentially become Vice President,” Prasanna said. “Never did I think he would become president.”

Between 2008 and 2016, Biden has spoken more on campus, including several SU Law School convocations.

A little over five years ago, Biden spoke at Schine Student Center as part of the It’s On Us Week of Action to end sexual assault on college campuses alongside Chancellor Kent Syverud, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. John Katko (R-NY). In the speech, Biden talked about victim blaming, consent and changing cultural norms around sexual assault.

In 2009, Biden headlined Syracuse University’s commencement. Fanning, a senior and University Scholar at the time, auditioned to speak before the Vice President — one of five scholars to try out for the role. Fanning’s speech was just 763 words, but he wanted to do something different. The speech centered on one word: play.

“It’s a shame, really, how we lose hold of our ability to play — I don’t mean just Monopoly or Mario Kart, but the idea of play as a state of being,” Fanning said in his 2009 speech. “A mindset that allows us to become our most creative, joyful selves.”

His intention was to “flip the script” of what a college commencement speech usually sounds like, he said.

After officially being named the commencement’s student speaker — the last person to speak before the Vice President — Fanning distinctly remembered one rehearsal where he was warned by a member of security to immediately leave the stage after finishing. In short, he shouldn’t interact with Biden at all.

When that day came, Fanning walked onto the stage and began shaking, as one does talking into a microphone in front of 30,000 people. Ironically, he originally signed up for the speech because of his fear of public speaking. When it was all over, Fanning was surprised how much his words resonated with others.

As he exited the stage, Biden quickly approached him, reaching out his hand to Fanning.

“That was a very odd moment,” Fanning said. “I had explicit instructions not to interact with the Vice President, but also I’m not gonna not shake his hand. Like there’s no universe in which I’m not going to do that.”

“I didn’t get tackled by security or anything,” he jokingly added.

Joe Biden spoke at Syracuse University on Nov. 12, 2015, as part of the It's On Us campaign to promote an end to sexual assaults on college campuses.

While The Daily Orange noted Fanning’s speech was a “difficult act to follow,” Biden took the opportunity to share some of his favorite moments.

Biden’s address mentioned some of his favorite SU moments — from watching Little shine as a running back at Archbold Stadium to quoting Frank Sinatra about how great the color “orange” is. Intertwined was political rhetoric: Biden argued against the continuation of the Iraq War and defended certain decisions of Obama’s administration.

To close his speech, Biden did something that even shocked Fanning. He borrowed his final sentiments from the soon-to-be SU graduate: “‘Now go enjoy yourselves. Play.’”

“It felt sort of affirming to know that he had actually been listening,” Fanning said. “He wasn’t just there to just get up and read from a script and go home.

“He was there and he was present and he was part of the event.”

A quest to be US president — and how Syracuse made its way in

It was September 1987 when E.J. Dionne, a Washington Post and New York Times veteran political reporter, headed to Syracuse to investigate a college academic integrity incident about a Democratic presidential nominee. It would become the beginning of the end for Biden’s first run at being elected president.

Biden’s law school first came into play for the two-term Delaware senator in April of that year when a teacher from New Hampshire — a key state to pick up momentum in the early Democratic primaries — simply asked during a town hall: “What law school did you attend and where did you place in that class?”

“I think I have a much higher IQ than you, I suspect,” Biden snapped back at teacher Frank Fahey. “I would be delighted to sit down and compare my IQ to yours, Frank.”

Years later, Biden would apologize to Fahey’s face on the 2008 campaign trail, but the blunder held weight during his first presidential run. In 2019, The Post’s political fact-checker Glenn Kessler dubbed the interaction “Joe Biden’s worst-ever campaign moment.” The encounter would later foreshadow Biden’s insecurity with his academic standing as an SU student.

His 1988 campaign went down hill in the span of two weeks when Biden was accused of using phrases and mannerisms of a politician from the British Labour Party during the closing remarks of a September debate. Biden’s campaign centered on authenticity, and his integrity was coming into question. That’s when rumors of plagiarism at SU came into focus.

During a Senate hearing to nominate conservative Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, reporters like Dionne started digging for the story in central New York. Documents showed Biden had written a third of a 15-page law review article without quotation or citation. After pleading with professors, Biden re-took the course.

“The truth was, I hadn’t been to class enough to know how to do citations in a legal brief,” Biden wrote in Promises to Keep.

Biden released documentation of the records to the public and said in a statement, “If your decision is that I may not remain at Syracuse University College of Law, please allow me to resign, but don’t label me a cheat.”

The Judge:

When more plagiarism accusations and video of Fahey’s question were revealed days later, Biden dropped out of the race early.

Reflecting on the gaffes during his first campaign in Evan Osnos’s 2019 book about Biden’s political history, Biden simply said, “The bottom line was, I made a mistake, and it was born out of my arrogance.”

It would take two more runs and 33 years for Biden to become president at 78 years old. On the day when cable news called his official victory, SU’s campus was filled with cheers and honking off Euclid Avenue. Some students were excited not only to see a new President but one who’d attended the same university as them.

Dietrich, a Syracuse native and research associate professor at Wagner College, noted that SU national reputation is not among the elite schools we associate with presidential figures. But for the United States’ 46th president, the university still represents some of the most impactful moments of Biden’s life — for better or for worse.

“The fact that both the President and Vice President-elect have very strong, but not stereotypically elite, educational backgrounds is something we should all feel good about, especially, but not exclusively, if you’re from Syracuse,” Dietrich said. “It’s good for democracy.”

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is a contributor to The NewsHouse.