Syracuse University Magazine

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Presidential Medal of Freedom with Distinction

Biden Honored for Service to Country

As President Barack Obama neared the conclusion of his two terms in the White House, he honored Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. L’68, H’09 with the Presidential Medal of Freedom with Distinction, recognizing his lifetime of service to the country and calling him “the finest vice president we have ever seen.”

The award—the nation’s highest civilian honor—was presented to Biden in a White House ceremony on January 12. The citation, read at the ceremony, said in part, “In a career of public service spanning nearly half a century, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has left his mark on almost every part of our nation, fighting for a stronger middle class, a fairer judicial system and a smarter foreign policy; providing unyielding support for our troops; combatting crime and violence against women; leading our quest to cure cancer; and safeguarding the landmark American Recovery and Reinvestment Act from corruption....”

Before becoming vice president in January 2009, Biden represented Delaware for 36 years in the U.S. Senate. First elected in 1972 at age 29, he built a reputation as one of the U.S. Senate’s most respected voices on foreign policy, civil liberties, and crime prevention, and for more than a dozen years apiece served as chair or ranking member of the Judiciary and the Foreign Relations committees.

Throughout his career, Biden has been an active Syracuse alumnus, giving keynote addresses at the College of Law Commencement (1994, 2002, and 2016) and serving as the University’s Commencement speaker in 2009, when he also was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. In November 2015, he visited campus as part of the It’s On Us campaign against sexual violence. His late son, Beau, was a 1994 graduate of the College of Law. 

He joins three other prominent alumni who have received the Presidential Medal of Freedom: Ruth Colvin ’59, H’84; the late William Safire ’51, H’78; and Donna Shalala G’70, H’87. “I congratulate Vice President Biden on receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom with Distinction, an honor that is truly deserved,” Chancellor Kent Syverud said. “Throughout his remarkable career in public service, he has been a stellar example of Syracuse University’s goal to educate and inspire students to make a difference. In every way, the vice president has been an enthusiastic and valued ambassador for Syracuse University. We are proud and deeply honored to call him one of our own.”

In honoring his vice president, Obama also called him a “lion of American history” and said, “The best part is he’s nowhere close to finished. In the years ahead, as a citizen, he will continue to build on that legacy, internationally and domestically. He’s got a voice of vision and reason and optimism, and a love for people. And we’re going to need that spirit and that vision as we continue to try to make our world safer and to make sure that everybody has got a fair shot in this country.”

True to those words, Biden is far from finished. He was named founding chair of the Biden Institute at the University of Delaware, his undergraduate alma mater, and accepted a professorship at the University of Pennsylvania, where he will lead the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, based in Washington, D.C. Also, shortly after he left office, Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, launched the Biden Foundation, a nonprofit that will build upon the causes he has championed throughout his lifetime. “We look forward to this new chapter where we will continue our work to ensure that everyone—no matter their income level, race, gender, age, or sexuality—is treated with dignity and gets a fair shot at achieving the American Dream,” they said in a statement. —From Staff Reports