Nikki Haley urges a focus on similarities over differences during Fall Convocation address

Nikki Haley, former South Carolina governor and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, offered remarks during Fall Convocation in what was the first in the university's 2019-20 Speaker Series.


Drawing from her experiences growing up a minority in South Carolina, a state she would later lead as governor, Nikki Haley said she learned to focus on the similarities between people, not the differences. It was a lesson she said she would later lean upon as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations as she looked to find common ground while promoting the country’s values and interests.

Nikki Haley is the first in the 2019-20 Speaker Series.

“That lesson I learned on the playground has literally played out throughout my life,” Haley told the crowd that filled the Schar Center Friday during Fall Convocation. “When you are faced with a challenge, if you first discuss what you have in common, and then get to the challenges, everyone lets their guard down and then you can have a discussion.”

Haley offered remarks followed by a question-and-answer session with Dr. Aldona Wos, the former U.S. ambassador to Estonia, during the first event in Elon University’s 2019-20 Speaker Series. The theme running throughout the series is the quest for truth, an idea that Haley zeroed in on during the close of her discussion with Wos.

“With freedom of expression, especially on college campuses, instead of yelling at each other for being wrong, ask them why they think the way they do, and have that conversation,” Haley said. “You will become a smarter, more intelligent person when you understand both sides of an argument and when you respect it.”

Haley’s remarks were routinely met with applause by the thousands who attended Fall Convocation, which fell on the opening day of the annual Family Weekend celebration. A former member of the administration of President Donald Trump, Haley stepped down as ambassador at the end of 2018, and has enjoyed high approval ratings not just from those in her own Republican Party, but also Democrats and independents.

A native of Bamberg, S.C., a town of little more than 3,000 residents, and the daughter of Indian immigrants, Haley would go on to become the first woman and the first minority to be elected governor of the state in 2010. A year after her re-election in 2014, she would guide the state through the aftermath of the fatal shooting by a white supremacist of nine in a Charleston church, pushing for the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the S.C. State House.

During her brief visit to campus, Haley talked with about a dozen political science students.

After President Donald Trump’s election in 2016, Haley was considered for the role of U.S. Secretary of State before removing herself from contention. However, she would later be selected to serve as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations after ensuring that in the role she would be a member of the president’s cabinet, serve on the National Security Council, and be able to speak her mind.

After arriving on Elon’s campus before Fall Convocation, Haley took the time to meet with a group of about a dozen political science students to offer a few words of advice, and field a few questions. “Learn how to push through the fear,” Haley told the students, a message she would later echo in her remarks to the crowd. “If you don’t push through that fear, you’ll never learn what might have been.”

Gabrielle Cifelli ’20, public relations chair for the College Republicans, was among the group, and she shared with Haley a copy of a column that appeared this week in the student-run The Pendulum newspaper. In the column, Cifelli commented on Haley’s impending visit, noting how much she admired Haley for being willing to challenge the misperceptions people may have about women and about Republicans.

Learn how to push through the fear. If you don’t push through that fear, you’ll never learn what might have been.

Nikki Haley

Haley told Cifelli that she had already read the column before her visit, and signed the column, noting in her scribbled message that she was proud of Cifelli. “Nikki Haley is proud of me,” Cifelli said after Haley had left the room. “That definitely a confidence booster.”

After taking the podium, Haley was quick to bring up Elon’s latest rankings by U.S. News & World Report, which for the first time this year ranked Elon as a national university and placed Elon at #84 in the country, with a #2 ranking in undergraduate teaching and was recognized for excellence in eight high-impact academic practices that lead to student success, the only school in the country to have that designation.

“You guys are crushing it in the U.S. News & World Report college rankings,” Haley said to applause. “Elon is growing and thriving. You have set ambitious goals and you’re achieving them. You should be very proud.”

President Connie Ledoux Book talking with Nikki Haley during Fall Convocation

Haley’s remarks in Schar Center centered largely on her service as U.N. ambassador, a time during which she says she challenged oppressive regimes, stood up for American values and was willing to lobby to human rights, though some at times were critical of her stances. “My travel took me to places most Americans will never see,” she said. “I sat across the table from representatives of the world’s worst regimes. What I saw shaped me as a leader. It taught me things about America. It made most arguments on Twitter these days seem very small.”

Seeing the actions that some governments take against their own citizens who were standing up for basic human rights made her appreciate the freedom that this country offers, Haley said. That freedom and this country’s values are among “our most powerful foreign policy tools,” she said.

Lauryn Adams, president of the Class of 2022, offering a welcome during Fall Convocation

“The reality is that human rights abuses are a leading cause of conflict, the kind of conflicts that spill over borders and engulf entire regions,” Haley said.

Look no further than the roots of the civil war in Syria, the protests of the Arab Spring or other examples of small acts of protest against mistreatment that bring conflicts to a head and raise awareness about abuses, she said. Haley expressed her optimism about the younger generation to promote and protect those rights.

“I’m optimistic about your generation’s ability to do the right thing, to be advocates for the rights we have, not by virtue of what country you were born in, but by virtue of our humanity,” Haley said. “We must always strive to be a better people and a more perfect human, but in the end, there is one truth about our country, and I believe it with all my heart — even on our worst day, we are blessed to be in America.”

Schar Center was nearly filled for Fall Convocation

During the question-and-answer session, Haley fielded questions submitted by Elon students that probed her thoughts on the countries she faced off with at the United Nations, the policy positions she staked out, and future threats the country may face, such as cybersecurity. “When you look at cyber threats especially, it’s a very cheap weapon of war, so you will see it used much more often,” Haley said. “But I personally think that we shouldn’t be looking at the government to do this. We should pull from the private sector.”

Asked about negotiating with Russia and what threat that country may pose, Haley cautioned that the country will never be a friend of the United States. “What they do is they go into areas and they cause chaos,” Haley said. “That way, they suddenly become a player. … That doesn’t mean we don’t talk to them, but it means we keep them at arm’s length, and we keep an eye on them.”

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As she closed her remarks, Haley responded to a question about the freedom of expression, and referred to Cifelli’s column, noting the challenge one can face in voicing their own thoughts that some may disagree with.

“The part we have to remember about freedom of expression is — you don’t have to agree with it, but we are blessed to be in a country where you can say it, and you have the right to say it, even if you are standing alone,” Haley said. “Sometimes standing alone is hard, but sometimes there are 10 other people who are quiet that are waiting to hear someone else say it.”

Fall Convocation also presented an opportunity to recognize the contributions to the university by Bill and Pat Inman, parents of a member of the Class of 2000 who have been steadfast supporters of the university. President Connie Ledoux Book presented the Inmans with the Elon Medallion, the university’s highest honor.

View Haley’s prepared remarks in their entirety here and the question-and-answer session here.