Each year at this time, thousands and thousands of young people across our country are readying themselves for one of life’s major passages: graduation from college. Two-year or four-year, public or private, our nation’s institutions of higher education have, once again, provided a learning experience which has profoundly changed the outlook of and prospects for our nation’s students. These graduates leave their alma maters more confident, more poised and more knowledgeable. They appear ready to undertake new challenges and new opportunities, to advance their education or to join the world of work. Most have the maturity necessary to move forward with clarity of purpose and, hopefully, the self-awareness required for personal growth and advancement. They appear, by and large, to be ready to fulfill their own unique potential.
In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, the American journalist, Charles Blow, reflecting on his upcoming commencement remarks for his alma mater, Grambling State University, described a number of challenges facing today’s graduates: among them, increased competition from ever larger numbers of college graduates; huge debt loads coupled, often, with dim job prospects; modest income growth in the country even as the cost of basic goods has risen; and, perhaps of most concern, the fact that “... our politics have become polarized to the point of paralysis.”
Not only are our political processes often paralyzed, but in many areas of government, there is increasing evidence of unethical behavior and outright corruption. Reports of criminal misconduct by members of state legislatures and the executive branch continue to increase. Across the nation and right here in New York State, there are examples of elected officials being convicted of fraud, of bribery – just this week a former leader of the New York State Senate was charged with embezzlement, obstruction of justice and making false statements to the FBI. Certainly, innocent until proven guilty, the fact remains that our nation’s young people are being bombarded daily with stories regarding criminal activity and dysfunction in our political system.
We cannot afford to alienate our young people at the very time when their innate optimism is most needed. As stated by Mr. Blow, “… this is a generation of people … who see this country, and the world, differently than we older folks do. Theirs is an America waiting to be made better, not one that is simply, and irreversibly, getting worse.” We must do all in our power to ensure that a significant number of these talented, optimistic and thoughtful graduates see public service and elected office as an effective and respectable approach to keeping their America moving forward - to, indeed, making it better.
Commencement speakers across the country will exhort this year’s graduates to contribute, to be involved, to care. And, yet, these exhortations will ring hollow unless we “older folks” also commit ourselves anew to contribute, to be involved and to care – to state forcibly and often that we will not accept the personal misconduct and debilitating polarization which threaten our nation’s many governing bodies. Such a commitment will, more than anything else, lay a firm foundation for the truly remarkable contributions our graduates are capable of.
Congratulations and godspeed to you all.
Dr. Karen Hitchcock, Special Advisor in the consulting firm, Park Strategies, LLC, was President of the University at Albany, State University of New York, from 1996-2004, after which she went on to lead Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Hitchcock has received honorary degrees from Albany Medical College and from her alma mater, St. Lawrence University. She has served on numerous regional and national committees and task forces dealing with issues in higher education, research and economic development. While at both the University at Albany and Queen’s University, she co-hosted the popular WAMC program, “The Best of our Knowledge”.
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