A Call to Public Service for Bloustein Graduates

May 19, 2011

Last weekend, Dodge President and CEO Chris Daggett was the commencement speaker for the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. We thought you would like to read his inspiring words to Bloustein graduates on the importance of public service:

Remarks by Christopher J. Daggett

Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

May 15, 2011

Chris Daggett giving Bloustein School commencement speechGood afternoon Dean Hughes, distinguished members of the faculty and staff, graduates, families and friends. I am truly honored and delighted to be with you today as you celebrate this milestone in your lives.

I am reminded of a quip from former Governor Mario Cuomo, father of New York’s current governor. He said, “Commencement speakers should think of themselves as the body at an old-fashioned Irish wake. They need you in order to have the party, but nobody expects you to say very much.”

That’s a lesson I’ll try to remember today.

First, you can be proud of your association with the Bloustein School. Your dean, Jim Hughes, is a legend in Trenton. When he lays out to the Legislature the state’s financial picture for the upcoming year, the members hang on every word.

The Bloustein School – its centers and affiliated institutes — lead the way in so many areas – transportation, housing, public health, energy, workforce development, the environment, and on and on.

Your faculty members receive countless honors and awards. And earlier this month, a national journal ranked Rutgers third in the nation among Graduate Urban Planning Programs. Congratulations to you all.

I’d also like to recognize the people who helped make today’s event possible — all the deans, advisors, faculty and staff who supported you throughout your program, and who guided you through the sometimes confusing maze of academia.

Graduations are a time of reflection – a brief and well-earned pause to look back so that you can then move forward. And in doing so here today, I want to make one key point: Public service is a high calling, worthy of the best and brightest of our students and citizens. Again, public service is a high calling, worthy of the best and brightest of our students and citizens.

A half century ago this year, President John F. Kennedy gave his stirring inaugural address, in which he put forth a call to public service. On that day, he inspired millions to consider serving their country – and many responded by entering the Peace Corps, VISTA, social service agencies, teaching, and the military.

How times have changed. Fifty years later, public service is regarded in too many circles as a dirty word. Just listen to the angry and demonizing rhetoric around the urgent need to rein in government pension and health care benefits — where government workers and teachers are cast as greedy people living off the public dole.

Or, remember how President Obama was castigated as a “community organizer”.

Or, listen to the words of a person I met with last week, who, in response to a high school student in Newark expressing his enthusiasm to become a politician, asked: “Why on earth would you want to do that? Politics is no career for any decent person….”

I heartily disagreed with that opinion – and quickly told the young man to go for it. To paraphrase my old boss, former Governor Tom Kean, “public service is a public calling.” We need more bright young people – and people of all ages — to follow his words and example and to take up the call, as you have done by choosing the Bloustein School.

So how did we get to this point? There’s no denying that some of this disdain was brought upon us by the misdeeds of some who held the public trust – those who enriched themselves while impoverishing their communities. Yes, the leaders of a number of public employee unions have been too hard-nosed in their unwillingness to consider the changes in contracts necessary to help solve the fiscal woes of our state and our nation. And too often, governors and legislatures have treated the state treasury as their own election-year piggy bank to hand out benefits and pork to buy the support of key constituencies.

But the vast majority of people that I have met in politics and government went into it for the right reasons – to serve, to make a difference, to share their talents with others, to lead a fulfilling life. They are the vast majority of public servants – the unsung heroes in the arena.

Daggett commencement speech quote

So, beyond the anger toward a small minority of self-serving individuals, why is there such a general distaste for the field of public service? Certainly the tenor of public discourse has been a real factor. Our poisonous political climate – in Washington, D.C., in the media, and in state capitals across the country – mistakes demeaning your opponents for reasoned discourse.

The non-stop 24-hour news cycle needs to be fed with controversy. There is a “with us or against us” mentality on both sides of the political aisle that leaves the majority of us – who are moderate in the best sense of the word – with no place to turn. Governor Kean once said that he was a middle-of-the-roader because the filth runs down the gutters on both sides of the street. Today, all too often, it seems that there is no middle of the road in the American political debate.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt studies the moral values that form the basis of our political choices. Responding to recent research in moral and political psychology, Haidt and his associates at CivilPolitics.org have said this about the state of political discourse:

“…when disagreements activate the psychology of good-versus-evil[,] [c]ompromise becomes far more difficult; reasoning becomes far less responsive to facts; and combatants begin to believe that the ends justify the means. When that happens, partisans are more willing to break laws, play dirty tricks, lie, and ruin the personal lives of their opponents — all in the service of what they think is a good cause. Good people are discouraged from entering politics. Good public servants are driven out of public service.”

I am increasingly concerned by the high level of apathy and distrust that many citizens have toward government. Too many Americans are discouraged by the poisonous political climate today – by the angry rhetoric, vicious personal attacks, and uncompromising ideologies. They are embarrassed by the “made for YouTube”, in-your-face rhetoric, that turns town hall meetings into shouting matches more suitable for the Jerry Springer show or a WWF wrestling match.

Their response has been to tune out, turn the volume down, and take a break from, or, worse, quit altogether, active citizenship.

We must move beyond the politics of anger, blame, personal attacks, demonization and public scorn. It is time to push back against this tide and create conditions for civil dialogue and civic action. It was this belief that led me to run as an Independent candidate in New Jersey’s 2009 gubernatorial election, and it is the reason I entered the philanthropic sector. It is also what inspired me in my years of public service.

Today, I ask you to do the same thing. You stand on the threshold of public service. You represent the best with conviction. Your passionate belief in a better life for yourselves and for your fellow citizens has carried you through the hard work to your graduation today, and it fuels tomorrow, when you begin, or continue, your life in public service and join the alumni of the Bloustein School, — a school described in its mission as being “committed to a rebirth of the public service ethic in the United States.”

No one is better poised to lead than you are, right at this moment. Whether you are receiving your Masters in City and Regional Planning, City and Regional Studies, Public Policy, or Public Affairs and Politics, or your Doctor of Philosophy in Planning and Public Policy, you have spent countless hours looking at and studying the facts – not the fiction – of issues.

Dee Hock, the founder of VISA, said, “It is far too late and things are far too bad for pessimism.” In America today, the economy is mired in what Dean Hughes and others have called the “New Normal,” a jobless recovery that leaves far too many people unemployed or underemployed. The healthcare debate rages ever on, and our environmental issues defy easy resolution. These are indeed difficult days.

But these are your days. This is your time.

You have had solid preparation to confront these issues of the future. And it’s a good thing, because as you go forward in the world, you will need that training more and more in our increasingly complex and interconnected world.

It will be up to you transform the culture of anger and vitriol into a culture of service and collaboration. This may seem groundbreaking, but the threads of cooperation and moral humility are ancient. It is what gives authority to the Dalai Lama, who is speaking in Newark this weekend. And it is reflected in the words of the Buddhist Zen Master, Sent-ts’an, who in the 8th Century said:

“If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between “for” and “against” is the mind’s worst disease.”

This doesn’t mean you can’t set out to change the world. But, it does mean that you need to pay attention to process and how you engage people in conversation about change. If we take the time to understand where people come from, what their experience is, and why and how they have formed their perspective, we can create the conditions for civil and civic discourse, engagement and action.

This is what you have been taught and what you have learned so well here at Bloustein. I hope you will use this knowledge to raise America’s regard for public service and to forge new pathways for action, just as President Kennedy did 50 years ago.

Your voices matter. You can reframe how the “public commons” functions. You can build community and consensus. You can take advantage of the new forms of social networking – Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn and many more, to collaborate and to change our political climate. You can awaken those who are sleeping. You can serve a larger purpose than partisan or personal victories. You can recognize and embrace diversity. You can improve our democracy.

The essence of democracy is based on understanding different experiences and perspectives and then building consensus. It is only by making this crucial shift – from tearing down others to understanding differences and creating civic and civil discourse – that we can get on with the vital work of exchanging ideas, redesigning existing systems, inventing new ones, and finding creative solutions to our nation’s very real and urgent problems.

You are the leaders of the future – and many of you have been leading for years. As graduate students, you are not in the same boat as most undergraduates, who are starting out in the world for the first time. For some of you even, this is a second act. You have experience and hard-won wisdom under your belts.

By setting an example of excellence, which you learned so well here at Bloustein, you will raise America’s regard for public service, just as President Kennedy did all those years ago.

So, accept this challenge, this call to action. Enter public service and act on your highest ideals. You can change the world, starting right here.

Thank you very much.

Image: Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy

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