Don't take this national asset for granted



As ordered, the thunderheads broke up at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, May 26, 1991, and the sun bore down on 5,800 about-to-be graduates of Cornell University. In they marched to Schoellkopf Field -- each group preceded by a colorful banner proclaiming their membership in the school of engineering, arts and sciences, architecture, business, hotel administration and so on.

Unless we attend one of these affairs, we take such scenes for granted. And when we attend, we seldom reflect on anything beyond our graduating Sarah or Sam. That's a mistake. Here are a few thoughts on Cornell's 123rd commencement.

* Hail the university. Have no doubt, our universities and colleges are our No. 1 relative competitive strength. That's right, number one. You can debate about the openness of this market or that forever without reaching agreement. But almost no one disagrees about America's awesome higher education advantage.

Are our universities too bureaucratic? Of course, by a long shot. Is undergraduate teaching up to snuff? Certainly not. But taking all flaws into consideration diminishes neither the top-of-the-line excellence in U.S. universities (the Cornells, Stanfords, Berkeleys, Michigans, MITs) nor the depth exemplified by thousands of superb, unsung schools.

To take this precious national resource for granted is a tragedy. In other words, when the alumni arm-twisters come a-twisting, give. Give money and, more important, give time. Talk up the university system to any politician you can find. Our K-12 system cries out for our attention. Our university system merits ringing applause -- and continued, vigorous support.

* There were a lot of Chens. At the Cornell commencement, thenew Ph.D.s included numerous Chens, Huangs and even a Zaghw. Three hearty cheers! What recognition of our universities' prowess: Everyone, from everywhere, wants in. And are the disproportionate beneficiaries. I can passionately make the case for Dr. Raj returning home to serve India. But I'm also selfishly glad to have him and his countrymen stay by the thousand in Silicon Valley.

* The university is real. At a government department affair following commencement, Professor Theodore Lowi surprised students by pooh-poohing the idea that now they were headed for "the real world." The university is the real world, he insisted. I agree! The "knowledge society" is here -- from the practice of law to the design of semiconductors. We've never been so dependent upon universities to be flag bearers for our economy.

* The college store as market microcosm. As a Cornell grad, I took this occasion to stock up on memorabilia. What a headache -- by my count, over 350 versions of Cornell-emblazoned sweat shirts, T-shirts, shorts, sweat pants and even underwear crammed the shelves of two campus "souvenir" stores. There was even a variety of duds for "Dad [Mom] of the Class of 1991 Grad." What a far cry from the gray Cornell sweats that stood almost alone 25 years ago!

* Books and rebellion. On any campus, I make a beeline for the university bookstore. This trip I picked up Cornell Professor Steven Shiffrin's new book, "The First Amendment, Democracy, and Romance." Shiffrin contends that the narrow debate over the propriety of Robert Mapplethorpe's photos is not the most important strain of First Amendment issues. He sees the First Amendment as the key to Americanism, meant to spur nothing less than dissent, unorthodoxy and even rebelliousness. Amen.Shiffrin offers a welcome reminder of the diversity and dissent that makes us special, and the vociferous disagreement about everything that makes our universities so potent.

* Love. In his commencement address, Cornell President Frank Rhodes told the initiates into America's credentialed elite that our commitment, our passion, our love for one another is what matters. I don't know if he stirred the students sweltering in the unseasonable heat and humidity, but he got me, and I think a lot of other parents.

* Giving back. President Rhodes also honored a couple of retiring trustees, including my fraternity brother, Ken Blanchard -- yes, the One-Minute Manager. If Norman Schwartzkopf deserved a knighthood from the Queen, Blanchard deserved long applause from Rhodes and the rest of us. He gladly gave thousands of hours as a trustee; and he coughed up a million bucks to fund an endowed chair.

* Time flies. Blanchard's contribution, those 1991 grads, and my own matriculation 31 years ago were cause for reflection. When I give commencement talks, I challenge new grads to "be interesting." You "owe us the favor not of success, or wealth, but of daring to be bold." So, 31 years later, have I been bold? Have I honored the investment made by my parents, my teachers, my university?

I can't answer that. But I will ask one more question: Have you honored our universities this year with your support -- or criticism? Both count.

If you haven't, you've turned your back on a vital national asset. Please don't take our universities for granted. No one outside the U.S. does.

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