Chatham University

Commencement Address

Alison R. Bernstein
2010 William and Camille Cosby Endowed Professor at Spelman College; and Vice President for the Education, Creativity and Free Expression Program, The Ford Foundation
May 23, 2010

“Why Public Service?”

President Barazzone, Chatham Trustees, Faculty, Parents, Family, Friends and especially graduating seniors, I am deeply honored to be here and accept with gratitude this honorary doctorate for public service.

I accept the doctorate with a healthy dose of humility and wonder. With the extraordinary exceptions of Bill Gates or John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie or Andrew Mellon, several of whom made their names and billions right here in Pennsylvania, it’s very rare that philanthropists get recognition for the work they do, except for these notables. And, these guys – and the big ones were mostly guys – deserve the real credit because they were the ones who made the money and then choose to give it away. I am just one of those lucky ones who get to help decide who should receive a grant.

Receiving a doctorate for public service is especially sweet since it’s the domain in which I have worked all my professional life. I am here to tell you, the graduating seniors, that it’s a very rewarding life… not in monetary terms – though that’s not a bad way to make money – but in terms of a life of meaning and purpose.

But before I describe why it’s so important to me that you consider a life of public service, let me back up a bit and tell you a few things about how I came to have a career in public service – here are two things that I think made a difference in my life early on.

  1. I am the only child of a public school teacher and one of the guys who wrote Superman and Batman comics. Imagine my childhood – voraciously reading comic books written by my dad but chastised for not choosing more enlightened literature by my mom. Both were right –– I needed to engage my imagination with Superman and Supergirl; but I also needed to acquire knowledge and insight from great books and great thinkers. So – think about it – I went from the Daily Planet and Gotham City to studying U.S. and world history wondering what happened to “truth, justice and the American way”? I am still wondering about the truth and justice part of the equation. As for the American way – let’s just say it’s about democratic values. And, I got an earful about those values from my politically progressive parents.

  2. When it came to choosing a college – I went straight to a place that I knew valued women. Little did I know that my class at Vassar was the last to graduate all women? To this day, I remain extremely grateful for the education I received there… it was an education that, like Chatham, challenged me to think for myself, to take risks, to explore fields like geology and religion that I would not have chosen without some guidance through the requirements of a liberal arts education. Finding a college singularly dedicated to the education of women was a distinct philanthropic phenomenon in the 19th century. It was also largely an American phenomenon. As the historian of higher education, Merle Curti, wrote, “the extension of college-level instruction which began slowly in the 19th century, and reached a climax in the 20 years following the civil war, was a strikingly creative achievement of American generosity… the foundation of colleges bearing the names of Vassar, Smith, Wellesley and Bryn Mawr resulted from the large donations by single individuals…”

Mostly men, but increasingly a few women with resources decided in the 19th century to ensure that women, who hadn’t even gotten the vote, were at least able to study and achieve that the same levels as men. I commend Chatham for holding true to the mission to educate women undergraduates -- as a women’s college you are preparing your students to challenge the status quo, especially around the unfinished business of achieving gender equity.

To summarize, the two factors that helped to set me on the course of my life’s work are parents who instructed me to care about social justice and a women’s college education. These factors got me a long way towards choosing public service as my career trajectory but there were some real limitations and problems with my worldview.

First of all, like most New Yorkers, I was a provincial. I had never lived west of the Hudson or south of the Delaware River. I had studied the history and culture of other parts of the world but never really lived there.

Second, I really didn’t take the time to know deeply the lives of others closer to home. I thought I was a knowledgeable New Yorker, but I didn’t have a clue about Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant or Staten Island. Apart from tutoring an inner-city child once a week, I did very little community service and never once stepped out of my “comfort zone.” It wasn’t until I began teaching in a trailer in a public community college that I realized how little I knew about U.S. history, let alone the U.S. present.

In the mid-1970s, I found myself as a ‘20-something’ working in the U.S. government. In 1980, when Reagan was elected, I left government service to live in central Illinois and work at state college. By the time I returned to New York, lured by a job at the Ford Foundation, I was hooked on a career of public service and a life different from what I had imagined.

So what are the pleasures and prospects of work in the public sector…. I can think of three:

  1. There used to be an old slogan – “join the navy and see the world.” Nowadays, no public servant can be really good at her job without a comparative gaze. Yes – the world has shrunk but still there are important differences in the ways societies think about social problem solving from health care to voting rights to the meaning of citizenship. A career in public service requires a less parochial mindset if you want to be effective. Your Chatham education involves more overseas study and comparative analysis than my education ever did. The trick, however, is to make sure that all students, including undergraduates with fewer financial resources, can take advantage of these opportunities to see the world.

  2. Working in the public sector as a public servant demands that you are not a buck passer. What you do and decide every day has consequences for real people. The old stereotype of government employees as “paper pushers” may persist in some places, but in this era of whistleblowers and watch dogs, you are personally expected to be accountable for your actions and decisions. This is true for social workers, teachers, park rangers and federal agency staff. Public service careers are no longer immune from public scrutiny and I think that’s a good thing. Hiding behind the rules just doesn’t cut it. So you have to be fully committed to defend your choices and actions.

  3. And finally, I have found that leading a life of public service has given me much more than I have given it. This life of service has turned out to be far more challenging than I expected in terms of knowing who I am and what I value. This is the dirty little secret about public service – it’s tough, challenging and not for intellectual sissies. You revisit your most closely held beliefs and what you thought you knew about human agency and what’s best for the common good. It’s never boring or impersonal. As a feminist, I used to say that the ‘person al is political’. Now I really mean it – a public service career has made that phrase come alive in ways I never expected.

So in closing, I want to challenge each of you graduating seniors to consider a life and career in public service not as a fallback position – not as a default or safety choice in this tough economy. Instead – consider it a first choice, an excellent choice – a choice worthy of you and your Chatham education.

To illustrate this point, let me remind you that one of your most famous alumni, Rachel Carson, who graduated in 1929 and had to drop out of Johns Hopkins in 1934 to support her family in an economic era even worse than our own, found her first job—albeit a part time one – in the public sector working for the U.S. government. The job was with the U.S. bureau of fisheries and she wrote radio copy for a weekly broadcast fancifully called, “romance under the waters”. Carson’s temporary position morphed into a full time position which she held until 1952 when she became a full time author and nature writer. But she would say that the work she did in the public sector gave her the ideas and inspiration for her bestselling books.

So for the majority of her working life – Rachel Carson worked for the U.S. government as a bureaucrat. And here’s my final point – even when she left her government position, Rachel Carson never ceased to be a public servant!!!

Congratulations again to all of you and thank you for letting me share this great celebration with you.