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Remarks by Dr. Judith Rodin at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy Commencement


As prepared for delivery:

Good afternoon, Terps!

Dean Orr, thank you for your warm introduction, and congratulations on finishing your freshman year as Dean! It’s been a thrill to watch you lead this institution, and I hope you’re enjoying academia as much as I did.

Let me also recognize your predecessor, Professor Don Kettl, whom I hired at the University of Pennsylvania and had the great honor to work with. This school really has a knack for picking its Deans.

Class of 2015, thank you for the honor of sharing this special day with you. It’s wonderful to be in College Park today and to be with your appropriately beaming families, friends, and loved ones. I see a lot of proud faces out there!

And what a beautiful concert hall this is! I understand that in the last few days this stage at The Clarice has been graced by a philharmonic, a symphony orchestra, and even “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band.

The good news for all of you is that I won’t be singing or playing any instruments this afternoon. That should be music to your ears.

The truth is I’d be too afraid to invite the kind of reaction George Bernard Shaw once memorably gave.

The famous playwright was listening to a particularly mediocre orchestra when the conductor recognized Shaw and asked what he would like them to play next.

Shaw replied, “Dominoes.”

But standing in this gorgeous hall that so often is filled with beautiful song,

I am reminded of another line by another writer—Kahlil Gibran.

In fact, this university has a chair endowed in his name.

Gibran wrote a collection of poems called The Prophet that was enormously popular the year I graduated from college.

I know what you’re thinking and no—despite how very long ago that may have been—the Gibran Chair is not part of the ancient history department.

The passage of his that has stuck with me all these years is one I think of often at ceremonies like this because it’s about farewells and future reunions.

Gibran wrote, “If in the twilight of memory we should meet once more, we shall speak again together and you shall sing to me a deeper song.”

When you reconnect, you will share even more thoughtful ideas informed by new experiences. You will sing to each other even deeper songs.

I know this is not your first degree or first graduation—and for many, it won’t be your last. But I believe today’s might be the most important.

After all, you came to College Park with a thirst for solving problems and a faith in public policy’s ability to do that.

The master’s degrees and doctorates you’re receiving today—the fruits of years of focused study—reflect a commitment deep inside you to fix what’s broken.

I’m grateful for that. You give me hope.

Because if there’s anything that’s broken—if there’s anything that calls urgently for your expertise, your creativity, and your foresight—it’s the way we produce public policy today.

I’m not talking just about what’s broken a half-hour south of here in the gridlock of Capitol Hill. I’m also talking about what’s broken a half-hour north of here in the neighborhoods of Baltimore.

What menaces our society far more than craven opportunists is the fact that too many still are left craving opportunity.

And what Maryland has reminded the world in the last month is that this is where public policy is failing.

I don’t claim to know the ins and outs of public policy better than you do—after all, as of today, you’re the experts. But I do know something about human psychology—that’s what my doctorate is in.

In fact, the late and I know greatly-missed Dr. John Steinbruner drew on his work in cognitive psychology to explore how policymakers make decisions in the face of uncertainty. He knew that even international conflict and collaboration were, at their core about interpersonal relations.

Public policy, like what we’re seeing today in the debate about Baltimore, follows human nature in that it is often reactive.

Of course, we need our policies and our policymakers to be responsive to the public—but there’s a difference between being responsive and being reactive.

What we need from you, in whatever realm of public policy you pursue, are ideas that are proactive and predictive.

Because in our current paradigm where public policy seems to be always a game of catch-up, it’s already too late.

That’s what Baltimore has taught us. And not only there—it’s what we’ve learned in Ferguson, and Oakland, and Paris, and on and on throughout the world.

Often it takes a shock, such as the death of young African American man in the custody of the police. Or an outbreak of a disease like Ebola that kills thousands and brings entire nations to their knees. Or not one but two deadly earthquakes in Nepal.

When these singular events happen—and they are coming with increasing frequency and force—they reveal long-ignored structural flaws, many of which are derived from flawed or missing policies.

And if we’re paying attention, we’ll notice that those fault lines often foretell the challenges of the future.

So how, then, can policy stay one step ahead of the next crisis?

But more than that, how can we prevent disruptions from becoming disasters?

How can we improve opportunity for more people in more places?

I believe there are two ways to do that: by building resilience, and by building more inclusive economies.

And I believe that in order to get there, you—the next generation of policy thinkers—need to ask four key questions to stay ahead of the curve:

The first is this: Ask yourself, in a diverse, changing, and complex world, does this policy promote inclusion?

The tragic events in Baltimore, Ferguson, and Oakland didn’t create a problem still festering in the United States, they merely exposed one. Or rather several of them.

Your fellow student, sophomore Max An, wrote in The Diamondback this month that these recent riots challenged, in his words, “generations of systemic racism, inescapable cycles of poverty and the inequity of our modern justice system.”

Max nailed it.

What we see in too many American cities reveal the festering sores on the underbelly of American society—sores of unequal access to opportunity that threaten our future as a democracy.

But if we address only the immediate issues of race, crime, and policing, we’re losing a critical opportunity to reimagine more broadly our cities and communities—and our country for the 21st Century.

A city is a lot like a puzzle.

If the pieces don’t fit together, there are gaps—and too many today are falling into those cracks.

It’s not a coincidence, for example, that health, income and mobility are closely correlated up and down the line.

Those are the kind of problems we can see long before a young man dies in police custody.

And if they are problems we can see, they are problems you can start to fix.

This isn’t a new challenge.

As we approach the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we’re reminded that that story of New Orleans wasn’t just about a storm—it was about the stability of a society.

Behind the levees were poor people and poorly designed systems—a lack of jobs and a lack of leadership. When the levees broke, those problems floated to the surface.

Like in Baltimore, they couldn’t be ignored any longer.

After the flood, thousands fled. But today, thousands are flocking to a renewed New Orleans—a city that’s taking care to rebuild in a more resilient and more inclusive, integrated way—especially for communities historically denied opportunity.

New Orleans created a policy framework that allowed it to transform its public education system, diversify its economy—and reengineer its neighborhoods, it is reenergizing a great American city.

Don’t get me wrong: New Orleans still has a lot of work to do.

But it’s proving that resilience isn’t about building back the way we were before. We can’t just restore what made us vulnerable in the first place. We have to learn from the last disaster to prepare for the next one.

We need policies that help us build back better—not just our physical infrastructure, but our economic and social foundations, too.

Let me give you another example—one of a city that’s already reaping the dividends of stronger social cohesion. Medellin, Colombia, used to be synonymous with drugs, poverty, and crime.

For decades, its policies were all about policing and punishment. But a new mayor and a renewed spirit of innovation and collaboration led to a new policy approach—one that prioritized economic development and social inclusion.

These policies connected the poorest and most vulnerable communities, which were isolated in the hillside slums high above town, with the valley below, which was the economic and social core of the city.

How did they do that?

In this poor city with an average annual temperature of 72 degrees, they built gondolas like the ones you’d see in a fancy ski town.

Then they built escalators into steep hillsides to reach the people even the gondolas couldn’t reach.

And at the transit stops that dotted the new transportation system, the city built health clinics and day care centers. This new system became the connective tissue that brought people together—that integrated an economy and a society.

The results speak for themselves:

The former murder capital of the world saw its crime rate drop 90 percent—and today it’s home to a tourism boom.

It all happened because the policymakers started by asking the question: are there new policy approaches that would promote inclusion?

But here’s the catch: before they could begin, policymakers in Medellin had to fully understand what was holding the city back—what was the root of the problem.

Only then could they create transformative policies.

And that’s the second question good, forward-thinking public policy must answer:

How can we make sure we’re aware of problems and make sure we’re solving them together, in an integrated way?

It’s a simple concept: You have to know what’s wrong before you can fix it. It might sound obvious, but it’s harder than it sounds because the answer can change day to day, year to year.

Today’s technology makes a lot of things simpler, but the rate of change also makes a lot of the problems you’re called on to solve more complex.

So it can be quite difficult to stay on top of all the potential vulnerabilities and threats—whether they’re natural, structural, or social.

Having and using accurate, real-time information is key to awareness. More than ever, policymakers can benefit from tools and technologies that help you make more informed decisions even as conditions evolve in real time

Let me give you an example: A startup in Silicon Valley called Planet Labs is launching satellites into space that give us a new perspective into old problems.

Traditional satellite technology only takes pictures of small areas of land, like you’re looking through a straw. But these satellites capture wide swaths of it, giving us a glimpse of changes in the earth’s surface over time.

And they’ve already made incredible discoveries that could help policymakers in important ways.

They detected an entire Brazilian neighborhood that was secretly razed before the World Cup. They identified areas in Africa most susceptible to Ebola. They’ve predicted where a hurricane would hit—which allowed insurance checks to reach the residents in harm’s way before the storm even made landfall.

So gathering information—awareness—is one part of the equation.

But it’s not worth much unless it’s shared. This is where integration comes in.

I’m standing right now in a spot normally reserved for a conductor—and just like he or she would tell you,

I believe we have to all be playing off the same song sheet. Local and federal…city and rural…private and public…global and local…

The policies that succeed are the ones that allow for information to flow freely among all stakeholders, from the UN Secretary General down to the local sheriff. It allows us to work from the same song sheet.

The seamless exchange of information is indeed a break in previous practice. It will require new ways of working together. It will require innovation.

And that’s the next question you must ask to stay ahead of the curve: How can we take the principles of innovation and apply them to policymaking?

For too long implementing public policy has been like launching satellites the old way. By the time we’ve spent decades of research and billions of dollars to get that satellite into outer space, the technologies on the ground have already rendered it obsolete.

What’s true in the stratosphere is true in our capitals: 20th century approaches can’t solve 21st century problems.

One of the ways The Rockefeller Foundation has been pursuing innovation is through labs that never lose of sight of the end user.

In the private sector, they’re called R&D labs where they try, for example, to build a self-driving car. In the public sector, we call them social innovation labs, and we try to solve a pressing global problem. We bring together policymakers and stakeholders of all stripes: the usual suspects you’d expect, some strange bedfellows you wouldn’t—and always, of course, the end user—the citizen.

It’s catching on.

Google is getting in on the game and opening its first government innovation labs this summer. They’ll look at two communities in the Bay Area and try to come up with creative solutions for problems like economic development and emergency preparedness.

The novel approach to these labs is that they begin with the beneficiary and allow policies to be designed around their needs, motivations and circumstances, rather than top-down policies that might look good on paper but are tone deaf to real individuals.

Now, you all know it’s not enough just to design smart policies on paper—they have to work in practice. But sometimes even that’s not enough—people have to feel that they’re working.

So the fourth and final question a successful public policy must answer is how it is perceived by real people.

It’s not enough to see data that shows increases in life expectancy, for example.

We have to make sure the people who are living longer are feeling the quality of those years.

It’s not enough if the numbers eventually say our criminal justice systems are reducing crime. Will minorities and young people actually feel safer—or just their older, white neighbors? Will everyone feel that his or her life matters?

Graduates, when you leave here, you’re going to lead revolutions in so many different area of public policy—environmental and energy, international development and international security, education and health, public sector and private sector.

You’ll lead at local, national, regional and global levels of government.

But what the policies you create will have in common is that they must promote inclusion. They must increase awareness and share information through greater integration. People must feel that they improve their daily lives. And above all, they must be more predictive than reactive.

Think of the major problems policymakers have been asked to solve in recent years:

Too few jobs. Too many barriers to health care. Climate vulnerabilities that rise with the temperatures and sea levels. Tensions that drive terrorism and threats that drive us to war.

But a cycle in which we’re always answering today’s challenges tomorrow simply doesn’t work. We have to answer tomorrow’s challenges today.

It’s true that no one gets credit for averting disasters. Your biggest victories might not make headlines—but that’s because you’ll be keeping bad news off the front page.

We’ve gotten very good at recognizing the policies that solve problems. I believe we must do more to celebrate the leaders who predict, preempt, and prevent those problems.

And I for one deeply hope you will be those leaders. You must be the ones who sing a different, deeper song—a song that will bring much-needed harmony to the discordant days ahead.

Thanks to you, we will do more than fix what needs fixing. We will, as Hemingway wrote, be stronger at the broken places.

Congratulations, Class of 2015. I commend to you your future.