Pat Schroeder

Commencement Speech at the University of Pennsylvania - May 16, 1988

Pat Schroeder
May 16, 1988— University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
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I remember being on the other side of this podium 27 years ago, sure that graduation speeches were though[t] up by the faculty who want you to sit through just one more lecture before getting your diploma.

Congratulations to the graduating class of 1988. The diploma you have earned is quite an achievement. But as a parent of a son who is graduating from college this month, I want to also commend your families. They stood by you during your first exams, muffled their complaints when they got that huge phone bill, and were patient as you both debated what your major would be.

Parents, I understand your mixed feelings today: joy at watching your children get that diploma; relief that the bulk of their financial support is behind you; and fear about sending them off into our grown-up world to pursue the American dream.

You, the 232nd graduating class of the University of Pennsylvania have spent the last four years in one of the finest schools in the country, sharpening your intellectual skills to analyze problems and propose solutions.

It's that ability--that skill we need in America today if our country is to soar into the 21st century. In 1960, John F. Kennedy presented a challenge to my generation. In words that most of you could recite with me, he said, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.'' It was a challenge that touched off an explosion of activism around the country.

Today, I would like to extend to you another challenge. Dare to go against conventional wisdom and think creatively about how you can apply what you have learned here to improve our country. Turn questions around. Expand limits.

This university and the life of its founder typify the ideals and spirit that America needs to rediscover today. Benjamin Franklin's greatest experiment was democracy, and his investment of creativity and commitment has yielded both the freedoms we cherish and the university where you have developed the skills to exercise them.

The tradition of creative and unconventional thinking which characterized this university's founder now typifies its programs:

**Wharton has achieved a position of leadership in economic theory by developing new models that have changed the way America perceives (and does) business.

**The Annenberg school has changed the way we employ electronic communications by questioning widely-held assumptions about how man communicates.

**The Department of Folklore & Folklife has built an internationally respected scholarly program by challenging the belief that the traditions of ordinary people have no place in an institution of higher learning.

Knowing that we have much to learn from each other, and that respect for the cultures (and families) which have nurtured us must be the basis for all we learn is part of the Penn tradition, and one of the real reasons why all of you graduating today are well-equipped to meet the challenges before you.

Who will lead the effort to rebuild the Third World, as George Marshall did for Europe?
Who will lead the fight for economic equality, as Rosa Parks did for civil rights?
Who will come up with a way to put the nuclear genie back in the bottle, as Oppenheimer dared to let it out?

Our best hopes rest with you. You hold the proxy for the rest of the world. You can shape the policies that in turn determine what will happen to our world.

My 17 year old daughter showed me a copy of an album recently released in the U.S. by Billy Bragg, a British singer/songwriter that was very interesting. On the back of the album he writes, “I have no vote in your Presidential election yet its outcome will directly effect(sic) my future and the future of millions of other people around the world.”

He goes on to not only urge people to register to vote, but lists voter registration information for every state. Now, I don't know anything about Billy Bragg's music or his politics. But, I do know that he gets it. He understands that the quality of life for everyone on the planet hinges on whether you participate in your democracy or you sit this one out.

And after eight years of an Administration that charts its course on the alignment of the stars instead of the will of the people, we need your vigor and commitment to regain our bearings.

In particular, on behalf of my grandchildren and your grandchildren, I would like to ask you to apply your creative analytical abilities toward creating a new framework for two key areas: foreign policy and family policy.

First, we need a foreign policy that recognizes that national security, the most fundamental guarantee a government can provide, is more than weapons and warmongering. National security is a seamless web of military strength, economic strength, and a unified foreign policy.

Dwight Eisenhower said it best: "For a moment let's think of national security and its costs. A key point to keep in mind is this: No matter how much we spend for arms, there is not safety in arms alone. Our security is the total product of our economic, intellectual, moral, military strengths."

Do you think Eisenhower would have tolerated for one minute the Pentagon's squandermania, or, for that matter, the White House staff's secret illegalities? Americans are concerned that our military strength is hollow, our economic strength is shaky, and our foreign policy is rudderless.

First, during the defense build-up of the last eight years we showered billions of dollars on questionable projects and questionable programs. And with what results?

Our gargantuan military forces are often technologically superior, but they are embarrassingly ill-prepared for the realities of insurgent warfare. They lurch from crisis to ambush to stalemate.

Second, our economic situation is, to put it bluntly, precarious. Economists are skilled at explaining away one economic fact or another. But they are going to have to come up with a whopper to explain away the budget deficit, the federal debt, the trade deficit, the spiraling stock market, merger mania, and all the rest. You can't charge prosperity on your VISA card forever-- but that is just what the Reagan Administration has been doing.

Third, our foreign policy is rudderless--and too militarized. and at the same time, isolationist. Under: the "new isolationism" of the Reagan era -- standing tall -- we send our ships, our troops, our money. But we still stand alone.

And as we face up to the reality of our position in the world, we must also the reality of what's going on here at home--or better put--in our homes.

The American family has changed, but policies have not kept pace. The family is the primary social and economic unit in America. It's the basic building block of our society. Yet, there are so many myths surrounding the family -- myths that fuel talk and inhibit action.

The American family is no longer a Norman Rockwell painting. We have become a nation of two income families, of single parent families -- a nation of families under stress.

We juggle jobs, schedules, parenting, family obligations and household budgets so that we can give our children the best life possible.

Families have become masters of the juggling act because of the harsh economic reality of spiraling costs and declining wages. Since 1973, the average income for families with children has declined by 3.5% and American families are spending twice the percentage of their income on home mortgages today than they were in 1973.

Families are borrowing more money today than ever before to make ends meet. Sixty five percent of the U.S. households are in debt and 55% owe more than they own in financial assets. The American dream that you all will be pursuing--family, house, car, health insurance, education--is increasingly moving out of reach.

I don't know how young couples manage to get their feet off the ground. Today, a car costs what a house did when I was first married. And college tuition is so expensive that Universities have begun to arrange advance payment: new parents can now pay the going rate for the four years of their child's college education that will begin school seventeen or eighteen years later!

When I mention these statistics in speeches, I see men and women nodding in agreement, not because they know it, but because they live it.

These statistics will dictate your choices. When I talk to students on college campuses, both young men and young women want to know about parental leave. They ask when is a good time to have a baby, but I know what they really mean is how do you keep working and have a family at the'same time?

Our government has denied the reality of the new American family. The current administration has ignored the complexities of this emerging reality. Instead, they advocated policies that only help the families of their nostalgic dreams.

Flattening the American family into a two-dimensional stereotype not only has trivialized family life, but skewed family policy. We are all pro-family. But what are we prepared to do about it? There is a family gap in America--the gap between what American politicians say about families and what they dolor families.

Families need policies that will protect their jobs when they need to care for their newborn or newly adopted child, their sick children and their sick parents.

Families need more access to quality child care facilities.

Families need to know that their children are getting the best education possible.

Families need fair treatment in the tax code. They need to know that the government acknowledges that the business of raising children is more important than raising thoroughbred horses.

Policies that help families are, dollar for dollar, cost effective.

A dollar spent on pre-school education can save $4.75 in later social costs.

A dollar spent on prenatal care can save $3.38 in short term hospital costs.

A dollar spent on childhood immunization saves $10 in later medical costs.

It is time we set the family debate on the right track. Help take back the torch of concern for the American family. Let's turn that concern into a sane family policy that is cost effective, without moral judgement, and fluid enough to change with families' needs as it ages.

But we will need strong, smart, dedicated people to create and execute effective domestic and foreign policies. I want to ask each of you to consider a career in public service.

Twenty-five years ago, government service was imbued with a sense of honor and pride·. Top-notch people sought careers in government because they wanted to be on the cutting edge of technological advances and social programs which made America a better place. Individuals who came to work for the government were willing to sacrifice financial success in return for the personal satisfactions to be gained through accomplishment of challenging and worthwhile goals.

The best work our nation has done, from the building of the Hoover Dam to the successful moon landing of Apollo 11, from Project Head start to senior citizen housing, has been performed by individuals who were challenged and committed to their work.

But things have changed. Voters have become much more cynical about the government and politicians have found more favor in trashing the public service than in lauding it.

Now, government employees are referred to with cynicism and disdain. The best and the brightest no longer seek government careers. Quality people are leaving.

Something is wrong when people who want a "public interest" job don't consider government service to be that type of work.

I think the reasons behind the government's inability to attract and retain the best are obvious. Government pay and benefits continue to decline relative to the private sector. The last two Presidents have gratuitously slandered the bureaucracy. Government service is increasingly seen as paper-pushing, and as a certain way to avoid financial success. College professors, deans of engineering, public administration, and law schools tell me that their best students are no longer applying for government jobs. But we need the best people if we are to launch the next shuttle or to discover a cure for AIDS.

What's the solution? In a system as large as the civil service, turning around a decline in quality takes decades, not years. One part of the solution is to attack the problems of pay, politicization, and respect head on.

Another part of the solution may be easier to implement. I developed the Excellence in Government Management Act to deal with recruitment and retention in a low cost way. The bill establishes a scholarship program for undergraduates, provides for increased training and career development for those in government service, and limits further politicization of the workforce.

It is not likely that the legislation will be enacted this year, but I think public debate over the ideas contained in the legislation is an important step.

All of us who work with government on a day-in, day-out basis are aware of the quality crisis, and are searching for answers. The bottom line is that we need to be able to recruit and retain a top-quality workforce. If we can’t offer financial incentives to top performers, we at least need to promise that the challenge, the authority, and the job satisfaction will be there.

Don't be surprised that this call to political action, this challenge to think creatively, is part commencement advice and part career recruitment. Every challenge, including the imposing ones I've described here, is an opportunity. Public service links our most demanding needs to our most valuable asset-­ vigorous, creative, committed Americans. You.

This is now--today--your world. Welcome to it. Now, get busy.

Penn Archives. 2019. “Commencement Address 1988: Patricia Schroeder.” University Archives and Records Center.