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Phi Beta Kappa Initiation Remarks by William E. Kirwan

Chancellor, University System of Maryland Thursday, May 20 2004

Good afternoon. Thank you Professor Dreher and congratulations to today's Phi Beta Kappa initiates. What an honor it is for you to receive this recognition. You are being inducted into the oldest and most prestigious undergraduate honorary society in the United States. Just think about it, only about 1% of college graduates are selected for membership in Phi Beta Kappa.

As you might suspect of such a society, it has an impressive membership list: Six of the current Supreme Court justices are members. So too are former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush. Benazir Bhutto, the first female leader of an Islamic state, and Condoleezza Rice are members. Authors Susan Sontag, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Mark Twain were selected for membership, as were Dr. Jonas Salk, Alexander Graham Bell, and Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.

Consider that list of names for just a moment: governmental leadership . . . artistic leadership . . . scientific leadership . . . business leadership. It's not just the fact that these Phi Beta Kappas have excelled, but that they have excelled in every conceivable area of human pursuit. That same potential for greatness is here - in this hall - right now.

You have reached this milestone not simply because you are extraordinary students, not just because you are high achievers. Your membership in Phi Beta Kappa reveals more than that. It reveals a love of knowledge . . . a thirst for learning. I have no doubt that these qualities were instilled within you at an early age, and so I want to take a moment to commend and congratulate the parents and grandparents with us today as well. I am certain that today's inductees agree with me that you - the proud family members -- have played a significant role in developing the passion for knowledge and academic excellence that we recognize today.

It is telling that the Greek letters Phi Beta Kappa are the first letters of the mottowhich I will NOT attempt to pronounce in Greek but that translates into "Love of wisdom, the guide of life." Note that "wisdom," not "knowledge," is stressed in this motto. It's not simply a desire to "know" things . . . but a desire to "understand" things that makes you so special.

You have not limited your time at the university to acquiring skills to enter the workforce. You have explored the sciences, the humanities, and the social sciences...searching for the widest possible breadth of insight, knowledge, and understanding. This is what sets you apart.

The question now is: What will you do with all this wisdom you have acquired? Let me take just a moment and implore you to become leaders in whatever career you choose to pursue. Our nation is in dire need of a new generation of enlightened leadership...highly educated, wise leaders who have respect for the individual, for inclusiveness, integrity, and the common good. In other words, leaders who -- like you -- understand and appreciate historical perspective, the cultural diversity reflected in humankind, the power of the scientific method, and values grounded in ethics and in the humanistic traditions.

We see the need for this new generation of enlightened leadership in the world of business, where we have witnessed a steady string of corporate scandals. Enron, Tyco, and WorldCom are just a few of the corporations where executives were engaged in serious malfeasance. Yet even as those responsible are pursued, apprehended and brought to justice, we see no real contrition, no hint of shame; only regret . . . regret at getting caught. These executives and corporate leaders operated in an arena where ethics had become an afterthought at best, taking a back seat to how they could benefit personally while they tried to remain in technical compliance with "the law". What value system - beyond sheer greed -drove these CEO's?

But business ethics are not the only concern in the America of 2004. This past Monday we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Brown vs Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court. This landmark decision brought an end to legal segregation of schools in the United States. It ushered in an era of Civil Rights legislation that promised to finally make the words of our Declaration of Independence real, that promised to finally insure equity of opportunity for all men and women, that promised to expunge the scourge of discrimination from the soul of our nation.

Sadly, that is not the reality of life in America today. Our schools are more segregated now than they were in the 1960s. Study after study shows that our society is still rife with discrimination and prejudice. I read the other day that a white felon has a better chance of getting a job than a minority with equal academic and experience qualifications and no criminal record. I have also seen reports showing that minorities and women with net worth identical to white males are about half as likely to get a loan from a bank. Yes, we would all like to think of America as a place where race, ethnicity and gender really do not matter in decisions about opportunity, compensation, and professional advancement. The sad truth is, however, that they still do matter and in ways that are disproportionately harmful to minorities and women.

A truly equitable American society remains an elusive goal. It is an ideal we can move toward only with the resolve of a new generation of enlightened leaders educated as you have been and who understand the value of diversity and the oneness of humanity.

The same need is evident in international politics. For example, our nation's unwillingness to "stay the course" and find meaningful common ground on the Kyoto environmental protocols is in my view a national disgrace. I was quite taken by New York Times columnist Tom Freidman's article a few weeks ago. In it, he laments our nation's failure to exert global leadership on environmental matters. He writes, and I quote, "I want to wake up one morning and read that President Bush has decided to offer a real alternative to the stalled Kyoto Protocol to reduce global warming. I want to wake up and read that General Motors has decided it will no longer make gas-guzzling Hummers and President Bush has decided to replace his limousine with an armor-plated Toyota Prius, a hybrid car that gets over 40 miles to the gallon. I want to wake up and read that Mr. Bush has announced a Manhattan Project to develop renewable energies that will end America's addiction to crude oil by 2010." From my perspective, Mr. Freidman is "dead on." In our dealings with other nations on issues like the environment, we need corporate and political leadership that understand the complexities of environmental issues and that values the larger "common good" over narrower special interests.

Perhaps more alarming is the Balkanization of geo-political interests in this era of globalization. The racial, ethnic, and religious strife rampant in the world today cries out for leaders who practice mutual respect and tolerance and reject radicalism and xenophobia, leaders who are skilled in the art of compromise and conflict resolution, leaders who understand and respect the cultural differences reflected in populations around the world. In a recent newspaper column on promoting the value of democracy, Henry Kissinger captured this thought well. He said, "The advocates of the important role of a commitment to democracy in American foreign policy have won their intellectual battle. But institutional building requires more than doctrine. It also requires a vision that recognizes cultural and historical circumstance. Such humility is not an abdication of American values; rather, it is the only way to implement these values effectively" (end of quote). Appreciation of cultural and historical circumstances is a quality you have acquired through the extraordinary breadth of your education.

I could go on with other examples, such as the ethical dilemmas we face coming from the remarkable advances in gene therapy, or the widening economic gap between those that have the opportunity to receive a quality education and those that do not. My point is that our nation and world face a distressing array of enormous challenges, which -- without enlightened leadership -- will only worsen in the coming years.

Sixty years ago, a generation came along that saved the free world from an horrific totalitarian regime. They did so by seeing their responsibilities in the larger context of the greater common good. This generation has been called, appropriately, the "greatest generation" and the rest of us owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude. I suspect some of the grandparents in the room are members of that generation. There have been several generations since the "greatest generation." The "lost generation," which is my generation. We were so intimated by the accomplishments of our parents, the "greatest generation," that - as our name implies -- we never amounted to much. Then there was the baby boomer generation, generation X, and now your generation. Sociologists who study these things see in you some of the very same qualities that characterized the "greatest generation"...selflessness, a commitment to the common good, and to public service. I hope these sociologists are right. If so, you are reaching maturity just in the nick of time.

And so, as we congratulate you on what you have accomplished to this point in life, let me also impress upon you the fact that this is only the prep for a much longer, more difficult and important journey. In the coming decades, there is a tremendous need for leaders with your depth and breadth of knowledge, your passion for learning more, and your commitment to the common good. My plea is that you live up to your enormous potential because humankind needs you as we have rarely needed enlightened leadership before and because you have demonstrated that you have the stuff to make a difference.

Thank you for allowing me to share this special occasion with you, best wishes and Godspeed to each and every one of you.