Jonathan Fanton Delivers Commencement Address at the Illinois Institute of Technology
December 15, 2007 | Speech

When President Anderson called to invite me to give this commencement address I accepted on the spot. I have great respect for IIT, your past president and my friend Lew Collins, and your new president, John Anderson.

The MacArthur Foundation is time and again drawn to IIT by the quality of its faculty. A current example is our work with Patrick Whitney and his colleagues at the Institute of Design, who are envisioning the libraries and schools of the future.

MacArthur also admires IIT’s concern for its home city and nearby neighborhoods. The University Technology Park keeps Chicago as a center of innovation. Project ICAN is improving the quality of science and math teaching, preparing young people in Chicago and elsewhere for careers in the 21st Century. And with MacArthur, IIT is active in the Partnership for New Communities dedicated to transforming Chicago’s high-rise public housing ghettos into new mixed-income communities of opportunity.

You made a choice when you came to IIT. You selected a university known for its high quality faculty and strong educational programs. But you also chose an institution with a conscience, a place that believes in helping those in need and giving back to its community. These values have been all around you and, I hope, predispose you to my message today.

I know you are thinking hard about your future. Further education, getting a job or taking on more responsibility in your current assignment, building your family, and settling back into your home country are front and center, I am sure. But I want to talk with you about another aspect of life: civic engagement, not just at home but in a global perspective.

Trained as an historian, I naturally turn to the past for lessons and inspiration. One of my heroes is President Theodore Roosevelt.

Nearly a century ago, Roosevelt left the US for an expedition through Africa, followed by a speaking tour in Europe. He gave a lecture at the Sorbonne that contains one of his most memorable exhortations. He was speaking about the virtue of people of action, people who take risks, when he said: “It is not the critic who counts…. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; … who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows … the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

Entitled, “Citizenship in a Republic,” Roosevelt’s speech made a direct connection between healthy democratic countries and civic engagement.

Engagement and responsibility. In words that resonate with all of us in this hall, Roosevelt said: “You and those like you have received special advantages: you have all had the opportunity for mental training; … most of you have had a chance for the enjoyment of life far greater than comes to the majority of your fellows. To you and your kind much has been given, and from you much should be expected.”

Were Roosevelt giving that speech today, he would talk about the obligations of global citizenship in an interconnected world. We need only to look around this room, at your graduating class from 49 countries, to see how quickly opportunity, and the responsibility that comes with it, is spreading. Those of us who live in developed countries or countries on the move have been well trained, and we have an obligation to help the 980 million people in the world who live in extreme poverty, struggling to get by on less than $1 a day.

Seven years ago at the Millennium World Summit, the UN challenged the rich nations to bring better health, housing, education, jobs — hope — to the developing world. The Summit set eight Millennium Development Goals, including eradicating extreme poverty; protecting the environment; reducing child mortality; combating AIDS and malaria; and providing universal primary education.

Secretary General Kofi Annan asked Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University to help frame the goals and evaluate progress toward achieving them. Professor Sachs knew the Millennium Goals would be tough to meet and, if progress faltered, cynicism and despair would grow with yet another example of good intentions unfulfilled. So he started the Millennium Villages Project to show that the goals could be met, in model projects that could move to scale across Africa. So far the project has reached 400,000 people in 79 villages clustered in 10 countries in Africa that span different agro-ecological zones to demonstrate how development strategies can be tailored to meet a range of farming, water, and disease challenges.

Not long into the project Professor Sachs came to realize that the development professionals he was working with had good training in political science and economics but not much in the “hard” sciences and engineering. That observation led MacArthur to join him in launching a Commission on Education for International Development Professionals. Made up of experts from around the world, the Commission is still at work, but here is a sneak preview of its findings: first, master programs in development studies need to include more science, public health, agronomy, civil engineering, and information technology. Second, students need a deep clinical experience in the developing world, lasting a semester or even a year. And third, mid career training should be available, especially for people with science and technical background willing to work in the developing world.

So as I think about the Commission’s recommendations, the Millennium Development Goals and you who graduate today, I see a powerful convergence. You have the training that is essential to realizing the Millennium Development Goals. And fortunately there is a way to connect your skills with places in need.

We live in an age when global civil society is flourishing. There are 21,000 NGOs that work globally, millions more that work locally within their own country or community.

These groups play an indispensable role in the public policy process, advancing the prospects for healthy democracies around the world. They give voice to ordinary citizens and check governmental excesses. They fill in service gaps, and prod the UN and other international agencies to establish norms that express humankind’s highest aspirations for justice, fairness and decency. And they need the help of people with your skills.

Imagine using your degree in information technology or computer science to help OneWorld UK or to combat poverty, conserve the environment, and fight human rights abuses. These groups are developing text messaging systems to bring vital health information to young people across Africa and to give early warning about civil conflicts in the making.

Imagine traveling to Rwanda with the Access Project, using your MBA to help the government decentralize its health care network and broaden access to immunizations and AIDS treatments.

Imagine spending a year or two in the Amazon region of Peru, using your degree in civil engineering to work with E-tech International, giving an NGO the technical knowledge needed to protect the indigenous population from unsound mining or oil drilling projects.

Imagine traveling to Porto Loko, in the marshes of northwest Sierra Leone, to help Engineers Without Borders build an orphanage for children who lost their parents in the war.

Imagine spending time in the deserts of Darfur or the green hills of eastern Congo, using your legal skills to help Human Rights Watch document and stop human rights abuses.

Imagine traveling to Nigeria to help universities there strengthen their science and engineering departments through a faculty exchange.

You can even make a difference without leaving your home. Log on to the crowdsourcing web site Innocentive and join thousands of others around the world solving challenges posted by the Rockefeller Foundation and other nonprofits. Rockefeller is seeking designs for a solar-powered wireless router, bio-latrines for rural schools, and flexible machinery that could improve food production, among others.

There are many opportunities in international areas that draw on your professional training. But there are needs all around us at home where voluntary service will enrich your lives and improve the lot of others.

So, class of 2007, as you embark on a new chapter in your lives, seek a balance that allows time for public service and civic engagement.

Be the person in the arena that Roosevelt spoke about. Know the great enthusiasms and the great devotions, and dare greatly.

Together we can advance our collective vision of a more just and humane world at peace.

Good luck.

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