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Editor's Note: This president's address to the class of 2007
was delivered at the 32nd commencement of the School of Visual Arts
at Radio City Music Hall on May 10, 2007. It has been modified
As I spent almost every evening of the last few weeks going to
opening after opening after opening, I was impressed—as I usually
am—with the quality of student work. I was also struck by two other
aspects. First, in those disciplines which are technology
intensive, the level of cooperation has increased dramatically.
There are more of you working together to achieve great things than
has been the case in the past. We may finally put an end to the
myth of the starving artist working desperately alone whose
greatness is only to be discovered postmortem. This is a good
At the same time, I was impressed with the level of
responsibility each of you took for your own contribution to what
is best described as SVA's unending, end-of-year extravaganza.
Again, there was no attempt to hide one's work. No attempt to hide
one's responsibility for its success or failure. In this I think
art students as a whole—and certainly those at SVA—are a positive
example in a world which has increasingly devalued responsibility,
honor and, yes, even shame.
I was also struck by some work that I saw as decidedly selfless
and deliberately mindful of others. It was work which encouraged
those of us who appear and who are, in fact, privileged to give
back to those who are less fortunate—and not in an easy way by
writing a check, but by the investment of personal time and effort.
I am frankly dismayed at the amount of money wasted by
well-intentioned organizations in the constant quest for funds.
Although these organizations make heartrending pleas on behalf of
worthy causes, it never occurs to many of them to find a way for
those of us who are otherwise engaged to participate in small but
meaningful ways in these worthy causes.
Similarly, it has been my experience that the political class is
interested in my opinion in direct proportion to the size of my
monetary contribution. This practice is particularly unsettling
when those doing the asking are very likely to have no opponent
against whom to run. Over the last decades the system has gone from
one in which we clearly knew that as Americans we were all in the
same democracy—that our fates were intertwined, and that my doing
well did not mean that someone else needed to do badly—to one in
which success is now defined as admission to an exclusionary gated
It is time, therefore, to resurrect those institutions which
gave us a sense of continuity, which encouraged us to cooperate and
which allowed us to achieve some of the great things that the
United States did in the 20th century: overcome the Great
Depression, defeat fascism and allow Stalinism to destroy
I was reminded recently that the last major United States
governmental figure to resign for having failed was Robert
McFarland, President Reagan's national security adviser, who was
distraught at his Iran Contra failures. The last 20 years, however,
show no signs of such integrity. In fact, it is difficult to think
of a time in which there is so little integrity and at the same
time so little outrage.
But after decades where the government has been portrayed as the
enemy and some of its most essential functions privatized, it
should not be surprising that the social networks—which bound us
together as a nation, which framed the belief that competence was a
given, telling the truth the norm—have atrophied. They are
certainly not the norm of today's public discourse.
As some of you may know, Lee Iacocca, who in addition to his
work at Chrysler, was instrumental in saving the Statue of Liberty
and Ellis Island, has written a book entitled Where Have All the Leaders Gone? He
is, to put it mildly, critical of current trends. Since this is a
family event I have expurgated some of Mr. Iacocca's more colorful
language. He says, in part:
We have got a gang steering our ship of state right over a
cliff, we've got corporate gangsters stealing us blind, we can't
even clean up after a hurricane much less build a hybrid car... The
most famous business leaders are not the innovators, but the guys
in handcuffs... Some of us are sick and tired of people who call
free speech treason.
Mr. Iacocca has a formula for identifying leadership which he
calls "The Nine C's." I won't attempt to recount them
here, but they are obvious and obviously correct. He does make one
additional important point that is worth repeating. In the last
election, only 45 percent of those eligible to vote actually did.
If you think your vote doesn't count, ask President Gore.
It shouldn't be surprising that when 23 percent of the
population can control the levers of political power that they
stack the deck against the other 77 percent. Could this be why
income inequality in the United States is higher than it has been
since before the Great Depression? Could this be why we have a
dysfunctional health care system which, while costing twice that of
the average industrial country, gives us higher infant mortality
rates and shorter life spans? Could this by why we have an
educational system where grants are meager and debts are plentiful?
And could this be why we seem to have an economic system which
encourages an almost Hobbesian war of all against all in the hope
of financial success? Ultimately we don't have leaders because we
don't have voters who will hold leaders to account. The question is
not "Where have all the leaders gone?" but rather, where have all
the voters gone?
So, as you leave SVA today, I think it best to recreate the
start. Those of you who attended freshman orientation four years
ago know what I mean.
I am sure by now that if I asked you if you were registered to
vote, you would raise your hand.
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