News & Media

President Janet Napolitano’s Keynote Address at the 2015 APLU Annual Meeting

As prepared for delivery.

Thank you, President Daniels. And thank you all for that warm welcome. What an honor it is to speak to you here in Indianapolis this evening.

I want to begin by expressing my support to the people of France in the wake of the terrible attack on Friday, and my condolences to Cal State Long Beach, which lost a student in the atrocity committed there.

I am pleased to see so many representatives from APLU’s 237 member institutions, including several from the University of California. And I would like to join in congratulating President Bell, and her fellow leaders of the 1890 Land-Grant Universities, on the 125th anniversary of the second Morrill Act.

I’ve been asked to spend my time with you tonight addressing the theme of this annual meeting:

“Delivering the Future.”

Specifically, the ways in which our public universities are “Delivering the Future” on education, research, and community engagement.

Now, I could focus my talk on the word “delivering.”

I could describe all the advances in online education; the different models for ensuring our students graduate on time; or how we, as public universities, grapple with the challenge of delivering a quality product when no one apparently wants to pay for it.

Those topics, I’m confident, will receive lots of attention at this meeting.

So I would like to focus my speech on the word “future” instead.

The word “future” is derived from a participle of the Latin verb “to be.” It means, essentially, “what is to be,” or “what will be.”

The word “future” implies questions like this one:

What are we?

And it raises questions like these:

What are we to be?

What will we be?

Discussing questions like these is a worthy use of time for those of us who lead the institutions of the APLU. These questions are fundamentally Socratic in nature because to answer them is to gain greater self-knowledge. And so I’d like to take a few minutes to turn a Socratic lens on the public universities that make up our organization.

To the question, “What are we?”, I would say this:

Public universities are microcosms of the society we serve. Our institutions are home to vast numbers of students, faculty, and staff who hail from every background, every income level, and every corner of this country.

Among other outcomes, that scale and that diversity often spur a desire to give back, and to make a difference on behalf of others. We call this phenomenon “public service.” And at APLU institutions, public service is a rich vein running through the bedrock of teaching and research.

Many of the students at the University of California, for example, see public service as a hallmark of the education they receive at UC. More than 11,000 UC alumni have served as Peace Corps volunteers. And nearly 50% of UC students participate in community service during their time at the University.

Let me tell you about one group of those students.

Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina struck the city of New Orleans.

One of the first universities to respond to the disaster was UC Berkeley. And while many university students travelled to New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, Berkeley is one of the few universities that committed to stay for the long haul.

The UC Berkeley “Magnolia Project” is named for one of the New Orleans neighborhoods that Katrina hit hardest. From the beginning, UC Berkeley’s commitment to New Orleans, through the Magnolia Project, was for ten years.

Throughout the last decade, the Magnolia Project has sent more than 600 UC Berkeley student volunteers to participate in recovery efforts in the city. Students are connected with various New Orleans-based community organizations, and spend time in the city through both short immersion trips and longer summer internships.

As of today, they have devoted almost 75,000 service hours, with a total value of more than 1.7 million dollars. They have rehabilitated damaged homes, partnered with a local group that assists ex-offenders, and worked with the young people of New Orleans to improve public schools.
There’s a lot of talk in our country right now about what it means to be “college ready.”

But I’m not sure we spend enough time talking about what it means to be “college educated.”

You see, students go to our universities to get a great education—through the knowledge and skills they gain in classes and labs, and through homework and discussion groups.

But they also go to our universities because they are seeking the skills that will help them translate their classroom education into opportunities to make a difference in the world after graduation.

The issues UC Berkeley students face in New Orleans are often the same ones they study in the lecture hall or library. Students interested in food justice, or sociology, or education philosophy can see those issues at work in a real community. And they gain the hands-on experience they need to make a positive impact in many more communities in the future.

Yes, public universities prepare their students for jobs. Significantly, they also prepare them for life. They prepare them for the giving back that makes life meaningful, not only to the individual, but also to society as a whole.

Then there are the next questions in our Socratic exercise.

To the questions “What are we to be?” or “What will we be?”, I would say this:

Our universities are and ought to be living laboratories for new ideas and new solutions. Our physical campuses provide a means for society to test new innovations in urban planning or building design. And our communities provide a means for society to explore complex questions, and to solve pressing global challenges.

I will give you just one example.

Twenty-five years ago, President George H.W. Bush signed the American Disabilities Act into law.
The ADA remains the most significant civil rights legislation for people with disabilities in this country. The bill prohibited discrimination, and ensured equal opportunity, for anyone with a disability in employment, government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation.

For decades, disability advocates across the United States had worked to pass a bill of this magnitude.

One of those advocates was a man named Douglas Martin.

Martin was born in Nebraska in the late 1940s. When he was five years old, he contracted polio.

He spent two years hospitalized in an iron lung.

He spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

As a teenager, Martin earned a major scholarship to a university in the Midwest. But when he showed up on campus for orientation, the sight of his wheelchair surprised the school’s officials.

You see, at the time, that university required a physical examination as part of its admissions process.

Martin failed the physical exam.

His admission to the university was denied.

Years later, Martin said this:

“I made a vow then and there that I would pursue my education and use it to make sure this would not happen to anyone else.”

So Martin moved west, and enrolled at UCLA. In a few years, he had earned a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and a doctorate in Urban Affairs. He also became the first person with a disability to be named a UCLA Chancellor’s Fellow.

After Martin fulfilled the first part of his vow, he turned his attention to the second part.

For years, he fought for the passage of civil rights legislation for the disabled. He fought for the creation of rigorous accessibility requirements in California. He fought for a revision of Social Security laws that halted benefits to people with disabilities when they were employed. He fought for most of the provisions that are now enacted into public law through the ADA.

He fought, in other words, for the rights of those with disabilities to live and work as full participants in our society.

In 1990, Martin was one of the advocates who witnessed, in person, the signing of the ADA at the White House. But he did not linger in DC for long. Martin had more work to do in California. The UCLA Chancellor had hired him as a special assistant to oversee the implementation of all the policies and regulations Martin had worked so hard to champion.

When Martin took that job, 75 percent of UCLA’s buildings were largely inaccessible to people with disabilities.

That soon changed.

From access ramps, handrails, and curb ramps to amplifiers, Braille signs, evacuation chairs, note-takers, and counselors, Martin oversaw every step in the ADA compliance process.

As a colleague of his said, “he was one of the experts that people turned to,” not only on the UCLA campus, but nationally. His “‘laboratory’ for the ADA was here” at UCLA.

That laboratory produced remarkable results. For anyone who knew Martin, that outcome was unsurprising. He not only transformed UCLA into the accessible campus it is today. He also transformed UCLA into the community it is today.

When Martin began his position, there were just under 250 students with disabilities at UCLA. Seven years later, when he stepped down, that number had increased to more than 1,000.

Our universities ought to be places where thinkers, researchers, and advocates push new ideas, new innovations, and new ways of serving our society. In my view, “Delivering the Future” means keeping alive the spirit of Douglas Martin and those like him, and infusing our campuses with its energy and purpose.

And here I would take our Socratic exercise one step further.

It is not enough to ask what our institutions will be. More broadly, we must also ask and answer questions like these:
What do we want our society to be?

What can our universities to do help make that society a reality?

Douglas Martin showed us one way of making the society we want a reality. Through the living laboratory of UCLA, he helped address the problem of how people with disabilities were treated.

A woman from UC San Diego can show us another way to build the society we aspire to inhabit. This woman tackled another problem—the problem of too few women and underrepresented minorities in science and engineering.

That woman’s name was Sally Ride.

More than 30 years ago, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. She would also become an inspiration to countless young people who wanted to pursue their dreams of becoming astronauts…or scientists…or researchers…but who did not see role models who looked like them.

Ride wanted to make a difference on this front.

As she once said in the late 1980s, and I quote:

“Kids are very smart. They can see that most scientists are white males […] if the message we give, however subtle, is that English or nursing would be better for those kids to go into, then those are the fields they’ll choose.”


At the NASA press conference on her space shuttle assignment—and the flurry of coverage that took place over an American woman going into space—Ride pointedly said that “it will be wonderful news when this isn’t news.”

So she looked to her own life to determine how she could help make sure news like this was not news in the future.
For starters, she knew that when she was selected to be an astronaut, the one person she most wanted to call was her high school science teacher, who had been an important mentor.

She also knew that once she retired from NASA, she wanted to return to a university environment.

Sally Ride took both of these insights and used them to shape her life’s work. She joined UC San Diego as a Professor of Physics. She also founded a company called “Sally Ride Science,” which sought to encourage K-12 kids to pursue careers in science, engineering and math.
Through both of these efforts, Ride helped begin to build a different future for thousands of young people, from all backgrounds, who were interested in the sciences.

Just last month, there was some “new” news about Sally Ride in California. The focus was not on her selection as the first American woman in space. It was instead on the opportunities she worked so hard to give to all young people until she passed away three years ago.

As of October, Sally Ride Science—the company she founded—has become an official program of UC San Diego. UCSD will now carry out the vision of Sally Ride through extended STEM outreach to young Californians, including the young women and underrepresented minorities Ride wanted to see some day as astronauts, researchers, and scientists.

I know I speak for all of us when I say that we at the APLU want a society where the future generations of scientists and researchers are drawn from the broadest possible pool. And here is where our APLU institutions play a pivotal role in making that society a reality.

They do so not only by educating vast numbers of young people from all backgrounds.

They also do so through the people who research and teach at them, and the legacies they leave. People like Douglas Martin and Sally Ride, the programs and outreach they created, and the communities they fostered.

Helping to make our society a vigorous and just one is no easy task, however.

Our campuses are often living laboratories for addressing problems that are old and seemingly intractable. In fact, some of our society’s most trenchant problems—problems like sexism and racism—have never disappeared from college campuses. They remain acute, and they deserve urgent attention today. For example, it is not the issue of sexual assault that has attracted the attention of Congress and the press. It is the issue of sexual assault on college campuses.

We cannot pretend these problems do not exist. Instead, as university leaders, we must acknowledge the problems, we must listen, we must experiment with approaches to solving them, and then we must help move solutions forward.

I have led both a state, and the third largest—and most disparate—department of the federal government. The role of the modern university president closely rivals those positions when it comes to the range of responsibilities, the variety of stakeholders, and the public importance of the mission.

But at the same time, university presidents—and the institutions they serve—possess unique opportunities to combat the challenges that our society as a whole faces. The American system of public universities is one of our country’s great contributions to the world—and they have transformed the tradition of knowledge creation and transmission that reaches back to Socrates himself.

We lead institutions that can identify problems, confront them, and generate unprecedented solutions. And we must demonstrate the will to do so because public universities represent perhaps the greatest hope we have for creating an equitable, resilient, and dynamic future for our society.

We meet tonight more than 2,000 years and 5,000 miles from the Athens of Socrates. But a much loved son of Indianapolis once invoked the Greek philosopher, with a wink and a nod, in a book he wrote. The writer Kurt Vonnegut described some lines of graffiti that a narrator in one of his novels saw, which paraphrased the philosophy of Socrates into this sentence:

“To be is to do.”

(The rest of that graffiti, by the way, attributed the phrase, “Do be do be do,” to Frank Sinatra.)

Vonnegut’s tongue may have been planted firmly in his cheek. But the phrase, “To be is to do” is an apt maxim for the member institutions of the APLU.

Our public universities are defined by what they do.

They are microcosms of our society.

They are living laboratories for our society.

And they represent the best hope of our society. Hope is the future we deliver.

It has been an honor to address you this evening. Thank you for your kind attention. And in the words of the motto of the University of California, “Fiat Lux” – or “Let There Be Light.”

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