Good afternoon. It’s a pleasure to be here and a privilege to join so many members and leaders of the Vassar community. I want to thank you all – especially President [Cappy] Hill – for inviting me to participate in this week of reflection and discussion about the power and importance of public service.
Let me also thank my good friend, Judge Richard Roberts, for welcoming me to his alma mater. This campus and this historic chapel are as beautiful as he described. As I look around at the hundreds of very young students gathered here, I realize that Ricky and I have been friends for more years than most of you have been alive. And I’ve always known him to be a proud Vassar alum. From him, I’ve had the chance to learn quite a bit about the traditions, achievements and contributions that are, and always have been, such a vital part of life on this campus.
On Saturday, I understand that many of you will come together to mark one of Vassar’s oldest traditions – Founder’s Day – when you’ll celebrate the extraordinary foresight, generosity and optimism that Matthew Vassar showed in establishing this college. As you all know, this institution welcomed its first class of students in 1861, during a time of unprecedented instability, impending war and deep, national division. Despite the challenges of the day, Matthew Vassar believed he could leverage his great fortune for the common good and the cause of equality. And he saw education as the country’s most powerful tool to ensure peace, prosperity and justice. What was true then remains true today. In creating this place of learning, Matthew Vassar believed that its students would, as he put it, “mold the character of [America’s] citizens, determine its institutions, and shape its destiny.” M any other students and professors who’ve worked to improve life on, and far beyond, this campus have proven that he was right. And the spirit of service he continues to inspire is, indeed, cause for celebration. It is my fervent hope that you will continue this great tradition.
But the truth is that the celebration of your founder’s legacy and vision has already begun. During the events and activities that you’ve participated in throughout this week – and, today, in commemorating Earth Day – all of you have honored and extended the commitment to public service that Matthew Vassar first established on this campus. For many of you, public service is not only a top priority but also a central part of your daily lives. You serve as mentors at nearby high schools; you teach elementary students about the environment at the Vassar Farm; you clean up the Hudson River; and, as part of the Green Haven Program, you tutor inmates at the maximum-security prison in Stormville. Your commitment to public service also goes far beyond this campus and the Poughkeepsie community. In fact, four of you here today were on the ground in Haiti a few months ago when the earthquake struck. In the wake of that disaster, you were among the first responders who worked to save and to protect lives.
In these and many other ways, all of you have strengthened Vassar’s tradition of service – a legacy that is remarkable. Half a century ago, Vassar students were among our nation’s most vocal advocates for social justice and civil rights. In 1960, just weeks after the first lunch counter sit in took place in North Carolina, Vassar students picketed the Poughkeepsie Woolworth store in solidarity with the hundreds of students who were combating segregation across the south. Two years later, the Vassar-Mississippi Action Committee was launched out of concern for the safety of James Meredith, the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi. When Meredith attempted to attend classes, violent – and deadly – riots broke out. In response, this committee reached out to Congress, to President Kennedy, and to my predecessor, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, calling on their continued support for civil rights and equal access to education.
These Vassar students pressed the Justice Department to enforce the statutes and the spirit of our laws to further the cause of integration fully and peacefully. And, in 1963 Alabama became the last of the southern states to end segregation in its schools. That year, as our country held its breath and our National Guard stood watch, my late sister-in-law, Vivian Malone, was one of two African American students who stepped past Governor George Wallace to integrate Alabama’s campus.
This achievement, like the many opportunities I’ve been afforded throughout my life, was the direct result of the courage, compassion and service of others. Today, we must never let these efforts be in vain. The responsibilities of protecting the progress our country has made, and of overcoming the many challenges still before us, now fall on the shoulders of today’s leaders, teachers, and students. They fall on you. Because of what you’ve learned and experienced on this campus, you are now among the most prepared and best equipped to improve the lives of others. With your skills and training, you can work to open the doors of our economic and judicial systems and help to overcome the obstacles of inequity and injustice. Whether you’ll be leaving this campus in a few weeks or a few years, you can all go forward from this place and give meaning to the ideals that animate our laws and call our nation to aim higher, become better, and do more for those less fortunate. This not only an opportunity – it is your obligation.
But how? you may ask. Although I can assure you that your contributions are needed, I can’t tell you exactly what work you should pursue or precisely what role you should fulfill. That is for you to discover. But, no matter what path you chose for yourself and your future, even if it’s outside of traditional public service fields, you will surely be surrounded by opportunities to serve others. In whatever profession you decide to pursue you must always find a way to be a public servant, a servant of the people. As you find your calling and pursue your own success, I hope you will also seek out ways to assist those who need your help. Anyone can – and, I believe, everyone who’s had the privilege of a Vassar education should – work to make a positive and enduring impact on the world we all share and the future we all seek.
During a career mostly spent in public service, I have found the work of assisting others and serving the cause of justice to be more fulfilling, and more thrilling, than I could have imagined. And I have also found great purpose – and unexpected joy – in the experiences I’ve had mentoring and tutoring young people.
When I served as Washington, D.C.’s U.S. Attorney, my staff and I decided to “adopt” a local elementary school in a low-income, African-American neighborhood. Immediately, these young children gravitated toward us – hungry for attention, for support and for role models. It was the human interaction that those kids received that mattered most to them- irrespective of the race of the adults with whom they interacted. And, as much as our time together benefitted those children, I’m certain it meant more to the people in my office. That experience constantly reminds me that public service must go beyond simply writing a check to a good cause. Of course, donations are a good start, but human contact, real involvement, is far more important. As you look for ways to help others, I hope you will resist the temptation to sit on the sidelines. There is simply still too much need, too much suffering and too much work yet to be done.
During the three decades I’ve spent in public service, I’ve learned that government alone cannot advance the cause of justice. Our history proves this. That’s why, today, the work of ensuring justice and opportunity for all – work that Vassar students and teachers have taken up for decades – must continue.
Yes, we have made great progress as a nation. And it may be tempting – when you look at the diversity of people walking the halls of Congress or at the man sitting in the Oval Office – to think that equality has been achieved for all Americans. But it will take more than the election of the first African-American President – and certainly more than the appointment of the first African-American Attorney General – to fully secure the promise of equality for every American. The quest for social justice continues, and it is up to all of us to contribute. Nothing less than our security, our prosperity and the needs of our most vulnerable citizens, hang in the balance.
I don’t expect that meeting our shared goals and obligations will be easy. But I am hopeful. And, as I look around this Chapel, I can’t help but feel optimistic about where we’ll arrive.
So, know that I will be counting on all of you. Know also that you are the inheritors of a great and noble tradition. Much is expected of you. Together, I believe we can extend the tradition of service that’s being celebrated across the Vassar campus this week. And I have no doubt that each of you can, as your founder once predicted, help to mold the character and shape the destiny of our nation. I look forward to this work. And I’m so grateful to count you all as partners.