Joel Klein Delivers Class Day Address

Friday, May 30, 2008

Joel Klein ’67, Chancellor of New York City’s Department of Education, delivered the keynote address at Columbia College’s 2008 Class Day on May 19, urging the graduating seniors to embrace the challenges they will face in their careers. “Hard as it may be, you’ve got to get outside your current comfort zone sooner or later, and if you want my advice, sooner is better,” Klein told members of the Class of 2008. “We are all so programmed, so eager to know what we are expected to do next, that all too often we don’t realize that we are the architects of our own destiny. Rejoice in that knowledge. It’s truly empowering.”

Below is the complete text of Klein’s address to the Class of 2008.


"I’m thrilled to be here today to congratulate you on your superb achievement and to acknowledge your parents, loved ones, friends, and teachers, without whom you wouldn’t be here. It’s a great day and you should take time to savor it. And it’s OK to smile, this really is a big deal.

As someone who once sat where you’re sitting, I’m deeply honored to have been selected as your class-day speaker. At the same time, I must admit this is no easy assignment. Tim Russert pretty much summed it up:

“Let me be honest with you about my experiences with commencement addresses. I’ve been through several of my own, sat through dozens of others, and I can’t recall a single word or phrase from any of those informed, inspirational, and interminable speeches.”

So, you can see why I was really stuck about what to say. But then, last Sunday, I was out walking and, true story, I saw a tee-shirt that said, on the top, “I’m so excited,” and, on the bottom, “I’m so afraid.” And between the two sayings was a beer mug, either half empty or half full, depending on your perspective.

Perfect, I thought. It reminded me of the emotions I felt at my own graduation 41 years ago, excited about the education I had received, proud that I had completed it, afraid of what was ahead, and wondering whether my glass was half full or half empty. I was also reminded of a discussion that I recently had with one of your classmates who told me he was “worried that I’ve just finished the best four years of my life.”

That’s quite a depressing thought for someone so young. But I can understand why he said it. For most of you, these past four years have been spectacular in so many ways, and Columbia will always be a very special place for you. In addition to the friends and fun times, two things really stand out about this great college.

First is Columbia’s commitment to teach students to think, a commitment reflected best in the core curriculum but that extends way beyond it. Sure, knowledge matters, and you’ve acquired a lot of it here. But more important than knowledge is the ability to be constantly tough-minded and curious.

Columbia pushes its students to think logically and hard about difficult problems, to challenge orthodoxy, and to keep turning over the rocks, always interested in what lies beneath. Those are the skills necessary to be a lifetime learner and the good news is once it’s in your blood it usually stays there. Charlie Munger, one of America’s premiere lawyers and richest investors—he’s Warren Buffett’s partner—recently told a law school graduating class, “Nothing has served me better in my long life than continuous learning.” Those are deeply wise words.

The other very special thing about this school is that its campus includes the entire City of New York. Sure, there will always be students who prefer the small-community atmosphere of a rural college like Amherst or Williams. Those are great schools but, for me, the opportunity to spend my college years getting to know this remarkable city was the developmental icing on the academic cake. This is the most exciting, most diverse, and, in many ways, most challenging place in the nation, if not the world. Like becoming a lifetime learner, once you get this city in your blood, she’ll always be a part of you.

Those two things about Columbia are the pillars on which I’ve built my adult life. I came here on full scholarship from a public high school in Astoria, Queens, having lived in public housing and been raised in a family where no one had gone to college. Four years later, I could see a world of limitless opportunity—and that explains why I simultaneously felt both excitement and fear. The excitement is easy to see. Why the fear?

Because like you, I was about to leave the cocoon of this nurturing community for a world that seemed much more uncertain. You’ll now be making choices about your future that are considerably more complex than picking majors or classes. One of your classmates, who’ll be teaching in Japan this fall, expressed this thought perfectly when he recently told me, “I feel like I’m going from being fluent in schooling to being non-fluent in Japanese.”

That’s a big leap. But, hard as it may be, you’ve got to get outside your current comfort zone sooner or later, and if you want my advice, sooner is better. Because only then will you realize the profound wisdom in the words that my friend Alan Alda delivered at his own daughter’s graduation from Connecticut College: “Life is meaningless unless you bring meaning to it; it’s up to us to create our own existence.”

We are all so programmed, so eager to know what we are expected to do next, that all too often we don’t realize that we are the architects of our own destiny. Rejoice in that knowledge. It’s truly empowering. The really insightful person, I like to say, is unlike the human eye—she can see at least as well looking inward as she can looking outward. I can’t emphasize this enough.

It took me several years after Columbia to come to grips with this point. I kept looking outward for the external cues—what did others expect of me? what was the “right” next move?—and when I found those cues, I usually followed them. But then something happened. In 1972, after I finished law school, I was studying at the Stanford Behavioral Sciences Center, where I came to know Dr. Bruno Bettleheim, a brilliant, if controversial, child psychologist. At the end of the year, when I was about to go on a traveling fellowship to study abroad, Bettleheim said to me: “Joel, you do so well with others, now maybe you can use the next year to learn to do well with yourself.” In other words, stop looking for the cues, and start searching for who you are and what you want.

For me, that was a game-changer. While it hasn’t always been easy, I’ve learned to live the life I want. Time and again, that’s led me to leave a world that had become secure to take on new challenges. In other words, to move out of my comfort zone.

A few years after Stanford, I began working in a law firm where I was soon making more money than I thought was possible. And, yet, I left to start my own firm, to focus on the legal issues I thought important and to train young lawyers as I thought best. I made far less money but spent 13 amazing years there, during which I also started teaching law at Georgetown on a part-time basis, something else I loved doing.

I interrupted that work when, unexpectedly, President Clinton asked me to be his Deputy White House Counsel after Vincent Foster’s tragic suicide. This didn’t seem like my thing—I was a cerebral, appellate lawyer at the time—but I’m thrilled I did it. I learned so much about politics, media, pressure, and how to be a lawyer operating in the midst of all that. That experience helped enable me to do what I do now. And that job also led to my appointment as head of the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice under President Clinton, where I brought several major lawsuits, including a ground-breaking monopoly challenge to Microsoft. That’s when I first discovered what it was like to become a public figure, also a good preparation for what I do now.

At the end of the Clinton Administration, I decided I had practiced law at the most exciting and rewarding levels and was convinced, at age 54, that it was time for a new beginning. I chose to go into the business world, and was hired as the Chief U.S. officer of the German media and technology company, Bertelsmann. Trust me, that was way out of my comfort zone. But I learned a lot about strategy and management in complex, changing business environments. These skills, too, are critical to the work I now do.

And, not long after I joined Bertelsmann, Michael Bloomberg asked me to become head of the school system that I attended as a child. I accepted knowing I was going further outside my comfort zone than I’d ever been before. Entering a new field is hard enough; if you add in the inevitable resistance to change from powerful, entrenched interests, coupled with constantly being second-guessed, if not whacked, in the press, you get some sense of what my job is like. In addition, and worst of all for me, progress comes slowly at best in a large, complex, multi-year, service-delivery system like public education. That means, on my watch, despite progress, still far too many students don’t graduate high school. I hate that.

So, you might ask, as people always do, “why do I do it?”

I do it because I love the work. I do it because I know that, without those teachers in Queens, I never would have gone to Columbia, I wouldn’t have lived the life I have, and I wouldn’t be speaking here today. I do it because I think it’s the most important work I could possibly do.

The future of this country depends on making sure that all children, regardless of color and including those who grow up in poverty or broken families, get the education that will give them, just like all of you have been given, a shot at the American dream.

Today, 54 years almost to the day after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, where, way too late in our nation’s history, we finally promised every child an equal educational opportunity, we still haven’t remotely lived up to that commitment. Instead, we continue to have massive racial and ethnic achievement gaps. Skin color and family circumstances, all too frequently, determine the quality of the education you receive. If I’ve learned nothing else in the past six years, I’ve learned that it doesn’t have to be that way. And shame on us if we let it persist. Yet, we’re in the midst of a Presidential election and no one’s really talking about this crisis.

And, finally, I do the work I do because, based on everything I’ve learned, I’ve come to believe that Theodore Roosevelt had it exactly right when he said at the Sorbonne in 1910:

“It is not the critic who counts: not the man [or woman] who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doers of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man [or woman] who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who, at the best, knows the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

So, in closing, let me answer the question your classmate put to me a few weeks ago: Are you at the end of the best years of your life? The answer is, it’s up to you. Columbia has given you the car and the gas. The steering wheel is in your hands. The Roosevelt quote I just read is a good road map. Class of 2008, you are capable of great things. My advice, go for it. And congratulations again on the remarkable accomplishment we celebrate today. Thanks."

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