Dean's Remarks at 2016 Pardee RAND Commencement

Dean Susan Marquis

RAND Photography: Diane Baldwin

Fantastic! Isn’t this the best?

You must indulge me for a moment. We’ve been building up to the Pardee RAND Graduate School 2016 Commencement for months—okay, many years—and it is magical to see everything come together. Let’s just pause for just a moment to take it all in on this gorgeous day. This is not bad!

I’m going to point out our most distinguished faculty. Oh, and I should note that Ted Harshberger and Arthur Brooks, who received our Alumni Leadership Award yesterday evening, have joined in with the faculty. The three of us share affection for regalia and just can’t resist an opportunity to wear the robes.

Our honorable degree recipients Joe Newhouse, Carolyn Meyers, and Warren Olney. Congressman John Lewis, our commencement speaker. We are most fortunate to have with us today former RAND presidents Don Rice and Jim Thomson join with Michael Rich today. And of course, members of the school’s Board of Governors and RAND’s Board of Trustees. Thank you.

Ah yes, the families and friends who have come together to celebrate the accomplishment and promise of our graduates. Pretty exciting, right? You have brought love and the gift of presence to today’s assembly. Welcome!

And then here we are. Our graduates. It shouldn’t surprise you that you’ve been on my mind this week. To be fair, you’ve been on my mind, and the mind of all the deans, the graduate school staff, and our faculty for a number of years. Really, from the time you sent us your application and we invited you to become part of the Pardee RAND community. Preview weekend, orientation, and as we taught you in the classroom, appreciated your talent on our projects, and as we offered encouragement with your dissertations.

But when I say you’ve been on my mind, I’m talking about something a bit different. Something more immediate. Several evenings over this past week or two, I’ve sat at the table in my office with your future before me. Most of us never think about the signatures on our diplomas, much less about those who sign them. Commencement is a grand event but signing diplomas is a reminder that small things matter. Ultra-thin Sharpie in hand, I signed each diploma. David An. Evan Bloom. Nono Ayivi. Each time I put pen to paper, with each signature there is a memory and a promise.

The memories are easy. Nolan Sweeney setting the standard for work/life balance. The man had actual weekends! Jodi Liu as an exemplary TA with patience and the ability to translate professors’ handwriting. Eric Warner as the envisioned foundational player for the Pardee RAND football team. Okay, maybe that idea never got off the ground, but we could have. We could have beat any public policy school out there. Jon Wong, I’m afraid we can’t get Jennie’s baking out of our minds. Ujwal Kharel’s enthusiasm for his fellow students and deep concern for forgotten immigrant workers… Idrees Rahmani, Ashley Pierson. Nelly Mejia. Sarah Evans…

Such a small act, the signing of diplomas. But with time I’ve come to realize the power of small actions – that small things, smartly done, can bring about magnificent change. If we forget those details, lose track of the small, our big ideas will never become real. It is in the small that we recognize the humanity of those whose lives we wish to make better and the necessity of understanding the details of those lives in the recommendations we make and the changes we lead. Adam Singer’s research on end-of-life care becomes real in the smallness of the room where the son is holding his mother’s hand when the time has come. It’s the teenagers cramped living under a blue plastic tarp with their dog, that Yasho Rana must reach if her research on safe sex is to save lives. Susan Burkhauser’s work shows that the most basic of personal relationships, that between a teacher and a principal, may be the largest determinant of whether a teacher decides to stay or leave the school and his students.

Jennifer Walters. Ning Fu. Ethan Scherer. Mollie Rudnick…

We’ve talked a lot this past year about the changes in the nature and place of public policy since the Pardee RAND Graduate School was founded in 1970. Governments still matter but the power to make and implement “public policy” or social change has diffused and shifted. As national governments have gridlocked, cities and neighborhoods have become the laboratories for developing, experimenting with, and bringing to life new policy solutions. Public policy is now developed and implemented by NGOs, nonprofits, and even the private sector.

New ideas and solutions to take on what have been persistent and complex policy problems now come from unexpected sources, and their success often comes from recognizing that details matter, the public is made up of individuals, and that small acts can transform lives. Doctors, social workers, and lawyers working together in Miami in recognition that you can best improve public health one family at a time; chefs Daniel Patterson and Roy Choi bringing hope and jobs to communities like Watts and the Tenderloin District with the ‘burgs’ and tacos of their new fast food chain, Locol; tomato pickers in Immokalee, Florida, who carried banners and a papier-mâché Statue of Liberty to take on the fast food chains and are now transforming agricultural labor in this country.

I see Congressman Lewis and I can’t but think of the big ideas of civil rights, human rights that came to life in part because of the seemingly small actions of knocking on doors, speaking at churches, and taking that first step across a bridge. The people behind each of these had the courage and vision to recognize that small acts are the first steps toward real change.

Greg Midgette. Christina Huang. Marlon Graf. Henu Zhao…

For each of you, our newest graduates: Be bold. Think Big. But don’t forget the value of that first small act and appreciate the details of the lives you wish to change for the better. For each of you, as I read your names, I realized that that each signature was really a prayer, a wish for you the brightest of futures. It was a small act that signified the commencement of your fulfilling the tremendous promise of your lives. Today you are taking that step and there is no doubt that magnificent change will follow.