Keynote Address by Soledad O'Brien

Introduction by Jason Matheny

It's now my privilege to introduce a person whose commitment to accuracy, empathy, and impact has so benefited the world with her unwavering dedication to journalism and public understanding.

Soledad O'Brien is an inspiration. And today, she's our 2024 honorary degree recipient and featured commencement speaker. It is a privilege to welcome Soledad so that we may officially recognize her as an honorary graduate of the Pardee RAND Graduate School. Soledad, please step forward.

Soledad, I'll now read your conferral citation. At the completion of the reading, Dean Staudt has the honor of hooding you.

A documentarian, journalist, and philanthropist, Soledad O'Brien has spent decades setting the standard for her industry for her high quality reporting in a variety of media. She has been celebrated for distinguished achievement and meritorious public service with multiple Emmy, Peabody, and Gracie Awards, the NAACP Image Award, the Alfred I. DuPont Award, an Independent Spirit Award, the 2024 Insight Award, and many, many more.

Soledad has given congressional testimony on disinformation and extremism in the media. Her commentaries have appeared in many top tier media outlets. She's anchored shows on CNN, MSNBC, and NBC. Her reporting has been featured in specials for A&E, National Geographic, and PBS NewsHour.

But in addition to her work in journalism, after Hurricane Katrina, she created with her husband Brad the PowHERful Foundation, whose mission is to get young women to and through college. Through Soledad’s generous support, Pardee RAND established the Edward and Estela O'Brien Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity Award, named after her parents and focused on students who come from underrepresented groups or the first generation in their family to attend college or pursue an advanced degree.

Several boards have the fortune of having Soledad as a member, but I think none is more appreciative than the Pardee RAND Board of Governors and the RAND Board of Trustees. So, with the enthusiastic concurrence of those boards, the Pardee RAND Graduate School is pleased to confer upon Soledad O'Brien the honorary degree of Doctor of Public Policy. Congratulations, Doctor O'Brien. The podium is now yours for commencement remarks.

Keynote Address by Soledad O'Brien

So I thought getting my Ph.D. was kind of easy actually. Not sure what the big fuss is about today.

Thank you, Jason. Thank you, Nancy. It is an honor to be invited to speak to you today. I've been a member of the Pardee Board of Governors and the RAND Board of Trustees for nine years, and it has given me tremendous insight into the magic that surrounds this institution that you are graduating from today.

The gem that is Pardee RAND because of a really smart decision to put a school in the middle of a think tank. I have in the past, a few times, been asked to speak to folks who are on the cusp of their graduation, usually undergrads who are about to go out into the work world for the very first time. Usually they're hung over, and I am sort of the last thing in the way of them getting their degree and getting out of sitting in the hot sun. But Pardee RAND grads, you are on the cusp of something wonderful and important and, frankly, essential at this moment, at this time in our world. So I am honored that I get to speak to you.

I had a chance to chat with a few students yesterday, three young women who've been funded by a scholarship that my husband and I launched when my parents passed away in 2019. My parents were both immigrants, my dad from Australia, my mother from Cuba, and they believed that education was the most important thing that you could help someone achieve. My dad got his Ph.D. in physics and fluid mechanics, my mom her master's in both French and Spanish. And they used to say often, your education is something that no one can take from you. Sounds like immigrants! They'd say, even if you leave everything behind when you leave your country, your educated mind, no one can ever take that from you.

Now at RAND, you all like to talk about the RAND mind, creating the RAND mind. And I'll be honest, when I joined the Board, I had no idea what that meant. How absolutely remarkable and unique it is to be trained in a way that embodies the core principles of RAND. At a school that's a beacon of excellence, with an unwavering commitment to scholarly rigor, intellectual curiosity, ethical leadership.

You've been immersed in an environment that fosters critical thinking, interdisciplinary collaboration, and a deep appreciation for the complexities of public policy, learning not to just identify problems, but learning to help solve them. To do independent research and analysis and learning that problems—even the biggest, most complex, seemingly intractable problems—are best solved when you bring people out of their silos together to work with each other, to work to improve the world. And it's that last part that I stand most in awe of.

Leveraging that RAND mind to make the world a better place is not a mission for the faint of heart. I came to RAND because of Dr. Joe Greer, who's sitting right over there. He's also a member of the Board of Governors and Board of Trustees. I'd been focused on my work, doing documentaries about social issues in America, and Joe recommended that I sit down and talk with Michael Rich, who was then RAND’s president and CEO. And Michael and I met in the—I think, Michael, I think we met in the cafeteria at CNN, if I'm remembering correctly.

I confessed to him that I thought, like, I'm not sure why we're having this conversation. I think RAND works on a lot of military policy issues, and that's really not something I know a lot about. But Michael, who is very persuasive—as anybody who knows him knows—told me about a project that RAND researchers were tackling. The question they were trying to answer was, Are Oakland cops racist? And they wanted to look at the potential for racial bias in police stops, specifically in Oakland.

My first reporting job was in Oakland, California. And I can promise you that the bulk of the people living there, if you ask them that question, they'd say, oh, yeah. Yes. The conflicts between the Oakland police and Oakland residents were well known and very well documented. But how do you study that question? How do you move out of the emotion of that issue, a pervasive, entrenched problem that seems to have no real way to quantify it? Are Oakland cops racist? How do you measure what a police officer is thinking when they see somebody drive down the street in Oakland? Well, that RAND mind, man!

RAND researchers used daylight saving time to measure police stops. Who did police stop when they could see into a vehicle? Compared to who did police stop when they couldn't see into a vehicle? It was brilliant. The study, by the way, is called Daylight and Police Stops: Evidence from Traffic Stops in Oakland, by Jack Glazer and colleagues. And those colleagues? That's the Pardee RAND students, some of those colleagues.

As a journalist, my work is to do documentaries that are narratives undergirded by facts and by evidence and by data. And the RAND mind was an absolute revelation to me. So, of course, I joined the board.

TV news reporters don't like to focus on policy. It sounds wonky and boring. It is wonky and boring sometimes. I actually had an executive producer say to me once, policy schmolicy. I am embarrassed to admit that today, but that's what was said. And as much as people will caution you in TV, “Never work with small children, never work with animals,” you could add to that as well, “Don't talk about policy. You're going to bore people.” Now, politics. If you work in cable TV, that's exciting, right? Two people with opposing views who are basically yelling at each other these days as they sit on the set in a newsroom.

Policy can seem dull to some reporters, but absolutely never to me. One of those RAND students told me yesterday that she decided to come to Pardee RAND to get her Ph.D. in public policy because she was a child of policy—in her case, DACA. Under President Obama, the impact of policy played a huge role in every facet of her life.

As a reporter, I've always loved investigating the ways in which policy shapes our lives. The show I anchor now is called Matter of Fact. It literally examines how policy lands on people, how their lives are affected, made better, made worse. So I know that analysis of policy is absolutely critical to getting people out of their silos and getting them to come together around facts to create solutions, not just here in America, of course, but globally.

And I am a child of policy. When my parents came to this country, my dad, white and Australian, my mom, Black and Cuban, were living in Baltimore, Maryland. My dad was studying for his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University. My mom was working in the chemistry department there, and my parents used to tell me and my five brothers and sisters the story of how they met. They met because they both attended daily Mass.

And here's a little side note. The whole entire point of the story, by the way, is you should be attending daily Mass. That's what they told us kids.

My mom used to walk to daily Mass, but my dad had a car and he would pull over on his way to church and basically hit on my mom. There's no way to clean that up. He would pull over, he'd wind down the window. This is obviously before power windows, right? And he would ask her, “Would you like a ride?” And she would say, “No, no, thank you.” You didn't take a ride from someone you didn't know well. But day after day my dad would pull over and ask, “Do you want a ride?” And day after day she would say, “No, thank you.” And then one day she said yes.

And my father, he was no fool. He made a date to go on a date. But because it was Baltimore, though, in 1958, every restaurant they went to turned them away. They’d say to my dad, “You can come in.” They’d say to my mom, “You cannot come in, and certainly you can't come in together.” Restaurant after restaurant turn them away. And eventually my mother brought my father back to her apartment. She was an incredible cook of Cuban food. And she whipped up dinner.

And the entire point of my mother sharing the story wasn't about segregation or anti-miscegenation laws or even American policy in the late 1950s. It was, “So, girls, if you could cook, you could get a man.”

So, I cannot cook. I like to say, I can't make it, but I can make it happen in 20 minutes or so. But what I took from that story was how policy influenced their lives daily, in very real ways. When my parents decided in 1958 to get married, interracial marriage was illegal in Maryland and in 15 other states in our nation. So they drove to D.C. in my dad's car and they got hitched. And then they drove back to Baltimore, and they lived illegally as an interracial couple.

And when my parents’ friends told them, well, whatever you do, don't have kids because biracial children will not fit in this world? I'm number five of six. My parents were terrible listeners every step of the way, and my little brother, in fact, was born the very same year that the Supreme Court would overturn the ban on interracial marriage: 1967, the year the ban was overturned, my parents were having their sixth child. I am a child of policy.

My parents moved to Long Island in the late 1960s and tried to buy a house, but racial covenants kept people from selling homes to black people. My dad was able to buy land eventually and build a home when he went alone to purchase it and left my mother behind. And my mother's strategy of moving into our neighborhood was what I think of as a very typically immigrant one: do not speak Spanish. It's why I'm only fluent in Spanglish. Keep your head down. Keep your mouth closed. Blend in. Just assimilate your way into the neighborhood.

But it was the 1970s. And for all of our attempts at assimilation, my mom also had a giant Angela Davis afro in which she kept her pick. So we probably could have gone with Spanish. We were not blending in at all.

That was my family's very American story, dictated by policies that told them what they could do, what they couldn't do, where they could live, and those policies that would shift and change over time.

How policy lands on people to shape their lives, improve their lives, undermine at times their opportunities, is essential to track and analyze and investigate and measure and model and study. And it is the RAND mind that you now all have that will help you do all of that as you head into your next challenges.

I think most RAND board members would agree with me that the very best thing about being a board member is getting to see the RAND mind at work. And the goal, of course, is to put more RAND minds into the world.

I'm not sure if you guys have noticed this yet, but, we need you, like, yesterday. In a world with political division and international unrest and chaos and misinformation and disinformation, these are the kind of challenges that most people will just say, oh, those things are just terrible. But at RAND you say, “So how do we think about understanding this problem? How do we collect the data? How do we analyze it in a way that makes sense? How do we help create a set of facts that can help lawmakers make better, more informed decisions, help leaders make smarter decisions, help the public understand complex and complicated issues and the impact. How do you implement good ideas and necessary solutions?”

This is the critical work of making the world a better place. This is the day-to-day work of the RAND mind. Some truths that we might hold to be self-evident, like all men are created equal, sometimes aren't so self-evident even to the guy who wrote that.

What I've loved about being a reporter now for 36 years is to use good data and important studies to help people navigate their world better, and it is currently a world that is becoming more complicated every single day. Global warming, war, big shifts in technology, disasters, crime—from feel-good stories about a health clinic opening to feel-bad stories about rural hospitals closing. They all require actual facts.

We cannot rely on truth being self-evident. It actually has to be prodded and investigated and modeled and analyzed and studied with the goal of getting to the facts and getting to the truth no matter what. And that takes courage. And we are at a moment when a search for truth takes courage, when an insistence on facts requires a lot of moral courage.

Today, Pardee RAND graduates, it is as if you are released into the world. I probably should come up with a better metaphor. That sounds almost like imprisonment for the last couple of years for some of you. Sorry about that. You've been trained to tackle the biggest problems, the ones that seem overwhelming and unknowable, and maybe even the ones that seem impossible. And the last years have not been easy. We know this. There have been challenges at every turn. Living in an expensive city. For some of you, writing a dissertation while raising a baby. The classwork, the OJT, the studying. It is all hard. We get it.

It is not a small thing to decide that your life's work should be in policy analysis, that your life's work can improve the world. And so we celebrate you, and we honor your commitment to truth and to facts and to data and to accuracy. And we are excited for what the future holds for you.

I thank you for allowing me to address you this morning. I've been honored to serve on your school's Board of Governors, to work with the remarkable Dean Staudt, to work with the RAND Board under Jason Matheny. Although sometimes some of those presentations, I got to be honest, they scare me to death.

But I want you guys to take a moment, and I want you to turn around and look at the people who are responsible for you getting here, who supported you and who encouraged you, sometimes cajoled you, cheered you on your very long journey. Turn around and say thank you, thank you, thank you for helping me and supporting me. Ultimately, it is we who are thanking you.

What you are taking on now is critical to the fabric of our democracy, and we stand in awe of all that you've done, but more importantly, all in what you are all poised to do now. Thank you very much, and congratulations, graduates.