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Graduate Schools

Facing Risks for the Public Good: The Kennedy School Graduation Address

5.26.10

In the carefully secured John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum, the Harvard Kennedy School’s class of 2010 heard Dean David Ellwood introduce their Commencement speaker, Mexican president Felipe Calderón, M.P.A. ’00, as a man of action whose efforts to better his country stand as an antidote to the fear and inaction seen in many other parts of the world.

Calderón himself, in his quarter-hour address, identified some of the efforts begun since his administration took office in December 2006: announcing the presence of the H1N1 virus in Mexico, despite the risk to the tourism industry, and moving quickly to counter the spread of the disease; getting his country’s health-insurance program on track to have all Mexicans covered by 2012; confronting both pollution and the drug cartels. The examples underlined his view of the role that public service and politics can play in the formation of strong, prosperous nations, and his challenge to the graduating class.

The secret, he told them, is to believe firmly in something worth fighting for, and then have the determination and courage to build a life around those beliefs. Public service is more than just wanting a career in public administration, he said, because “you must also assume responsibility not just…for your own destiny, but for the destiny of all.” He warned bluntly that this wouldn’t be easy. It can be hard enough to pick between two good alternatives, he pointed out, but most often the choice is between the lesser of two evils. Even so, he urged his audience, try to transform your countries to face their long-term challenges without regard to the short-term costs that any important change requires. The world needs new leaders, who have to be ready to bear those costs.

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