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Promises Made Should Be Promises Kept

  • Date: 05/01/2000
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: Greater Akron Speaks Out for Values, Tangier, Akron, Ohio
  • Good morning, Ladies and gentlemen!

    And thank you, Roger, for your generous introduction. You and Judy are truly exceptional members of this community, and all of us here are grateful for all that each of you does, individually and as a couple.

    It is my happy privilege to be with you again for this Annual Greater Akron Speaks Out for Values Breakfast.

    As some of you may remember, Father Norm had asked me to share with you a glimpse of the concept of shared leadership - a concept that we are putting into practice at the University of Akron and for which I have asked Becky Hoover Herrnstein to serve as the architect.

    So it seems fitting that I should start my remarks this morning by reviewing the ideas that I outlined for you one year ago:

    Shared leadership is:

    • A process that derives its strength from a community working together toward a common vision, not from vested authority;
    • A process that learns from mistakes and welcomes change as the challenge of opportunity, where communication is not from the top, but throughout an organization and is disciplined by ambitious goals and aspirations;

    Shared leadership is:

    • A process that is inclusive of all, because information is shared, and each person comes to know how their individual actions contribute to the whole;
    • A process that values diversity, because two heads are better than one, and because complex organizations require multiple sources of expertise and creativity.

    Shared leadership is:

    • A process wherein there is no limit to what one can accomplish, because there is no need to take personal credit;
    • And a process wherein values are integral to the vision and where commitment is eagerly advocated because shared dreams challenge and inspire.

    That is shared leadership, and throughout the world, where democratic ideals are practiced and where free markets operate, shared leadership is increasingly the process that fuels the creative progress of our society.

    Indeed, the very essence of participatory democracies relies on our ability to use the combined knowledge of our citizens.

    History has taught us that to improve our lot as a society, we must make use of our collective wisdom, and that we must make use of our accumulated and emerging knowledge - rather than to rely on mere opinions or on the pretense of authority.

    I suggest to you that, as a society, there is one indisputable lesson we must remember:

    And that is that in creating a government, we make a covenant with ourselves, wherein we promise to create a better future for ourselves and for our children by investing in those things that advance the common good.

    In short, government is an exercise in shared leadership.

    Over time, we have come to agree as a society that those things that add value for the common good are three in number, namely investments in education, research, and infrastructure.

    This covenant that we make with ourselves is a promise that must be constantly renewed and one that must be progressively adjusted as we continue to learn and advance our knowledge.

    And to me, nothing brought home that message as powerfully as two articles that appeared side by side on the front page of the Wall Street Journal just last Monday.
    (Wall Street Journal 4/24/00)

    The first focused on the South American nation of Chile, pointing out how the economic opportunities there were being stymied, because of the absence of an educational system capable of injecting enough skilled workers into their economy.

    The second article, right alongside, focused on Lima, Ohio, and highlighted the fact that a tight labor market was causing employers in Lima to turn to ex-convicts, with good results, in order to satisfy the labor demands of that community.

    This side-by-side contrast between a third world country and a community in Ohio struck me as ironic.

    First, it reminded me of a statement often made by Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard University: "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance."

    Second, because of Lima's positive experience in employing ex-convicts, I was similarly reminded that our state spends in excess of $30,000 per year to keep a person in jail.

    Now don't misunderstand me, I am glad to see a positive outcome, and most people do deserve a second chance.

    But, to me, the irony lies in the fact that education, which costs Ohio about $5,000 per year, per student, is the best antidote to crime or to recidivism.

    Therefore, I can only conclude that the real crime is that we in Ohio are only too willing to spend six times more money to rehabilitate, than to educate!

    However, I know that it is not easy for governments to deliver on ideals.

    Although peace and prosperity are goals for every government, history shows us that they are fragile commodities. Indeed, even after this remarkable century of progress, world news tells us about ethnic warfare in Eastern Europe, starvation and sickness in many third world countries, and economic upheavals in various world markets.

    Societies, it seems, are slow to learn that prosperity is often a prerequisite to peace, and that knowledge and its dissemination are the common elements that drive economic and societal progress.

    Without that simple realization, the promise of government becomes an empty promise, a broken promise.

    Let me tell you what I mean.

    In today's knowledge-based economy, higher education is society's infrastructure.

    Higher education is that internal system that, like the tiny pieces of a fine watch, is the basis for what makes our society tick.

    Higher education gives individuals the basis for generating the ideas and technologies that enable both personal and economic progress.

    Higher education creates knowledgeable individuals who can apply their analytical and problem-solving skills to shape our industries and our society.

    So, if our state is to become a leader in science and technology as Ohio Governor Bob Taft has called for, it should follow that our state would value the very mechanism that would allow the state to achieve prosperity.

    Yet, the state has long been near the bottom among states in its per capita expenditures for higher education.

    Is it any wonder, then, that Ohio is also below the national average in residents with bachelor's and graduate degrees, and that this "educational deficit" has been steadily worsening?

    According to the Ohio Board of Regents, our state would need to add almost 250,000 college graduates just to come up to the national average.

    What is more, 40 years ago, Ohio ranked 5th nationally in per capita income - well above the national average. Today, Ohio's per capita income has dropped to 22nd; it has dropped below the national average and it is still dropping - precisely because Ohio is still near the bottom in its support for higher education.

    And so I ask you, have we not failed ourselves in our covenant to advance the common good?

    Of course we have!

    Is this the kind of continuing decline that we want to leave as a legacy for our children and for our grandchildren?

    Of course not!

    So, where do we begin?

    Perhaps, if we look back over the last 20 years, we can learn from our own history.

    First, back in the early 80's, with the support of then-Governor James Rhodes, the Ohio Board of Regents, espoused the societal value of public higher education and intended that no Ohio student would ever pay more than 30 percent of the cost. That is, the people of Ohio recognized that in order to advance the common good, the state should underwrite 70 percent of the cost of attending Ohio's public colleges and universities.

    Second, at about the same time, Ohio was among the first of the states to recognize that investments in science and technology, through the Edison Program, would convert to economic development.

    Yet, these efforts were not sustained, and promises made were not promises kept.

    In the ensuing years, funding shortfalls and other disincentives have pushed the student share of a college education to more than 50 percent.

    That may not sound bad - after all, splitting the cost with our students would seem like a fair bargain - not bad, except when you consider that the national average is at 20 percent and remember that our state had promised to hold student costs at 30 percent.

    No, our students are not getting a fair bargain. Rather, they are paying more than they bargained for.

    But that is not all . . .

    That is not all, because over these last 20 years, it also seems that we have forgotten that the very purpose of our covenant is to make an investment in the future.

    Indeed, we seldom refer to higher education in the same breath with investment. Rather, the state's appropriation to higher education is called an "instructional subsidy."

    That is grossly misleading, because a subsidy suggests an obligatory gesture no different from other entitlements in the state budget.

    So I ask you: Why does our state choose to think pejoratively about education (subsidy is not a "good thing" in today's competitive marketplace)?

    Why, when in so doing, Ohio not only conveys its own ignorance of the facts, but worse, it perpetuates an approach that will doom the state to self-imposed economic mediocrity?

    The most recent figures (1997) show that Ohioans with a Bachelor's degree earn nearly twice as much as an individual with only a high school diploma.

    Far from a subsidy, studies at The University of Akron show a clear return on investment for monies spent on higher education.

    With their higher incomes, students will pay back to the state $1.84 in inflation-adjusted dollars - just in additional taxes - for every dollar the state invests in higher education!

    That is a nearly two-to-one return on investment, and by anyone's accounting, that is an excellent return on investment!

    But there is more, because there are additional returns of as much as 60 percent per year that result from enhanced research and from a higher quality workforce.

    And there are yet other social and economic benefits to be counted - including savings from the many costs often associated with the lack of education, including unemployment, welfare, and crime.

    But no matter what we call it, the current investment in our future falls well short of what's needed, and we must find ways to make it easier for everyone to receive a college education.

    With other states charging an average of only 20 percent of the cost of public higher education, it is clear that Ohio has created a huge disincentive for its students and a tremendous disservice to our economic future.

    Our failure to invest has been slowly, but surely, lowering our per capita income, lowering the percentage of educated people, and creating a less than fully competitive economy. With few high-paying jobs being created in Ohio, is it any wonder that our best and brightest students are going elsewhere?

    By contrast, there is a burst of competitive resurgence occurring in other states, including many around us, and that suggests that Ohio will be forced to play catch-up before it can become a leader in the high stakes of economic development.

    States like Georgia and California, for example, are fundamentally providing free access to higher education for talented students.

    Georgia's Hope Scholarship Program is a prime example. Every high school student graduating with at least a B average in their academic subjects gets free tuition, free mandatory fees, and a book allowance to attend any public college or university in the state.

    Students who keep the B average, continue to receive these scholarship benefits through all four years of college.

    Georgia has also created a research partnership between its universities, state government, and private business - a partnership that has by now vastly outpaced the initial momentum of our own Edison programs.

    The Georgia Research Alliance, as the partnership is called, coordinates and provides research in advanced communications, biotechnology, and environmental technology at the state's six major research institutions.

    Georgia has invested more than $200 million in state funds to help endow chairs for 27 eminent research scholars and to equip and build the sophisticated laboratories where they work, thereby attracting and leveraging more than $800 million in federal and industrial funding.

    And other examples abound, whether in Indiana that recently created a "21st Century Research and Technology Fund"; or in Michigan that recently announced a $1-billion plan to create a life science research and industrial corridor over the next 20 years; or in many other states.

    In comparison, Ohio's investment to sustain competitiveness in the polymer industry seems paltry. Ohio invests only $1.4 million annually in the Edison Polymer Innovation Corporation, and that is less than one one-thousandth of one percent of the $20.8 billion annual value of our polymer industry.

    That is an infinitesimally small investment for an industry that accounts for nearly one fourth of Ohio's manufacturing output. And it seems even paltrier when compared to the average 2.4 percent, which nations invest in R&D relative to their GNP, and the 2.9 percent, which corporations spend relative to their annual sales.

    Yet, Ohio is only too willing to invest $100 million annually to support the coal industry, which accounts for a mere four-tenths of one percent of Ohio's gross state product.

    The lesson is that other states already know what Ohio yet needs to learn - they know that higher education is a good investment for our economy. And they have made higher education the infrastructure of their new economy.

    Indeed, economists agree that research, best defined as the production of new knowledge, as occurs daily on our campuses, is the most direct avenue for creating new wealth.

    When that new knowledge is quantified in a market environment, it creates fuller employment, capital formation, growing profits, and surpluses for reinvestment.

    It is not too late, however, because Ohio already has some of the tools in place with which it can create a resurgence of economic vitality; with which it can renew its promises to our citizens.

    Governor Taft has understood this new environment and has taken the lead by proposing several initiatives. His creation of a Technology Action Fund is a case in point.

    And I am proud to announce that your University of Akron, in collaboration with Case Western Reserve University and the Akron Incubator Facility, is one of the first recipients of funding under the Governor's new program.

    Last week, the state's Controlling Board approved the award of $760,000 dollars for an initiative to enhance the commercialization of new polymer technologies in our region.

    However, there is much more that we must all do in Ohio, lest our state fail to capture its fair share of economic progress, lest Ohio not even be able to catch up or come close to the progress made by other states.

    Moving forward is not necessarily progress, if your competition is still passing you by.

    Make no mistake about it, science and technology will continue to play an increasingly important role in our future, and we in Ohio must be prepared and equipped to effectively compete in that fast-changing marketplace.

    As I said at the outset, investing in our future means investing in education, research and infrastructure. That is the covenant we make with ourselves in creating a government dedicated to advancing the common good.

    As parents and grandparents, I know that you want the best for your sons and daughters. I know you want them to have an even brighter future than the one you had. I know that you will want to ensure that we advance the common good.

    So it is time that we work together, through shared leadership, to restructure our priorities. It is time that we renew the covenant, and that we restate our promise.

    Promises made should be promises kept.

    Lessons learned, should be lessons applied.

    Ohioans deserve no less.

    The answer is in your hands!



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