Distinguished panel confronts national challenges in Convocation for Honors

Though the United States faces daunting challenges, from a massive national debt to misunderstandings between people of different faiths to partisan gridlock, five distinguished panelists who visited Elon University on April 7 for the annual Convocation for Honors program said today’s students have the potential to restore their nation’s global reputation for innovation, education and religious freedoms.

> To see video clips from Convocation, click on the links at right on this page.

Brian Williams, anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News and the parent of an Elon student, moderated the panel discussion titled “We can be better: Courageous voices confront our greatest challenges.”

“I’m here today only in the capacity as an Elon parent,” Williams said as he opened the 75-minute conversation in Alumni Gym. “I assure you I am the least important, and least accomplished, person on this stage right now.”

With a dry sense of humor that often elicited laughter from a sold-out Alumni Gym, Williams led the conversation with panelists who discussed a tension over religion; the national debt and lawmakers’ unwillingness to confront complex, long-term financial problems; the need for dedicated teachers in America’s classrooms; energy security and the impact of technological innovation; and a lack of political leadership on vexing social and economic problems.

Panelists agreed that such problems perhaps account for recent poll findings indicating Americans’ pessimism for the future.

“My hope is that you all as students won’t buy into that, that you won’t accept it as an answer. The call to your generation is whether you can rally for this country, revive it and rebuild it based on the values you have learned from Elon,” said panelist David Gergen. “We’ve become so addicted to not facing up to the issues early on when they first appear. We let them grow and fester to where it becomes very, very difficult.”

The panelists, and their thoughts on topics relevant to their fields, included:

David Gergen, senior political analyst for CNN, adviser to four U.S. presidents, director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, and chair of the Elon University School of Law Advisory Board.

NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams moderated the April 7 panel discussion at Convocation for Honors.

Gergen, who addressed leadership and how youth plays a role in changing the status quo, cited recent events as an illustration of the potential Elon students have. “We need to get your generation involved,” he said. “If there’s any lesson out of Cairo, when we talk to you about being the leaders of the future, that’s wrong. You can be the leaders of today.”

He reminded the audience that solving vexing issues is never a short process.

“Remember, it takes a long time to get hard work done,” he said. “You’ve got to commit yourself … to make this the work of a lifetime.”

Later in the conversation, Gergen also noted that service and leadership aren’t limited to just a few sectors of the job market. Corporations will play a vital role in steering the nation through the years ahead.

“When those of us who talk about public service ask you to serve the country, of course we have in mind going to work for nonprofits or going to work for the government. But business can play an extraordinarily important role in rebuilding this country. Businesses need not be opposed to the good of a country. … The president and CEO of Coca-Cola is on fire about what Coca-Cola can do to help improve the world. They’re planning to make money out of going green! They think they can make a lot of money!”

David Walker, former U.S. Comptroller General and head of the U.S. Government Accountability Office; and founder, president and CEO of the Comeback America Initiative, which encourages policymakers on a non-partisan basis to help achieve solutions to America’s federal, state and local fiscal imbalances.

“Principles and values are timeless,” Walker said. “This country was founded on certain principles and values. And we’ve strayed from some of those principles and values. … The truth is, we’ve lost our way, starting in the early 1980s. We became addicted to conspicuous consumption and debt, both individually and as a country.

“Today, Washington is arguing over less than 1 percent of federal spending while we sail toward an iceberg that could sink the ship of state. It’s like arguing about the bar tab on the Titanic. They (Congress) needs adult supervision. The president needs to lead, because the president is the chief executive officer of the United States.”

Lawmakers must put country over party, and progress over partisanship, he said.

Elon University President Leo M. Lambert recognized student achievements to close the program.

“Fact is, the biggest deficit this country has today is a leadership deficit. We have too many people focused on today, and not enough doing what it takes to create a better tomorrow. … The country does not have a plan that is future-focused, that is results oriented, that is threat and risk and opportunity based, and all too frequently we wait until there’s a crisis at our doorstep before we act.”

Shirley Ann Jackson, a physicist and president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, former chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Jackson addressed what investments in science and technology must be made to show economic leadership, environmental stewardship and greater energy independence. Her remarks focused early on the need to address future energy needs, an issue that she said offers no simple answer.

“It’s not about addiction to oil. It’s about addiction to easy solutions, and addictions to a silver bullet approach to solving problems. … We can live with less if we’re smart about it. And being smart about it means a couple of things. First, innovation, and understanding the role that science and technology can play,” she said. “We’ve got to have a sound infrastructure. If we’re going down the renewable path, what kind of grid are we putting it on?”

Jackson also expressed optimism that today’s college students, like those who came before them, have the potential to create change.

“I’m not so negative,” she said. “I’m a university president, and I’m also a child of the 60s. I saw and understood the role of young people, young people who are informed, who are committed, and who in fact pushed our government to change a lot of things, particularly things in the area in which I grew up that had to do with social justice. That change also opened a talent pool in this country that we have benefited from for generations.”

“There are a lot of great people in this country, and there are lot of great leaders, in business, in the non-government sector, in academe, and yes, in government. … Because of you, the future is great, and I really believe that.”

Eboo Patel, an American Muslim of Indian heritage who is an author, journalist, member of President Barack Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships, and founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core, which promotes religious pluralism.

“There’s a beautiful line in the Holy Quran that says God made us different communities so that we may come to know one another,” he said. “As a Muslim whose parents immigrated here from India, I believe America is humanity’s best chance at getting it right.

This is nation is so precious, it’s so unique, the first country to give rise to the notion that people from the four corners of the earth, from every faith background, can come together to build a nation.

Patel also cited the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his notion that frustration and anger can’t be met with frustration and anger. Instead, it must be met with love.

“As challenging as it might be, and as natural as frustration and anger might be at what feels like irrational intolerance, the path that I follow … is one that is trying to show magnanimity in the face of intolerance.”

“Part of what I pray for is that I may keep that salient, that difficult days might be in the short term, but that America always gets it right. Always.”

David Levin, co-founder of the “Knowledge is Power Program,” a network of high-achieving KIPP charter schools that serves 27,000 mostly low-income minority children in 20 states and Washington, D.C.

“It really sounds cheesy. Work hard. Be nice. That ultimately drives everything we do,” Levin said in describing the KIPP program, which has on average quadrupled the college graduation rate of the communities in which the schools sit. “What we’ve said is that school has to compete… when you walk into KIPP, you’ll hear joy, you’ll see movement. Once kids like coming to school, anything is possible. Once kids believe that they can, anything is possible. Demography should not determine destiny.

“People want to feel special. They want to feel they belong to something.”

Levin also told the audience how he’s now spent 20 years in teaching, an unusually long amount of time for one career. “It bucks the trend of everyone my age who switches jobs seven or eight times in the first 25 years of their careers,” Levin said.

He also infused humor into his call for a new generation of dedicated educators.

“There is no higher calling than teaching,” he said. “By the way, there is no worse job than teaching, because it’s one of the few professions where you don’t get to go to the bathroom whenever you want.”

About Convocation for Honors

Convocation for Honors each spring serves as an annual event to recognize Dean’s List and President’s List students, the faculty, graduate students, the upcoming graduating class and members of the Elon Society, the premier annual giving group at Elon.