Jeffrey Sachs, widely considered to be the leading international economic advisor of his generation, told the Class of 2009 Monday that their generation’s ability to communicate globally in an instant might hold the key to keep the daunting challenges that face the world from engulfing us.
“One of this country’s greatest strengths is that it looks to its youth to lead,” said Sachs, director of the Earth Institute, Quetelet professor of sustainable development, and professor of health policy and management at Columbia University. “Thomas Jefferson was 33 years old when he crafted the Declaration of Independence. Alexander Hamilton was 30 when he wrote the first Federalist paper. Martin Luther King was 26 years old when he led the bus boycott in Montgomery and all of 34 when he shared ‘his dream’ with this nation.
“And today’s breakthroughs come younger still. Bill Gates was 20 when he founded Microsoft and Mark Zuckerberg was still 19 when he launched Facebook in his dorm room in 2004.”
Speaking to 1,804 degree recipients at Lehigh’s 141st commencement, Sachs said, “Graduates, our world surely needs fixing.”
As director of the U.N. Millennium Project, Sachs helped develop the Millennium Development Goals, a series of practical guidelines and goals designed to eliminate extreme world poverty by the year 2015. He said the generation represented by the Class of 2009 and the newly interconnected world in which they live and thrive could be critical in solving the global challenges, including world poverty, of the 21st century.
“You are indeed already shapers of a new connected world—one that is global, multi-tasked and always on, one that is texted, Twittered and downloadable for all to share,” Sachs said. “ … It is a world of great promise and these global and online connections might just prove to be our world’s salvation.”
‘Shady bonuses and Ponzi schemes’
Referring to the financial crisis that sent markets worldwide into turmoil last fall, Sachs opened his remarks by joking: “This has been a tough year for my profession. The best definition that I’ve heard lately about my profession is that an economist is a person who’s been put on the planet to make astrologers look good.”
But Sachs found nothing funny in the well-documented Wall Street excesses that came in the wake of the federal bailout.
“Last year, the unscrupulous financiers at Merrill Lynch ran off with $4 billion in taxpayers’ money. They called this a bonus, a bonus I suppose, for driving their company into ruins. That $4 billion nearly equaled the total amount of aid that we give to the 8 million people in Africa.
“Yet, did Congress or the White House try to stop those bonuses? No, they did not. We put trillions of dollars into bailing out Wall Street, yet without an ounce of responsibility shown by Wall Street’s leaders. And then we’re told that there’s no money left to save the world’s poor or the environment.
“If our world’s resources weren’t being squandered in shady bonuses and Ponzi schemes, if we invested the tens of billions of dollars in global problem-solving rather than in the fourth mansions and 200-foot yachts of Wall Street CEOs, the problems before us would yield to solution.”
Sachs said it has fallen to the Class of 2009 and their counterparts around the world to come up with the solution.
“Graduates, your greatest challenge is to restore a direction to the world’s society—one best described as sustainable development,” Sachs said. “That is the goal of helping the poor out of the poverty trap, while restoring our own long-term prosperity in this country and doing it in a way to sustain our planet and the ecosystems on which we depend.”
Lehigh’s continuing commitment to serve
During his address, Sachs cited the work that Lehigh’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders has done to improve the water supply in a village in Honduras as an example of the difference students can make. Lehigh President Alice P. Gast thanked Sachs for his “inspiring and insightful remarks” and then pointed out examples from both the 50-year Reunion Class and the Class of 2009 who have helped make the world a better place.
From the Class of 1959, Gast mentioned:
• Gene Mercy, a successful investment banker who works with the New York City School volunteers and serves as a member of the executive committee of Seeds of Peace, a global organization mobilizing young leaders working for peace
• Bill Beattie, who, after a successful career at Union Carbide Corporation, founded Pathways Academy, which transforms the lives of at-risk boys in Danbury, Conn., and Jericho Partnership, which provides grants and gifts to the at-risk community in Danbury
• Roger Penske, the chairman and CEO of the Penske Automotive Group and Penske Corporation, who chairs the Downtown Detroit Partnership, devoting untold hours to engaging business, government, and civic leaders in developing initiatives aimed at strengthening downtown Detroit.
From the Class of 2009, Gast lauded four unsung heroes—Ashley Pritchard, Brittany Grimaldi, Eleanor Duffy and Marty Gennusa—for their inspiring work on and off campus.
Pritchard created and coordinated Hunger and Homelessness Week on campus to raise awareness of the travails of the homeless. She also coordinated Lehigh’s Wonderful World of Sports program, bringing South Bethlehem children and families to campus for a day of activity.
Since their arrival on campus, Grimaldi and Duffy have tutored South Bethlehem school children and for the past three years, they have led two afterschool homework clubs in the community.
And Gennusa was the impetus behind the VITA Tax Program, an opportunity for Lehigh accounting students to help low-income families in the Lehigh Valley save money by completing their tax returns free of charge. This year, they prepared more than 380 tax returns for community residents—with refunds amounting to more than $600,000.
“The individual and collective contributions to society by members of the Classes of 2009 and 1959 are not new to Lehigh. Helping make the world a better place has been fundamental to the university from the beginning,” Gast said. “Our founders understood that the thorniest of society’s issues could be best addressed by providing an education that emphasizes both technical and classical disciplines to students who are willing to roll up their sleeves and make a difference.”
Colleen Ann Lutz Clemens, who gave the graduate student address and who received a doctoral degree in English as well as a certificate in women’s studies at the commencement exercises, knows all about that roll-up-your-sleeves work ethic. It’s in her DNA, a fact that she was reminded of every day as glimpsed out the window from her office at the smoke stacks at Bethlehem Steel, a place where her grandfather—a man she affectionately called “pappy” and whose daily toil at “The Steel” required a good scrubbing with Lava soap—worked for decades.
“I used to joke that if you heard Billy Joel’s song Allentown, then you heard the story of my life—a life of watching the women and men in my family do physical labor at Mack Trucks and the Steel,” Clemens said during her compelling address. “… And I couldn’t help but think of the people who had worked so hard so I could make my way up that hill to be here today—and I’m sure that you all have those people too.”
In the case of Scott Wojciechowski, the president of the Class of 2009, that person was his mom, whom he described during his senior farewell class remarks as his “rock”—especially after his father tragically passed away from cancer the day before his high school graduation in Pittsburgh.
“And just as my father was not there to see me get my high school diploma, he was not able to experience the Lehigh chapter of my life,” Wojciechowski told his fellow graduating seniors. “He never had the opportunity to step foot on campus, help me move into Upper Cents, or share a beer with me at the Tally-Ho. Although he is not physically here, I know that he’s been with me here every day and I am grateful to him for the incredible impact he has had on my life.
“I must also thank my mother for being my rock. Her guidance, support and constant love has helped to make me who I am and has provided me with the solid foundation which was further nurtured during my time at Lehigh University.”
The three-hour ceremony started with blustery, November-like weather conditions—complete with gray skies and cooler-than-average temperatures—before the sun finally broke through and warmed the attendees a bit during the ceremony’s last hour … 1,804 total degrees were conferred at Goodman Stadium: 1,211 bachelor’s degrees, along with 501 master’s degrees, 84 doctoral degrees and eight education specialist (Ed.S.) degrees … the Class of 2009 included students from 32 countries plus the United States … Kathleen Duggan Trimble ‘87, president of the Lehigh University Alumni Association, officially welcomed the new graduates into the ranks of Lehigh alumni. Following Trimble’s remarks, Scott Wojciechowski, the president of the Class of 2009, joined George Karr ’59, the President of the 50th Reunion Class, in the ceremonial ringing of the bell at the 50-yard line in Goodman Stadium … Elizabeth Jenkins ’09, who received a bachelor's degree in accounting, led the attendees in singing the national anthem and the alma mater during the ceremony ... Sachs received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Gast … the other honorary degree recipients were Wendy Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor in the History of Religions at the University of Chicago, and Shing-Tung Yau, a professor and chair of mathematics at Harvard University ... the Rev. Lloyd H. Steffen, university chaplain, gave the invocation and Seth Goren, rabbi and director of the Hillel Society, delivered the benediction ... Daniel E. Smith. Jr., chairman of the board of trustees, officially opened the commencement ceremony ... The Allentown Band, under the direction of conductor Ronald H. Demkee, performed for the 27th consecutive spring commencement. They are America's oldest civilian concert band, with their first documented performance on July 4, 1828. … At the 2009 commencement exercise, a new and much larger stage was unveiled.
Photographs by Theo Anderson
Audio file courtesy of Joe Pokojni, Blue Chip Sound
To read about Lehigh's baccalaureate service, see Baccalaureate speaker finds comfort on rocky ground
To read about the doctoral degree hooding ceremony, see ‘They have earned the right to be called doctor’