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On Saturday I had the privilege of delivering the keynote speech to the 2015 Honors Day Convocation of undergraduates at the University of Texas. The students inspired me to think deeply about how educated young people can improve our society. Here are some of the words I delivered to the audience of 4,000 undergraduates, families and faculty:

We are a society of great power and wealth, but we cannot continue to go on as we are today. We are destroying too much as we overspend, overmilitarize and overconsume. The last 25 years have witnessed a remarkable burst in the creativity of our technology and our science, but our political and social thought has not kept pace. As human beings we have stagnated, even fallen behind. Just look at how old and out-of-date our ideas and our policies are. Just listen to how formulaic, useless and offensive our public rhetoric has become. Our technical ingenuity is not matched by the necessary humanistic creativity to move our society forward, and improve our lives — all of our lives.

As our most talented young citizens enter diverse professions, you have a collective choice: Will you maximize the value you can provide for yourself and your family, or will you find a way to do well but also do good? Will you define your success by your paycheck or by the larger purpose of your pursuits? These are not either-or propositions — you can live comfortably and help others — but they pose real choices about priorities. How will you turn your talents and opportunities into human value for others?

These are fundamentally questions of character. This is a word we do not talk enough about. In the past it was sometimes a code word to exclude people who did not come from the “correct” backgrounds. That misuse of the word should not lead us to forget its deeper and more inclusive meaning.

Character is the quality of seeing beyond the immediate to a deeper meaning in human interactions. It is a historical sensibility about past inheritances, present possibilities and future responsibilities. A person of character does not live for herself or for the present, but for a broader set of human purposes. A person of character derives wisdom and judgment from extensive reflection on what really matters, and what really endures for humans as a whole.

Citizens of character avoid simple solutions and slogans; they take on the more difficult and uncertain challenges that determine larger outcomes. They lead by example, they acknowledge their failures and they always strive to make themselves and others better. Citizens of character succeed for reasons beyond their brains and brawn. They display three fundamental qualities that draw others to them.

First, citizens of character display decency toward others. They do not make less talented and privileged people feel inadequate or inferior. They do not take all they can when they know others have so much less. Decency requires humility — a recognition of self-imposed limits on greed, even if society does not always enforce those limits. Decency stands for fair play, not profit maximization. In promoting justice rather than victory, acts of decency replace competitions for accumulation with cooperation to share the bounty.

Second, to gain character one must accept sacrifice. Nothing comes for free, and anything worth having requires giving something else up. Citizens of character do not market their talents for money alone — that is too easy. Citizens of character use their talents to achieve higher goals — that is the hard road that produces positive changes. Sacrifice builds character because it makes citizens strive for what they really value, not the goodies offered to them instead.

Third, and perhaps most important, character requires hope. It is too easy to look at our troubled world in a learned way and lament that things “cannot change.” Resigned to the present, one can feel free to profit from the problems of our day, as many of us do. Character comes from the courage to imagine a better world and believe in it. Character expresses itself not with easy promises and sound bites but real thought about how the world could be better and how we can start to get there. Great leaders of character inspire people to pursue big, realistic dreams.

I have hope because I see the decency in our talented students every day. I have hope because I know our students are ready to sacrifice for big dreams, if only we will encourage them to do so. Too many older and tired citizens are telling our students to think small, focus on their families and get rich. There is nothing wrong with being rich, but wealth does not create character or human fulfillment.

American society was built by great men and women of character, and it is time we recognized that we need another generation of character to take over the reins from those who have displayed a striking absence of character in recent years. Societies renew themselves when talent is combined with decency, sacrifice and hope. We are ready for that long overdue renewal. I see it coming the eyes of my students and the fears of their elders. Character beats fear every time.

This column originally appeared in the Daily Texan, 21 April 2015.

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Universities provided the fuel for American economic growth and global leadership in the last century. This is particularly true for public universities. They educated more businesspeople, governors, soldiers, doctors, lawyers, teachers and athletes than any other set of post-secondary institutions at home or abroad. Other countries can create workers to compete with Americans, but no one nurtures better thinkers and innovators.

That is why tens of thousands of the brightest children from other countries apply for admission to American universities each year.

However, America’s great public universities are in peril today. This is primarily because of the attacks they are suffering from both sides in our highly partisan politics. Activists on the left see universities as a forum for pushing their efforts to boycott Israel or demand reparations for past racial injustices. Activists on the right want universities to reaffirm American greatness and justify the use of American power at home and abroad. Critics on the left allege that wealthy donors and large corporations have “captured” universities. Critics on the right assert that leftist radicals, post-modernists and anti-Americans have corrupted university faculty, closing the doors to patriotic conservatives.

The political demands from the left and the right, and their accusations of bias within universities, are threatening the institutions they claim to champion. Fending off the finger-pointers distracts everyone from the facts, and from what universities really should be doing to help our society.

American universities have never existed to take a political stand for or against any set of policies. Even in war, universities have existed to offer space for critical evaluation of popular and unpopular positions. They are places for debate, for investigation, and for rigorous analysis. There are plenty of institutions in the United States and abroad that promote particular foreign and domestic policies. The purpose of the university is to test arguments and evidence. That is what distinguished our public universities, in particular, during the last century. They should be judged by the quality of debate on campus, not by litmus tests about whether they are sufficiently “liberal” or “conservative.” Universities exist to transcend those superficial labels.

The facts contradict claims about too much influence for wealthy donors or radical ideologues. Neither accusation stands up to the reality that anyone can see on a large university campus. The majority of faculty today are professionals, hired because of their research in a field of study — history, chemical engineering, neurobiology, law and countless others. To get hired in a very competitive job market, faculty have devoted most of their waking moments to specialized research, some teaching, and some administration. Very few faculty have time for political activism of any kind. It is, in fact, frowned upon by most disciplines as a sign that someone is “not a serious scholar.”

This professionalization is a problem because it devalues public engagement and, often, teaching. I am one of numerous scholars who have made this point. The vast majority of tenured professors at major universities are neither leftist radicals nor conservative toadies. They are ambitious careerists, seeking to gain recognition and status in their fields. If anything, they avoid politics in their research, their teaching and their interactions with students.

What public universities need today is an end to cheap political attacks and help with their core mission for our nation: nurturing the most talented, rigorous and creative citizen body. That is what will keep America on top. To do this, legislators, oversight boards and other citizens can help by connecting rather than criticizing, and contributing their talents rather than their venom. More than money, university leaders and faculty need help understanding the big issues confronting our society. More than labels, university students need opportunities for on-the-job learning from people who value their potential.

Instead of firing on universities from afar, it’s time that concerned citizens come to campus and join the conversation. University leaders and faculty are hungry for help in thinking broadly and deeply about our society’s future, regardless of one’s political affiliations.

 

This article originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News on 1 January 2015.

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Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor in the University's Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Professor Suri is the author of five books on contemporary politics and foreign policy. In September 2011 he published a new book on the past and future of nation-building: Liberty's Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama. Professor Suri's research and teaching have received numerous prizes. In 2007 Smithsonian Magazine named him one of America's "Top Young Innovators" in the Arts and Sciences. His writings appear widely in blogs and print media. Professor Suri is also a frequent public lecturer and guest on radio and television programs.

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