Campus & Community

Shalala urges KSG grads to build a better nation

4 min read

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala helped the Kennedy School of Government’s Class of 2000 bid adieu to Harvard Wednesday, dubbing them “full-fledged Policy Wonks” and urging them to strive to make the world a better place.

Shalala, the nation’s longest-serving secretary of health and human services, delivered an occasionally humorous 20-minute speech to a crowd of about 600, made up mostly of students and their parents, at the John F. Kennedy School of Government’s Arco Forum.

A graduate of Syracuse University and Western College for Women, Shalala said her Class Day appearance Wednesday was nonetheless a homecoming for her. It was President John F. Kennedy, she said, who inspired her to pursue public service and who instilled in her a conviction that government must protect both the weak and the strong.

“Public service has been my life,” Shalala said. “But it began because of the leader whose name adorns this school.”

Shalala issued her own call to this year’s graduates, saying they are the future leaders who can craft government that is not just efficient, but also wise and ethical.

“Crunching the numbers, drafting the rules and selling the policy isn’t enough,” Shalala said. “We also have to bequeath a better nation to our children, wherever they may live on this earth. That great goal is now in the hands of this graduating class.”

At least some members of the audience heard her call. Zsuzsanna Szotak, a student from Hungary who is finishing a master’s degree in public administration, said Shalala hit the right notes for her. Szotak, who worked in local government reform in Hungary before coming to Harvard, is leaving for Kosovo next week. She has a job as a civil affairs officer for the United Nations and will work for one of the municipal governments there.

“It was a great message to take with me,” Szotak said. “Try to make things better – it’s as simple as that.”

Sara Hamlen, completing the mid-career master of public administration program, said she liked Shalala’s message that people in government can make a difference. Hamlen particularly admires Shalala, she said, because she knows how to work within organizations and she also knows that some solutions can only come by working across organizations.

“I thought it was a well-thought-out message for the graduates,” Hamlen said.

Shalala is no stranger to higher education. Before being appointed to the Cabinet by President Bill Clinton in 1993, Shalala served as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Madison from 1987 to 1993, and as president of Hunter College for eight years before that.

She also served as an assistant secretary in the Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Jimmy Carter, and, from 1975 to 1977, as treasurer of New York City’s Municipal Assistance Corporation, the body that helped the city stave off bankruptcy.

Kennedy School Dean Joseph Nye introduced Shalala, telling the Arco Forum crowd that she is a good example of what can be achieved by people in government.

“If our graduates can accomplish just part of what Donna Shalala has done in making this world a better place, we will have done our job well,” Nye said.

Class Day celebrates graduating seniors on the day before Commencement. Previous Class Day speakers at the Kennedy School include the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Elizabeth Dole, and U.S. Sen. Olympia Snow.

During Shalala’s tenure, the Department of Health and Human Services has implemented welfare reforms, worked to cut the use of tobacco, and fought against health disparities in different racial and ethnic groups.

In her speech, however, Shalala spoke of her defeats – such as the push for universal health care – as well as her victories. She offered the graduates several pieces of advice, telling them that they will occasionally be wrong, that in management it’s important to put together a loyal team that works well together, and that change in government is not only inevitable, it was anticipated by the framers of the Constitution.

“What they wanted was a system where women and men of good will – although differing views – could hammer out compromises that would, over time, bring a better life to every citizen,” Shalala said. “You are now those women and men of good will. You have the core skills to make government on every level a servant of people. The question you face is this: Do you have the patience, determination and courage to use those skills wisely?”