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Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg Delivers 2006 University Of Chicago Convocation Address

June 10, 2006

The following is the text of Mayor Bloomberg's Convocation Address as delivered at the University of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois:

I want to thank you, President Randel, for that kind introduction.  You do have a wonderful mayor here in Chicago, Richie Daley and I can tell you that – you can give him a round of applause.  He deserves it.  Anybody that can stop the rain just as the procession starts deserves a round of applause.

I do hope Chicago forgives New York for stealing President Randel away.  He is actually coming to our City’s Mellon Foundation as the flip side to the trade that sent pitcher José Contreras from the Yankees to the White Sox.  And if he does half as well as José, the Mellons will be very happy, rest assured.

It’s great to be here in Chicago – “Oprah-land, USA,” home of “duh Bears,” and my favorite band, the Blues Brothers!  Where is John Belushi now that we need him?

For me also, being on this campus is a dream come true.  To join you here in the very place that the movie “Proof” was filmed, to stand where Gwyneth Paltrow once stood, this is the pinnacle.  This is why I went into politics!

Let me begin by assuring you, the graduates, of two things:

First:  I’m not going to talk about some of the t-shirts I’ve seen being worn around campus.  While your parents are proud you’re graduating from this august institution, they don’t need to see the one that says “The University of Chicago is where fun goes to die.”

And second, I know some of you got in rather late from the – from hanging out at The Pub, picking up those free shot glasses and other essentials so I will make this relatively brief.  I don’t want to be the biggest hurdle between you and your chance to step on that university seal in the Reynolds Club to be me, so, we’ll move right along.

Before I give you the traditional commencement day speech of advice on how to secure wealth and happiness and spiritual peace for the rest of your lives, and in the spirit of Professor Chandler’s earlier speech, let me pose a question:  The question is, how did we get to this day… you and I?

How did we both arrive at this ceremony – on this beautiful quadrangle – surrounded by stunning neo-Gothic limestone architecture – and one pink, purple, yellow, and orange thing I saw some place back there? 

Well, in your case, you submitted an application four years ago – and you were accepted.  Here’s a copy of the application.  How you did it, I have no idea.  There’s these infamous University of Chicago essay questions.  My favorite is Essay Question #3:  What is something you love because it reflects a kind of idiosyncratic beauty? “A drinking glass with an interesting flaw,” “the uneven features of a mutt you adopted at the pound,” “a feather boa you found in a Wal-Mart parking lot.”  I couldn’t make this stuff up.  When I applied to college, the toughest question I had to answer was, “How do you explain that ‘D’ in 11th grade French?”

Ok, well, that’s not how you guys do it but I guess the question is: how did I get here today?  Well, don’t worry.  I’m not going to give you my entire life story.  If you’re curious, it’s all in my autobiography, “Bloomberg by Bloomberg” – a magnificently written, Da Vinci Code-like page-turner currently ranked number 187,733 on 

But humor me a bit, and let me give you the Cliff Notes: 

I parked cars to pay my way through college.  Then business school.  Then Wall Street – rising through the ranks from being a lowly clerk to being a general partner of a large investment banking firm.

As a working-class kid from a small town in Massachusetts, it really was a 15-year wonderful ride – full of fun times, and long business trips and endless jet lag, and lots of encouragement and praise from my bosses – right up until the day they fired me!

Still, even then I remained optimistic, and literally the next morning, I took a chance on something I thought might be even better.  I started my own company.

We began with four employees… in a one-room office with no product, no customers,  And today, twenty years later, that enterprise is, if I can brag a little bit, is a reasonably successful global financial company and one that feeds my daughters and allows me to work for a dollar a year.

Those were my first two careers.  But, seriously, what happened after that?

It was interesting.  I began to notice friends in public service that had a glint in their eyes.  They’d found a satisfaction – the satisfaction of helping others, the satisfaction that I had never experienced.  So I made another choice about five years ago: to seek a new career by running for mayor of one of the greatest cities in the world.  Every political expert said I had no shot, which was, of course, like waving the proverbial red flag in front of a bull.

And so I went for it because the chance to try something new and important, something that everyone said couldn’t be done, was just too exciting to pass up. 

Happily, the people gave me that chance and I’ve had the opportunity to practice in the public sphere what I did in private business. 

On every issue I’ve faced – from fighting crime to promoting public health, from improving the quality of life to balancing the budget – I’ve tried to do what you should all do for the rest of your lives:

Don’t over-engineer it.  Don’t avoid accepting the challenge.  Just set the right priorities and approach each problem with honesty, integrity, and a big dose of common sense.  And from the start, I knew the only way to do that was to maintain the one essential attribute: independence.

And that’s really what I’d like to talk to you for a few minutes about this morning…

Independence is the bedrock of this country, the conviction behind our nation’s founding and the driving force behind its success.  Independence is fundamental to our identity as Americans.  It is an essential part of what makes up the world’s most successful and egalitarian democracy.  And yet if you look around the country today, I see a serious challenge to that spirit of independence – in leadership and in thought – from all sectors of society.

Let me start with leadership – particularly something near and dear to my heart: political leadership. 

Our government operates in an environment today – so deeply inundated with pandering and partisanship – we’ve almost become immune to it.  Today, it’s standard operating procedure when Republicans propose an idea, for Democrats to oppose it – and vice versa – just because it’s not their idea.

We’ve come to expect a vocal minority raising a stink – and lots of money – to gather politicians on both sides of the aisle and have them cave in, rather than fight for the greater good.

No one is surprised today elected officials make decisions based not on facts or conviction but on one criterion only: what can get them into office and what can keep them there. 

We watch these leaders repeatedly look to the polls rather than to principles.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with asking people questions to learn how they feel but many politicians now use polling to determine not where their constituents stand for, but where they stand. 

I call it “leading from the back.”

It’s not leadership, and it’s not independence. 

Taking chances and making unpopular decisions is a necessary part of getting results.  It may be lonely standing up front, it may be dangerous to your career, and occasionally you can be proved wrong, but it is the essence of independence – something, I hope, the public is beginning to understand more and more.

In New York, when we banned smoking in bars and restaurants, ended “social promotion” in the public schools, and raised taxes to avoid drastic budget cuts and I can tell you, there was no shortage of people who vocally disagreed.

But in the end, the public saw that our administration was trying to do what we thought was right.  And with time, even those who disagreed came to respect the fact that we called ‘em as we saw ‘em, no matter what the polls and the professional partisans said.

Let me address another aspect of independence – not independent leadership – but independent thinking from elected officials and the public alike. 

Sadly, people who raise their voices in opposition to the status quo often find themselves under attack today – in ways not seen in years.  I know it’s not pleasant opening yourself up to ridicule and condemnation but it’s vitally important.  You have to say what you think or you won’t be able to look at yourself in the mirror at night.

We’ve all been there – and there’s nothing worse than knowing you’ve compromised or lacked courage when tested that day.

Lately, a spirit of intolerance has permeated the political discourse – with people’s patriotism being questioned.  We all have to get together in this country and stop this right now and stand up to those who would demagogue!

There is nothing – absolutely nothing – wrong with criticizing our government – on any topic – and challenging it to live up to the democratic ideals.  It is not unpatriotic.  In fact, what could be more patriotic?

The First Amendment was written – not so you could safely criticize a movie or your mother-in-law but to protect people’s right to challenge and question our leaders and our laws without being incarcerated or hung.

Remember – even the Constitution itself was imperfect.  Otherwise, we wouldn’t have needed a First Amendment – or any other amendments.

Unfortunately, independent thought is being challenged today not only in government – but in the world of science, as well.  Today, we see people at the highest levels of government manipulating the data to fit their own agendas.  You can call this phenomenon true “political science.” 

You can see it at work in the movement to discredit the theory of global warming and you can see it with respect to the decision to restrict federal funding for stem cell research or to refute proven methods that stop the scourge of AIDS here and around the world.

We should never stifle scientific investigation or ignore facts for the sake of ideology or short term economics.  It’s not only dishonest – it’s short-sighted.  It jeopardizes our future and the lives of our families. 

Now, you want some examples closer to home? 

On some university campuses today, independent thought is not only being criticized, which is necessary and healthy, it is being stifled or even punished.

How ironic to find professors – many who enjoy the academic freedom afforded by tenure to explore and expand our discourse – spurning others on campus for speaking their minds.

At Oregon State University, some faculty members tried to stop publication of a graduate student’s research about logging practices, when they feared it would threaten some of the university’s revenue streams from the lumber industry.

And at LSU, administrators urged the deputy director of the university’s Hurricane Center not to discuss his new book about faults in New Orleans’ hurricane protection system because they didn’t want to hurt their relationship with the federal government.

Meanwhile, students and faculty at schools across the nation are often trying to prevent those with opposing views from speaking on their campuses. 

You may call me old-fashioned, but I believe that when someone is your guest, even if invited by another member of your family, you welcome them and treat them with respect even if you don’t like their views.  And since when does simply listening to opinions that we don’t agree with – or maybe even strongly disagree with – come to signify tacit approval? 

I suppose that’s why professional partisans on cable TV are always trying to shout each other down.  To me, encountering an opposite view is an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the issues at stake… and a chance to develop my own point of view. 

In any case, I’ve always thought that not willing to listen is the ultimate act of cowardice and insecurity.

At Chicago, you have all been fortunate to be part of an institution that’s long practiced independent thinking and discovery. And I’m not just talking about t-shirts.

From the University’s defense against accusations of communist teaching 70 years ago to its support of Professor Mearsheimer’s right to criticize the Israel lobby’s influence on U.S. foreign policy, this has been a place where open debate is encouraged and cherished.

But travel outside the “friendly confines” of this campus and you’ll find objectivity, common sense – and independence – lacking.

And let’s be clear:  both ends of the political spectrum share the blame.  And both seem unwilling to change.

That job is left to others.  In fact, that job is left… to you.

Yes.  Your mission – if you choose to accept it, Class of ’06 – whatever career path you may take – is to fight that fight, to maintain a healthy skepticism and an honest integrity and to never let go of the American spirit of independence.

In a world that will bombard you with analysts, pundits, self-styled “experts” – and relentless advertisers – you must stand tall because when it comes to protecting speech, thought, and expression, you are the next generation of freedom fighters. 

And heaven knows – your country needs you now, more than ever.

Now I anticipated Professor Chandler’s speech, because I began the morning by asking a question: “How did we get here?”

Let me conclude with a second question: “How do we now move on from here?”

The answer, I think – oddly enough – can be found in a third question:  And it’s the final essay question from your college application four years ago. 

This one directed you to “pose an untraditional or uncommon question of your own”… and then to answer it by displaying “your best qualities as a writer, thinker, visionary, social critic, sage, sensible woman or man, and citizen of the world.”

I can’t think of a better question – or answer – to occupy the rest of your lives. 

Good luck in all your endeavors… and congratulations on this great day.

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