Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Graduation celebrates class' achievements, public service

The class of 2010 gathers on the Capitol steps for a photo.

Students honored for academics, leadership

The La Follette School Student Association gave its inaugural Leadership Award and the faculty recognized students' academic achievements. Read more ...

10 students join national honor society

In recognition of their academic and professional accomplishments, 10 members of the class of 2010 joined the La Follette School's chapter of Pi Alpha Alpha, the national honor society in public affairs and administration. Read more ...

Students pursue multiple degrees

This year's graduation of the La Follette School's class of 2010 marks two firsts. Students in two new dual-degree programs were among the graduating class of 45. Read more ...

PDF of Jeff Greenfield's speech

Farha Tahir has no doubt her classmates will take extraordinary measures to put their passion for public service to work.

"When we walk across this stage, it signifies a change, a transfer of power," she told her classmates gathered in the Assembly Chamber of the Wisconsin Capitol for the La Follette School's May 15 graduation celebration. "We are now the policymakers. We are the ones who apply knowledge and expertise to a new series of complex problems. Soon enough, the world will be in our hands."

This prospect is comforting, Tahir says, because her classmates take more than academics with them. Their experiences in the Peace Corps and the military, on Capitol Hill, with fund-raising and volunteering help them take holistic approaches to policymaking and incorporate their academics and experiences. "We understand the value in more voices being brought to the table rather than fewer," she said. "We recognize that the past is not simply to be forgotten, but a rich history of best and worst practices: experiences to learn from, opportunities to build on, and traditions to carry on."

Tahir, one of 13 students to receive master degrees in international public affairs, spoke to the students gathered with family, faculty, staff and friends. Associate director Donald Moynihan and director Carolyn Heinrich spoke briefly. Graduates also heard from professor Maria Cancian, and CBS political correspondent Jeff Greenfield, a University of Wisconsin–Madison alumnus.

Out of a class of 45 students, 32 earned Master of Public Affairs degrees. In addition, one student earned a dual degree in law. Four also received certificates in energy analysis and policy, another a consumer health advocacy certificate.

Jonathan Hoechst, who earned a Master of International Public Affairs degree, listens to one of the graduation speakers in the Assembly Chamber.

Greenfield noted the students move into their working lives in a time when trust in the government is at an all-time low. "It was Ronald Reagan who proclaimed in his 1981 inaugural that, in the present time, government is not the solution to our problems, government IS the problem," Greenfield said. "But it was also Bill Clinton who said at a State of the Union in his second term, 'the era of big government is over.'"

These attitudes of distrust pose a challenge for La Follette graduates. "You are setting out to work in a much more challenging time than your forebears, a time when our public institutions are widely regarded not as the source of assistance, but as barriers," Greenfield said. "And the question is, what is to be done about it?"

With the current economic crisis, La Follette graduates may benefit. The calls for regulation may fuel greater trust in government. He advised the class to remember that government institutions corrode and ossify just like any institution. Such institutions find innovation difficult even as society keeps changing, Greenfield said. An old template will no longer serve. "Precisely because it doesn't work anymore, you'll have to find new ways to breathe life into the venerable idea that civic work can work."

To face that challenge and others they will encounter, students should remember to "embrace the mutuality of life," Cancian said. They should recognize and cultivate opportunities to be part of complex, interdependent relationships that involve giving and taking, learning and teaching.

Maria Cancian

Farha Tahir

"I would argue that your contributions in your jobs, and probably your individual success, will be greatly enhanced if you cultivate and embrace the potential to learn from those who you are asked to lead and teach, and to provide leadership, as well as support, to teach, as well as learn from, those who are managing and teaching you," Cancian said. "By recognizing that leadership is not just about giving direction but about creating a context for effective collaboration, you will be a better leader."

Tahir roots her belief in her classmates in their shared experience at the Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs and its progressive tradition embodied in the former governor and senator for which it is named. "Regardless of where we fall politically or ideologically; regardless of whether we agree with everything Fighting Bob believed; regardless of where we see ourselves five years from now, we are part of this heritage of progress," Tahir said.

Because they all are Bobs, the class of 2010 represents perseverance, a new guard, a new way of doing things, fun and intellectual dynamism, she noted. "Continue continuing. Never stop. Never stop working hard. Never stop fighting for what you believe. Never stop making change.

"That's what public service is. That's what the policymaking process is. And that's what we all represent."