ASU public service graduates asked to wield power with a 'sense of purpose'

Friday, December 15, 2017

The 350 graduates who participated in Arizona State University's College of Public Service and Community Solutions Convocation received more than recognition for their degrees Tuesday night at Comerica Theatre in downtown Phoenix. They got a reminder from their dean, Jonathan Koppell, of the power they will hold as public servants. 

Citing current events, Koppell told students that ignoring pressing matters confronting our nation won't simply make them go away. He pointed to the numerous sexual harrassment and sexual abuse cases involving people in positions of power in media and government. He suggested there are infinitely more instances involving victims in the service industry, education or civil service that will go untold. The dean also referenced the passage of significant tax legislation by Congress. He wasn't critical of the legislation itself, but pointed out how political parties in control of Congress and the White House have passed major legislation along party-line votes. 

"Now, I'm not saying this is right or wrong. It is simply a fact, a fact about power," Koppell said. "And that is where these two dominant issues of the moment intersect. 

"Both cases are about power, specifically they are about how power is wielded when there is an imbalance. Sexual harassment cases are offensive on multiple levels to be sure. But at the core, they are fundamentally about an abuse of power."  

The dean then made his case for why understanding the dynamics of power is so important for graduates of his college.

"And many of you will wield power soon if you do not do so already," he said. "You may say, 'Well, I'm not a senator, I'm not a head of a Hollywood studio, I don't have power like that.' True, at least true so far.

"But we all wield power in some respects," he said. "And with the preparation for public service, you are likely to hold that sacred public trust and you are likely to wield the power that goes with it."

Koppell described the kind of power graduates from each of the college’s four schools will have. School of Social Work graduates who work in the child welfare system must weigh the safety of children with the rights of parents.

“You will wield the power in many instances to remove a child from his or her home or the power not to remove a child from a home that might be dangerous,” Koppell said. “How will you use that power?”

For students from the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice who will go into law enforcement, Koppell talked about their power behind carrying a badge and gun.

“You will wield the power to deprive — deprive people of their liberty — in some instances, deprive them of their life,” Koppell noted. ”How will you use that power? How will you think about the proper use of force?”

Koppell observed that the choices made by graduates of the School of Public Affairs, many of whom will go on to run government agencies, will affect large numbers of people.

“Some of you will be government officials that will make difficult decisions about the allocation of resources to one community or another or make difficult choices about public policy to which there are no obvious clear‑cut answers,” Koppell said. “How will you make decisions?”

And for graduates of the School of Community Resources and Development, which offers a degree in nonprofit leadership and management, the dean described the situations they may encounter.

“Some of you may work for a nonprofit agency and be faced with difficult choices,” Koppell said.  “Who will sleep in a bed tonight and who will not? Who will eat a meal and who will not? This is real power.”

The dean told students he hoped graduates resolved those challenges with confidence and a “sense of purpose.” And he hoped that faculty helped prepared them to handle difficult challenges.

“But what I ask more than anything else is not to be so arrogant or so confident in the rightness of your cause that you forget just how significant it is that you have that power and the influence you have over others' lives,” he said. “At its core, that is what makes public service a sacred calling, and that is what makes you, who signed up to be part of it, so special.”

The fall 2017 convocation featured remarks from Bill Ridenour, chair of the Arizona Board of Regents, the governing body that oversees Arizona’s three public universities. A lawyer by profession, Ridenour is no stranger to public service, having served on the Senate staffs of Barry Goldwater and Paul Fannin. Ridenour also has a distinguished history of volunteer work with the March of Dimes, Arizona Nurses Foundation, University of Arizona Foundation and a Governor’s Task Force on Human Trafficking. He currently serves on the advisory board of the College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

Arizona Board of Regents chair Bill Ridenour
Arizona Board of Regents chair Bill Ridenour addresses graduates at fall 2017 College of Public Service and Community Solutions Convocation at Comerica Theatre Dec. 12. Photo by Carmen Garza.

Ridenour acknowledged the importance of community, government and civic engagement and asked students to look at who they really are and what they are capable of doing.

“I would ask you to examine the values that are essential to your very being,” Ridenour said. “I would ask you to examine how you can best make a difference for those who are less fortunate, those that have been ignored or marginalized and those whose lives are lived in quiet desperation.”

He also had another request.

Ridenour pointed out the decline in state funding for higher education. He cited a new report that shows state funding as a percentage of resident tuition paid by the state fell from 75 percent 10 years ago to 34 percent today.

“We now have some legislators questioning the value of a degree and stating that the workforce of tomorrow does not need higher education,” Ridenour said. “They feel that much of what is taught in college courses is wasted and is not necessary.”

He pointed out how that stance ignores research showing that a college education greatly enhances a person’s earning potential in life or that by the year 2020, two-thirds of jobs will require more than a high school degree.

“They do not care that critical thinking, decision‑making, discipline and ambition are all enhanced by a college degree,” Ridenour said. "I would ask you to get involved, stay involved, be vocal, make your presence known in the communities, in government and in society so that those who will follow you will have the same opportunities that you have had.”

Senior Associate Dean Cynthia Lietz introduced the outstanding graduates of each school and the college: Quin Patterson, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice; Tierra McDonald, School of Public Affairs, Chelsea Raulsome, School of Social Work; Grace Alvarez, School of Community Resources and Development; and Robert Rowley, College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

Lietz thanked over 100 online students who traveled to Phoenix to attend graduation ceremonies. More than one out of every four students in the college is earning a degree online. She also acknowledged graduates in the audience that reflect the uniqueness of the college. It features the highest percentage of veterans of any ASU college or school; the highest percentage of first-generation college students (60 percent) and the contribution of more than 500,000 hours of community service by students.  

“It is my honor to acknowledge our five outstanding graduates along with groups of students who exemplify a collection of values and qualities that have contributed to your academic success,” Lietz said. “Diligence, commitment, passion for social justice, courage, and leadership will remain essential as you move forward in public service.”

Three doctoral students from the School of Public Affairs received their doctoral hoods in a time-honored ceremony that honors students achieving the highest academic degree. Professor Eric Welch hooded San Eun Lee and Gabel Christopher, who both earned doctoral degrees in public administration and policy. Xuefan Zhang, who earned a doctoral degree in public administration with a concentration in urban management, was hooded by Joanna Lucio, an associate professor, also in the School of Public Affairs.