I have spoken from this pulpit in each year I have been President of this University. And this is now the second time I come before you in the wake of a national tragedy.
Just three weeks ago, Hurricane Katrina reminded all of us of nature’s awesome power. I am certain that few among us will ever forget the images of death, destruction, and despair we witnessed on our television screens. I know I never will.
Over the last few weeks, I have been so impressed by the way our university community has come together to respond to the human suffering brought about by Hurricane Katrina. We have opened our classrooms to students whose universities have been shuttered for the foreseeable future. We have opened our wallets to help those in need. Members of our community with specialized expertise have traveled to the region to do what they can. And our faculty and staff have opened their hearts and their homes to those affected by the devastation.
All of this is something we can be proud of – and it is something that is by no means unique to us. It is happening across America and around the world. In this church, and in churches, synagogues, and mosques across the country, the collection plate has been passed for the benefit of those whose lives will never be quite the same because of Katrina.
We all take satisfaction in this demonstration of America’s tradition of volunteerism and compassion. And yet I can’t help but think that our very compassion in this instance points up the inadequacy of our efforts so large a fraction of the time – when our daily fare on TV is not the images of chaos, misery, and destruction in one of our own cities.
It is now believed that around a thousand people died as a result of Hurricane Katrina. But think about this for a minute: It has been estimated by former Surgeon General David Satcher that more than 83,000 African Americans died last year alone who would have lived if it weren’t for racial inequalities in health care. Today, there are 1.2 million more African-American and Hispanic high school dropouts under the age of 24 who would have received their diploma if only they stayed in school at the same rate as white students.
These are big systematic problems for which there are no easy answers. But there is nothing ineluctable about discouraging social trends. The chance of being murdered in New York City has decreased by almost 75 percent since the early 1990s. Since 1993, the rate of family violence in our country has dropped by more than half. Fewer children are being born to teenage mothers and though there have been some recent reversals, the percentage of children growing up poor has declined significantly over the past 15 years.
In other words, we can realistically hope to make systematic progress on large challenges – but the compassion of individuals can only take us so far. Fundamental progress of this sort requires collective and national effort. I hope all of us committed to understanding, committed to the search for truth, committed to contributing to the broader society will think about how best we as a university can help address the gaping problems of inequality that continue to confront us.
We must use our powerful ingenuity to find solutions to complex diseases. But we must also address the complex social disease of lack of access to the most basic health care services, especially for minorities.
We must educate those who will lead the institutions that will serve as engines of prosperity in our economy. But we must also instill in them the importance of ensuring that these engines of prosperity are engines for all.
We must devote considerable creativity and resources to finding the best ways to improve education in this country. But we must also grapple with the harsh reality that 50 years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the educational outcomes in this country are still profoundly unequal.
Just as the events in the Tennessee Valley in the 1930s spurred a nation forward, and the events in Appalachia in the early 1960s spurred a nation forward, so too what we have seen in the Gulf region must spur us forward. Not only because of the tragic handling of that situation, but much more because of what all of those images laid bare about our society.
We can do better – and we must do better – even when nobody is watching.