May 1, 2005
The United States has the most unique system of higher education in the world. And in many respects, it is what has historically distinguished us from other nations. Many other nations did not provide universal, public education to young students as we started doing in the early 19th century. But many others did and they had different ways of providing it but then higher education, going to a college or a university, was the province of a very small elite.
The United States made a very different decision. It decided that we are going to work to provide a system of higher education and did so starting seriously at the very beginning of our nation with many institutions of private, higher education and then increasingly, starting in the 19th century with public higher education.
It’s always struck me as extraordinary that in the middle of the Civil War, the bloodiest conflict that ever occurred on our shores, that President Lincoln and his Congress had both the time and the focus to set up land grant colleges. Now think of that. In the middle of a war that was depleting our treasure, both in human beings and in dollars, they were looking to the future. They were making a decision that they would set into motion a system of higher education that would be publicly funded and publicly available, despite the fact that when they were doing it in the early years of the Civil War, the outcome of that war was not even certain. And so much else followed from that.
So the unique combination of private institutions like Paul Smith’s and public institutions like so many others here in New York and elsewhere created this broad and expansive system that really stood as a strong indication to the rest of the world that we had an open door to our meritocracy. We were not like other countries who gave 12-year olds a test, and said, “If you pass it, you go down this track to higher education. If you don’t pass it, you cannot. Get off the track that we have set for you.” In many ways, our system of higher education is a system of second chances and third chances and fourth and fifth chances because literally people can go to college in their 80s now and their 90s if they so choose. And we are sending a strong message that we as a nation are encouraging and desiring of as many of our young people to go and acquire the skills that will make for a better future for themselves but will also contribute to the common good.
So not only have we supported such institutions with public and private dollars but we have also supported individual students through scholarships, through Pell Grants, through other means of financial assistance. I know that a very high percentage of this graduating class has taken advantage of those programs. Our tax dollars are being used to provide the opportunity for you to meet the financial needs that you face as you try to complete your degree. And I for one gladly do so because the genius of the American system has been that we have contributed, as a nation, to the education of individuals we will never meet nor ever know.
I have not had the privilege of knowing the members of this class but I am delighted that those of you who have gotten the financial assistance through my tax dollars to finish your education have done so because that continues the chain of commitment and contribution that has enabled our country to grow and to develop and to provide succeeding generations with opportunities to chart their own course and in a way to be part of something greater than each of us individually could ever achieve of our own.
So this system that we have developed and supported at which Paul Smith’s college is a notable part of what sets us apart from the rest of the world. Now however, there’s a great debate going on in Washington as to whether we will continue to support higher education. Will we continue to make the sacrifices, provide the contributions, the tax dollars that are necessary to continue this system. which has been the primary driver of America’s economic advancement over now more than 200 years? Not everyone, of course, has to go to college, and not everyone who has made a good and decent and honorable and successful life has done so.
But from the great numbers of college graduates over time and in our nation have come those who have made discoveries and advances that have benefited all of us. When we begin to constrict the pathway to college, we may very well be preventing the acquisition of knowledge by a particular individual that could revolutionize the treatment of cancer or not provide the invention that will enable us to have some new economic technology that will create new jobs here in New York and elsewhere. It’s an unpredictable factor but we have enough evidence to conclude that the failure to support higher education could have lasting consequences not just for the individual but for the society at large.
And yet if we look at the statistics today, because it’s gotten more and more expensive to provide a higher education today, costs continue to go up – everything from utilities to salaries, things have increased in cost. Because of that and because of the conflicts over how to spend dollars out of federal and state government coffers, we are beginning to see a difficulty arise in whether or not we can have the same large numbers of people going to and completing college. In fact, it is now harder for a student from a family of minor or relatively minor financial standing, maybe in the lowest 25% of the income in our country, to afford to go to college. It’s more difficult today than it was 25 years ago. So we have some challenges if we are to support higher education the way that we should. And when you look at the degrees that are being branded today, many of these programs are ones that there are jobs for. Many of you have jobs waiting for you because you’ve been well educated and well trained here at Paul Smith’s to go into the job market.
So you take this cumulative effort of more than 50 years of investment, funding, commitment of so many people who come before you and now you bring it out into the world and offer it in the marketplace. We need to continue that cycle with more and more of our students who are willing to work hard, willing to make the commitment, being able financially to afford to go and complete college.
There’s another element of this which is especially important for the North Country. If you look around the United States, and you see where jobs have been created at a faster-than-average rate over the last 50 years, you will find institutions of higher education are the engines of job creation. Certainly there are well-known places like Silicone Valley or Austin, Texas or down in North Carolina, Duke Triangle. But there are many places around our state and our country where you can see that pattern as well.
What I’ve tried to do is join the resources of our colleges and universities with our employers and to create opportunities for new jobs, and new economic prosperity. And here in the North Country, we’ve been experimenting. We’ve been working to find ways to link these small businesses of the North Country with the global economy. So we created something called the Northern Adirondack Trading Cooperative.
And what we did was to work with individual businesses and help them become part of the global marketplace by marketing their wares on EBay. Because it shocked me that there were so many people who had good services and products to offer here but didn’t have a year-round marketplace, didn’t have enough people that they could actually sell to, because of the seasonal nature of tourism. So we picked out about 15 companies and we partnered with Chamber of Commerce and with universities and with businesses so that these individual companies, often maybe one or two employees at most, would be able to demonstrate to the world the quality of workmanship and the products that were made here.
I’ll give you one quick example: there’s a wonderful maker of quality fly-fishing rods here in the Adirondacks and he was very well known among the people who knew about him. And he makes them by hand and he would sell maybe one a week, more likely one every two weeks. And we helped him begin to demonstrate to the world the quality of his work, and now he’s adding employees, and he’s built a new facility for construction, and he’s training people to help him make the rods. And he has contracts in Norway and New Zealand and is negotiating a contract in Vietnam of all places. And that would never had happened if we hadn’t taken what was actually happening here in the North Country and opened it to the world.
And I’m very pleased to announce today that Paul Smith’s will be a part of this consortium. Because we need to expand the number of businesses that will be able to take part but we can’t do it without the help and expertise of the students and faculty here at Paul Smith’s.
So there’s work to be done that is creative and energizing and economically effective, if we are creative ourselves. If we think a little bit outside the box about how to marry the talents of the students and the faculty of places like Paul Smith’s with those who are working hard every single day, here, around New York, and across our country.
I also want to commend the college for the work that historically you have done in forestry. I recently have been working with a number of cities in upstate New York because they’ve lost their tree canopy. It’s down to 11-20% in cities like Buffalo and Rochester and Syracuse and Binghamton. And the absence of that tree canopy is not only an aesthetic loss because you lose the beauty of the trees, but it’s also an ecological loss, and it doesn’t help provide the shade that mediates between the heat and the cool. So we’re working hard to increase the urban canopies across New York. And we need the expertise of people like yourselves who graduate from this institution with the expertise and experience to help us do that.
And finally, with respect to all of you in hotel and restaurant management and the culinary arts, I am still convinced that we have yet to tap the full potential of the tourism market in New York. Obviously, the Adirondacks is one of the magnets for tourism in our entire country — the largest park in the entire continental United States, larger than Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Smokies, and so many others, even combined. But we have a story to tell in New York. We have not only the beauty of the Adirondacks, the beauty of so much of the rest of the state, from Western New York to the Finger Lakes, the Southern tier, the Hudson and Champlain Valleys, but we have the historical heritage, and the culture as well. And we need to be smarter about how we present tourism to the rest of the world. And we have some assets that nobody else has. But we haven’t yet put them together in a way that I think is most effective in attracting people here.
You know, there are so many examples of that. Let me just give you a few brief ones — I learned the other day that Niagara Falls is the principle destination for tourists from Japan. Millions of them. They go to the Canadian side. We have to do a better job of getting them back on the American side. The Finger Lakes—one of the most beautiful places in America—with now world award-winning wines and cuisines. Many people don’t know it’s within an easy drive of most of the population centers of the Midwest as well as the East. Our farmers produce some of the greatest dairy products and agricultural produce, fruits and vegetables, livestock in the entire country. They do it on small farms, not these gigantic farms that are turning into just corporate factory farms.
And yet we don’t take advantage of the fact that we have an agricultural industry that is very appealing to people, similar to what you see in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Lancaster, Pennsylvania now has a billion dollar a year tourism industry and what do people do when they go to Lancaster County? They drive around and look at beautiful farms. They point at the Amish and say, “there go the Amish.” [laughter] They have a cupboard supper dinner. We can do all of that! We can do more than that. So those of you who are graduating today, help us be creative. Help us think about how we’re going to replicate the successes in tourism on an even larger basis than we currently have. It’s a clean industry. It’s an industry that will help young people stay here in the North Country and throughout upstate New York. And I know that with your help and your good ideas, we can begin to make progress on that as well.
It’s a great, great privilege to be here at what is often called the College of the Adirondacks, a place of not only great beauty but also of great traditions. And Paul Smith’s College is one of those traditions. As I was walking over, talking to President Mills, and my friend, your trustee, Joan While, she was pointing the new student center, the place where the original hotel stood. So the history, the tradition, lives on. But change is inevitable in the world in which we find ourselves. And change will either be our friend or our master. And one of the keys to ensuring it is our friend is our system of higher education, a system that has stood the test of time, has created the incredible successes of so many individuals and contributed to the success of the American economy. We now have to make sure that we keep it going for those of you who will follow you to this campus and so many others.
So I join with friends and family, faculty and staff in congratulating you but also in challenging you to take the experiences and the education you’ve received here, and yes, by all means, live a life of satisfaction and individual purpose, but remember: America is more than the sum of individuals. America is not just a place, it is an idea of historic significance. Its values and its ideals of sacrifice, of liberty, of freedom, of democracy have called upon previous generations to do their part. And those generations have answered that call. And I trust and hope that you, in your individual lives and as citizens of this great country, will do the same.
Congratulations Class of 2005 and God Bless You!