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Commencement Address 2009 – Dr. Matthew Holden, Jr.

by Dr. Matthew Holden, Jr.,
the first UIS Wepner Distinguished Professor in Political Science
in the College of Public Affairs and Administration

University of Illinois at Springfield,
May 16, 2009

“Success is Not Guaranteed and Failure is Not Final”

Chancellor Ringeisen, Trustee Dorris, President White, Faculty, Friends, Families, and Guests, Members of the Class of 2009: It is a great honor to be asked to become a member of this university. And – I say especially to the graduates – it is a particular privilege to share in your commencement.

I am becoming familiar with the UIS vision. Three legs like a tripod: academic excellence, enriching individual lives, and making a difference in the world.

Today, I will extract from personal history to offer a few comments on the third leg–making a difference in the world. I do so by offering to you word pictures to show five simple themes.

Theme 1. You do not get anywhere all by yourself. Your opportunity depends on somebody else’s sponsorship.

Many of you have read about the Great Migration of African Americans from South to North. My parents and I once were part of that. My father and my mother, Matthew and Estelle Holden, were the first sponsors. Their own unfulfilled ambitions were poured into me. I heard my father say once, “I ain’t got but that one boy, and he going to school every day the school house open.” My mother taught me letters and numbers before I got to kindergarten.

After my parents, the next sponsor I want to mention is Mrs. Mildred Proctor, my English-journalism teacher, at Wendell Phillips High School in Chicago. Her intellectual demands were intense. Mrs. Proctor’s way of making a difference in the world was to be the protective advocate of students in whom she had confidence. In my case, Mrs. Proctor got somebody from the Chicago School Board to administer a bunch of questions that I later learned was an “I.Q. test.” I had never heard of an I. Q. test, but it did my ego some good.

Charles S. Hyneman, one of my political science professors at Northwestern, was another sponsor. One summer, out of the blue, he recommended me for a job in Ohio. The agency was the Ohio Legislative Service Commission. Charles W. (“Bill”) Ingler, the Research Superviser, had been one of his students long before. I remember sitting outside Hyneman’s office, while he talked on the phone. Hyneman had a penetrating, booming voice. Harry Truman said when you talked to FDR you did not need a phone. You could just open the window. Hyneman was kind of like that.

I could hear every word of his end of the conversation. “If your board will let you hire a Negro . . .” Hyneman said, then Holden would be all right for the job. Hyneman had to ask if Ingler could hire “a Negro.” The Lincolnian legacy was this unfinished democracy. White and black were, in effect, almost two “nations” within the same country. But that is also discussion is for another time. My sole point now is to illustrate that Charley Hyneman was a sponsor at a time that made a difference to me.

Many of my sponsors were professors. Ask who were your own sponsors. Call them to mind and value them. Ask also when you will be a sponsor, too.

Theme 2. Always know that making a difference means meeting somebody else’s need. When I worked for the Ohio Legislative Service Commission, I did a background paper on the state mental health system. Mental health had the personal interest the House speaker and the Senate President Pro Tem, a small town lawyer and a shoe merchant. They were not experts. But they felt the system needed reform. Beyond that they did not know what reform was needed. I was twenty three years old. I knew nothing about mental health. But I was the last person without an assignment, and the job had to be done. My boss gave the job to me.

The legislative leaders were right. The system badly needed reform. I still remember such things as discovering an 1800 patient hospital (Apple Creek) had no registered nurse on the staff. That was one quality indicator. Another quality indicator, for me, was an interview with a senior administrator — an MD! He talked with me about his thirty-five acre orange farm in Florida. He did not know it. But he offended me. Evidently, it did not occur to him to salt my undeveloped mind with ideas for program improvement that might get into the report.

My report helped to meet part of the need that the legislators felt. Always be aware of the need you are meeting, if you can.

Theme 3. In getting the opportunity to make a difference friendships count. Sponsors are one thing. Friends are another. Both count. As a young professor I became friends with another young professor who quickly became a great man. His name was Aaron Wildavsky. Resources for the Future, Inc., a small foundation in Washington that is usually just called RFF, had him write a wonderful book called The Politics of the Budgetary Process.

They also wanted a project on the political analysis of water policy. Water pollution control was just emerging as a big national issue. Air pollution control was still talked about. Irving K. Fox, then Vice President of the organization, an old hand at Interior, was convinced that “political” considerations were an important factor to be considered in making judgments about emergent pollution control policies.

Theme 4. Sometimes things do not work. As you seek to make a difference in the world, you will find the opportunities are endless, but they are not cost free. RFF never published the long memorandum that I developed. The economists, led by a remarkable man called Allen V. Kneese, seemed to accept the idea of my study. But the results did not satisfy them. I violated Theme #2. I did not meet their need.

They did not want to hear proposals for new empirical studies of the politics of water. They wanted a political scientist to supplement the then-novel ideas about effluent charges. You might now call these “effluent charges” by the name of “pollution charges.” The idea of effluent charges (or pollution charges) is with us this very session of Congress in legislation on “cap-and-trade.” Right now, the biggest version is called the Waxman-Markey Bill. Back at the time that I am referring to, what I produced did not work. I have unfortunately allowed my only copies to escape from my files. So, in one way, I spent a lot of time and produced a failure.

Theme 5. Failure is not final. Things come together in unexpected ways. In 1971, I received a phone call from somebody at the White House, who said “the President is thinking of appointing you” (or similar words), and “would you accept if appointed?” Apparently, my time at RFF, and in some other work, had at least left me with some kind reputation for knowing something on “environmental” issues. So without any effort I was appointed to the President’s Air Quality Advisory Board. (Most members were from the corporate sector, though one Board member was a young lawyer from Louisville, A. Mitchell McConnell. I was, I believe, the only Democrat.)

The Board met two or three times a year, for two or three days at a time. We offered advice, under the terms of the Clean Air Act on matters “of policy and administration.” Whether anybody took our advice is another question for another time. I do know that Administrator Russell Train took the first opportunity under the law to abolish the Board. Our subject was air pollution control or controlling what humans pump into the atmosphere. But the Board majority chose to emphasize energy supply. (In 2009 energy supply is still an issue, but the Obama Administration emphasis now is on what goes into the atmosphere.)

The Board also taught me what I had already learned from books, but did not perceive in my fingertips. Issues are complex. Bureaucrats do have policy values. The time with the Board otherwise contributed to my further education, and led on to exposure to other aspects of energy and environment, to public and private policy that I have enjoyed to this day.

Thus, the main message is that success is not foreordained, and failure is not final.

In that spirit, I offer congratulations on where you have come, and best wishes to your next departures. Thank you for your attention.