This is an edited excerpt from remarks Monday, May 14, at the graduation ceremonies for the Goldman School of Public Policy
Public policy analysis deals with the hard problems faced in the public and non-profit sectors where we must bring political values to bear in the most effective way to solve difficult public problems. In the process, we are often confronted with difficult moral dilemmas. Let me give an example.
As with every year, and as the 2018 graduating classes know very well, we worked hard this year to find a graduation speaker for today, and we had a wonderful person lined up, Angela Glover Blackwell who is the head of PolicyLink – an organization based in Oakland that has gained national prominence in the movement to use public policy to improve access and opportunity for all low-income people and communities of color, particularly in the areas of health, housing, transportation and infrastructure. PolicyLink brings policy analysis to real public policy problems.
On Thursday evening (May 10), we heard that Ms. Blackwell could not come because she wanted to observe the request made by the unions, currently negotiating their contracts with Berkeley, for commencement speakers to boycott Berkeley’s graduation exercises. In an e-mail to me she said:
We have been monitoring the speakers’ boycott this week and the union just communicated that the boycott is still on. So, I must regretfully cancel my appearance at Monday’s ceremony. Please convey my apologies and best wishes to the graduates.
In making her decision, Ms. Blackwell faced a situation that will undoubtedly confront every one of our graduates at more than one moment in their career:
Each of us sometimes disagrees with decisions and stances made by the institutions with which we are connected.
At those times, we have to decide whether we will engage, using the famous words of the economist Albert Hirschman, in EXIT, VOICE, or LOYALTY.
One option is LOYALTY — simply continuing to undertake the commitments we have made and to dutifully carry them out. This carries with it the risks of being complicit with acts that we might feel are mistakes or even morally wrong. But loyalty is also an investment in our institutions; it is a statement that we think that they might know things we do not know, that they might be beset with imperatives that require the actions they take, or that they might engage in short-term compromises for long-term gains. This investment in institutions can make it possible to solve problems in the future.
Another option is EXIT from an institution or obligation if you feel that you would be morally compromised by being associated with its actions. This disengagement can be either vociferous or quiet. On the vociferous side, one can exit with a strong statement about one’s concerns as did my friend, Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary Peter Edelman, in September 1996, when he resigned in protest from the Clinton administration and said of the then new welfare bill:
”I have devoted the last 30-plus years to doing whatever I could to help in reducing poverty in America. I believe the recently enacted welfare bill goes in the opposite direction.”
Another example would be the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and the Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus in October 1973 in protest against Richard Nixon’s firing of Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox. Richardson went on to become secretary of commerce under Gerald Ford and Ruckelshaus became head of the Environmental Protection Agency under Ronald Reagan. Although resignation in protest can sometimes ruin a career, in these two cases it enhanced the stature of Richardson and Ruckelshaus.
Alternatively one can simply EXIT an institution or an obligation unobtrusively without apparent complaint, as in those who resign “to seek other opportunities” or “to spend more time with their families.” Sometimes this outcome is the result of simply wanting to leave quietly without causing a ruckus. At other times, it is the face-saving result of having threatened to resign to get the institution to rethink its position, but failing to succeed in getting any changes made.
Threats to resign must be used sparingly. And one must be prepared to live with the consequences if the institution accepts the resignation.
An option between exit and loyalty is to stay within an institution and to exercise VOICE concerning its policies — to point out their deficiencies and to propose alternatives. Angela Glover Blackwell could have chosen to come to our graduation and make the case for the unions’ positions. It would have been instructive to hear someone we admire discuss these issues as they were unfolding. One of the virtues of voice is that it gives speakers a chance to clarify their thoughts and the audience a chance to hear a careful formulation of the issues that are at stake.
But the problem with this option is that it can be seen as half-hearted and complicit, and I think that Ms. Blackwell believed that not giving the graduation speech sent a clearer message.
It is certainly important to respect the decision of someone who thinks that the only option is exit, since it is often a costly and difficult one.
Each of us has to deal with these situations as we see fit, and there is no right answer. We will all find ourselves remaining LOYAL to institutions when we wish we could indicate that we find their positions to be flawed or even morally wrong. We will find moments when we have to raise our VOICES and protest what our institutions are doing, even though that may cost us esteem, resources and even promotion within our institutions. And in some instances, we will have to exercise EXIT because no other course of action seems acceptable.
The joy of working in the public and non-profit sectors is the chance to advance important values and concerns; but with that goes the obligation to wrestle with moral dilemmas.
For the graduates of 2018, my great hope is that your GSPP education has provided you with the wisdom to figure out the best course of action and the courage to do the right thing.