Clinton Global Initiative University Keynote Address

President Clinton, it’s an honor to be introduced by you. Thank you for inventing new ways at every stage of your life to contribute to the public good.

I want to thank Chelsea Clinton for her work in leveraging the talent of America’s youth.  I want to thank Richard Blum for his exceptional stewardship of this university, where he’s a beloved benefactor and alumnus. 

And I want to thank all our guests for attending.  On behalf of all here who love this University and have made it the work of their lives – welcome to Berkeley. 


As President Clinton recognized when he extended the work of CGI to universities – even the greatest ideas of our elders cannot last unless they are received and advanced by society’s youth. 

This is the mission of universities. We are the cornerstones of society’s effort to improve itself.  But we are also fragile.  We depend on the cooperation and support of the society we serve to sustain our mission. 

 Cooperation is the indispensable skill. It’s the basis for all progress.  But progress is not a given.  And I’m concerned that in the United States today, we are losing our ability to cooperate. 

I see this trend in society’s declining support of our public goods.    

The mark of a public good is that it makes everyone better off.  Among the public goods we’ve cherished in this country are those goods that make up the American Dream -- economic vitality, professional opportunity, and social mobility--- the quintessential American belief that talent and hard work can take you wherever you want to go.

In American history, it is our public universities – more than any other institution – that have supported these public goods and nourished the American Dream. 

One of our finest contemporary novelists, Marilynn Robinson, has called public research universities – “still America’s best idea.”  This idea, she recently wrote: “emerged from a glorious sense of the possible through the spread of learning.  If it seems to be failing now, that may be because we have forgotten what [universities are for] … they are a tribute and an invitation to the young, who can and should make the world new, out of the unmapped and unbounded resource of their minds.”

Ever since Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act to create universities of and for the people – public universities have had the special mission of combining knowledge and democracy, and thus offering excellence and opportunity to all.  

Today, America’s top 20 public universities enroll three times as many students as the top 20 private universities.  And the top public universities have offered not just access, but also excellence.  At Berkeley, we have produced more Nobel Prize winners than all but three countries. We have played a pivotal role in making the California economy the most dynamic in the world. We are ranked among the top ten universities in the world.

And we produce these world-class results at a far lower cost than our private peers.  Our per-student administrative costs are one-sixth of Harvard’s, even as we educate many more low-income students who require more services and support. In fact, Berkeley has as many low-income students as the whole Ivy League. Forty percent of Berkeley students come from families earning less than $50,000 a year – and they pay no tuition.  

A New York Times ranking of top universities by affordability called the University of California system an “upward mobility engine” for those who attend. 

We have had the freedom and resources to play that role because of the shared conviction that social mobility is a public good, that skilled professionals are a public good, that scientific research is a public good, and that, therefore, public universities are a public good – and deserve public support. 

Unfortunately, that conviction is in decline.  The leading public research universities in the country have seen their funding drop over the last 30 years.  States used to spend on average 20% of their budgets on higher education.  Now they spend ten percent. 

In the 1980s, Berkeley received nearly 66 percent of our funding from the state.  By the early 2000’s, we received 33 percent of our funding from the state.  Today, we receive 13 percent of our funding from the state. 

A number of reasons could be given for this decline.  But I’m worried about one reason in particular.  We in the United States have begun to politicize our public goods.

Recognizing and supporting a public good brings the country together.  But if you benefit from division, you don’t want to bring the country together.  So you find the right audience and tell them: “That so-called public good doesn’t benefit everybody.  It benefits only a few, and they’re not you.”

That’s when society begins turning its back on its public goods.  It can happen in any sphere.  If it continues to happen to universities, then at some point knowledge and democracy will part ways, and we will move closer to a stratified society that allocates opportunity according to birth and wealth.  

Fortunately, I see cause for optimism.

I have great faith in the students I meet here at Berkeley and elsewhere.  You have a passion for change. You seek inclusion. You shun division. You form partnerships across political boundaries and national borders.  

By building a global community, you are advancing an idea long advocated by a wise elder of yours.

Back in 1991, Bill Clinton broke into the Presidential campaign saying this: 

“American politics is broken. The system is paralyzed, people need a new choice based on old values that offers opportunity, demands responsibility, and gives citizens more say because we're all part of one community. We're all in this together, and we're going up or down together.”

That message won him the White House.  In one form or another, he’s been saying the same thing his whole life. 

He’s saying it again to us today through the Clinton Global Initiative.  And with all your innovations and idealism, you’re saying it right back. 

That makes me optimistic for the future.   


Now I would like to present Richard Blum.   Richard is a proud Cal alumnus, UC Regent and founder of the Blum Center for Developing Economies, which originated here on our campus, and now has a presence throughout the UC system.  

The high ideals and broad ambitions of the Blum Center reflect the life of its creator.  For decades Richard has committed his energy and resources to fighting disease, improving education, protecting the environment, promoting opportunity, and reducing poverty.  The Blum Center is Richard’s idea for bringing it all together:  harnessing the greatest human resources to address the greatest human problems.   Through the Center, we’re bringing together the most diverse talent on the UC campuses, infusing our knowledge with moral imagination, and making it felt in the lives of the poor in every region on earth.  We’ll be hearing more about the work of the Blum Center this weekend.  We’ll be hearing more from its founder right now.  Please welcome Richard Blum.