Research and Opinion
Volume 12, Number 2
July, 1998

A Call to Public Service

Jean B. Tyler

This article is a transcript of commencement remarks made by Jean B. Tyler on May 10, 1998, on receiving an honorary doctor of public service degree at the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee.


Upon hearing that I would be giving this commencement address today, a long-time friend noted that I was either very brave or very foolish to stand between 2,000 graduates and their diplomas. Since I do not consider myself extraordinarily brave, and I hope I'm not usually foolish, I promise I shall be brief. Actually I am thrilled to see you, even if it is en masse, and to personally salute the determination, hard work, even personal and family sacrifices that earned you this diploma. You are giving all of us a remarkable gift this Mother's Day.

I am truly honored to be invited to share this special day with you and your families, Chancellor Schroeder, my distinguished escorts Professor Percy and Dean Rayburn, fellow honorary degree recipient Ashley Bryan, honored alumni. And it's a particular pleasure to share this occasion with my many UWM colleagues--faculty and administrators--with whom I've worked over a number of years and without whom none of us would be here today.

But since this day is all about you, what on earth am I doing up here? After all, I have not spent long hours in the library, mastered tough exams, written and defended a dissertation, or paid any tuition.

Public Service Defined

The answer lies in this often vague thing called public service. If asked, most folks would probably define public service as that which government does or provides. My dictionary says that too. But I'm not a government or even its employee, so that can't be the reason UWM invited me. I am here, I think, to let you know that you, each and every one of you, can aspire to your own doctorate in public service sometime in the future, and you won't have to take any more exams to do so.

You see, public service, as I define it, is not about what your career may be, as interesting as that is. It's not even about getting an education, as important as that is. Public service is about using that education and your experience and your energy on behalf of a common good, something needed and valued not only by you but also by others in your communities. The nice thing about public service is that you can do it anywhere--in your home, at your office, outside in a park, inside a school, on a train, at the mall, here at UWM. The tough thing about public service is that it asks you to do more when you're already too busy with personal and family matters, not to mention all those hours you put into your job.

Living in today's world opens lots of choices. We place a high value on individual accomplishment, and your diploma today gives you an important advantage in becoming personally successful. At the same time, we also applaud and reward successful efforts involving common needs and collaborative activities, and it is my hope that your diploma will also help you become successful in this area. We Americans admire and do both. Just think of the ever popular plot line for many western novels and movies: the bad guys exhibit lots of personal skills (some pretty exciting) that contribute to their own personal success, but the townsfolk get beaten up, run over, and sometimes killed in the process. Then along comes a charismatic leader who persuades the townsfolk to gather their courage to face the problem together, which in time results in running the bad guys out of town. Peace and prosperity are enjoyed by all as the sun figuratively sets. To be effective, those townsfolk had to work together to develop a plan of attack. They couldn't just sound off about how terrible everything was. And most importantly, those townsfolk had to take responsibility for solving the problem, not just wait for someone else to do it. Those townsfolk seldom make the history books or the movie credits, but they are fictional examples of real publics composed of people like you and me.

Translating this simple story line into a more analytical framework, the Kettering Foundation has been examining our American brand of democracy, which some say is currently the most imitated governmental form on earth. What makes us unique? What makes our democracy work? What gets in the way? One of the things Kettering sees as essential to our successful democracy is a strong "civil society." By that they do not mean that we are a polite society (clearly we are not). They do mean that, despite the fact that we are a large collection of diverse people, we repeatedly join together in ways that allow us to address common problems.

Now, we Americans do like a good fight. Our history is filled with tales of individual and factional disagreements along with a healthy mistrust of governments. Counterbalancing this distrustful side of the American psyche, say the folks at Kettering, is an equally well-documented tendency to form and participate in a vast array of informal associations, ad hoc groups and networks through which we as citizens communicate, build relationships, form consensus and sometimes even find solutions. This is the realm in which real publics first take shape.

A Quick History

Our history is filled with successful examples of individual prowess and collective achievements. Sometimes, we as a people seem to focus more on one or the other, an emphasis defined in part by our personal definitions of what is important, and in part by events outside our control.

For example, I was born in 1929, a year that a few of you in this great audience can also remember, but one that all of you know from your history books. The first two decades of my life were shaped by the enormity of the common bad known as the depression, which was followed by a different common bad, namely World War II. During those years, Americans, including me, my family, and everyone I knew, acted upon a remarkably coherent notion of our common good, namely the need to get Americans back to work and the need to defeat the forces of fascism that threatened democracy as we knew it. In time, historians would explain that this period brought Americans together in ways not typical throughout much of our history, but I thought that's the way the world worked.

The 1950s would change much of that for me and for many Americans. I was very busy getting married, contributing three healthy sons to the baby-boom generation, buying my first house, my first clothes dryer, my first TV, my first McDonald's burger, and looking forward to living the American dream forever. Many describe America in the 1950s as unabashedly optimistic: things would only get better and better. To be sure, there were a few matters like the Korean War, the Cold War, and the threat of a nuclear war that did motivate collective attention and action. But, by and large, many of us considered such larger issues as beyond our control and therefore outside our responsibility. We were so busy with our own lives that many of us, in retrospect too many of us, failed to note that not everyone was benefiting from the growing wealth of the 1950s.

The next decade would change us again. While diffuse and often counterproductive, the anger of the 1960s refocused more attention on common needs and collaborative action. But now, there were a number of different common agendas, some of them conflicting. Civil rights were the primary focus, but environmental damage, religious dogma, journalistic objectivity, middle-class morality--all found themselves under some form of collective attack, which generated in turn new forms of collective defense. The questions raised were complicated, relating to things like fairness, justice and power. The growth of electronic media gave new definition and power to special interest groups, each of which would define the public or common good in its own way. This common good stuff was getting very complicated; some would say downright messy. By the end of the decade many turned away.

For me the 1960s served as a jolting personal reminder that the "civil society" could not be ignored without endangering the democracy I had taken for granted as a child. I began to look consciously beyond issues related primarily to my family and my neighborhood to those troubling the larger community.

By the 1970s most of you here today had arrived on our American scene. This was a period, said Time magazine, when America discovered "limits to its impressive power and enormous wealth." This decade in which many of you were growing up was characterized by downsized expectations, disillusionment, a growing cynicism about anything connected with the term public. Watergate seemed to sum it all up. Vietnam had engaged our armed forces and our emotions for over a decade, but now we just wanted to forget. For many the focus had shifted back to ourselves, our careers and our families.

That's when I moved to Milwaukee. I found a metropolitan community that mirrored much of the country's desire to go back to being normal--with lots of different definitions of what that meant. I sensed a somewhat surprising complacency here that said, in effect, we've avoided the worst of the turmoil of the 1960s, most of us are doing pretty well, and the future looks sound, much like our past. Many, including myself, simply refused to recognize that an economic tidal wave was heading directly at us, and at much of industrial America. The full impact of what some would call the de-industrialization of Milwaukee, meaning the shift from a mostly manufacturing- based economy to a less familiar information age economy, was not recognized widely here until the 1980s. It would first stun, then galvanize Milwaukee in ways few would have predicted a decade earlier.

When I moved here I also discovered that this really great place on a truly great lake, as they said, has a special strength not found everywhere else, namely a strong history of a "civil society," some of which dates back as far as our early immigrant ancestors. Although no one used that term, of course, some people here had cared a lot about common goods such as public health and sanitation, public parks, public schools. They made sure that fisherfolk and picnickers could always reach the lakefront, and they decorated our boulevards with mosaics of shrubs and flowers. All of us here today can be thankful for this foresight. In addition, I found a variety of local governments that worked--a rarity in the places I had formerly called home. I might not like what all my new governments did, but they did it with surprising openness, efficiency and honesty. I even found a relatively new university with something it called an urban mission. I wasn't always sure what that meant, but it did suggest some attention to the common good of this urban area in addition to its traditional focus on individual learning.

By the late 1970s I had also learned about the "gaps." G-A-P gap, meaning a space between. These growing gaps between those who have much and those who have much too little are not limited to Milwaukee, but we have the dubious distinction of frequently finding ourselves on the high end in such gap studies. The gaps reveal a troubling side of Milwaukee and of America. Income, wage and tax gaps; buying, lending and borrowing gaps; school selection gaps, scholastic score gaps; disease frequency and health care use gaps; technology gaps; arrest and incarceration gaps. Whatever the list, many of those on the "bad" side of each gap tend to be the same people, suggesting a kind of permanent group of those having much too little. Surely this poses a threat to the American promise of a society in which opportunity is to be equal for all. How we address such gaps illustrates, I believe, our continuing American dilemma about individual achievement versus common good approaches. Many on the good side of those gaps will define the solution as improved individual effort on the part of those on the bad side. And indeed our American experience clearly shows the importance of individual effort. However, many who see themselves on the bad side of the gap look to increased common good actions or supports. And indeed American experience also shows the importance of some level of safety net support for our youngest and our oldest and our weakest, at a minimum. I have no idea how history will record our answer to that dilemma, but finding an answer will matter greatly, particularly here in Milwaukee.

I've now lived, worked and public serviced in Milwaukee for 25 years. I find Milwaukee to be a good place to live (except maybe for March, but then I've never lived anywhere where March was much to brag about). It certainly is a comfortable, often fun, sometimes remarkable city, for many of us. Milwaukee rightly boasts that it survived massive economic challenges and now thrives for many of its citizens, yet too often those who thrive ignore those left behind in this new information age that offers such great opportunity for most of us in this room. Milwaukee folks talk admiringly about our citizen action legacy, but too frequently we cannot define new common agendas that need to cross long-standing social, cultural and political boundaries if our metropolitan area is to thrive in the new interconnected age of competition on a global scale. Milwaukee points proudly to its unusual civic successes related to education, recreation and entertainment, but the futures of these critical civic goods are not assured. Milwaukee celebrates its ethnic roots yet consistently refuses to deal with the racism that precludes too many from adding the strength of their own cultural roots to those already here. Most importantly, I think, much of Milwaukee's past strength is tied to its long-standing emphasis on children and families and neighborhoods, yet too many of our youngest citizens and our oldest neighborhoods face greater poverty and tougher problems than at any time since the depression.


So what does this mean to you and me gathered here today? Milwaukee, like America itself, faces a whole raft of common problems, many of which are not new. But these problems cry out for new solutions, and that's where you come in. Milwaukee and Wisconsin have a strong history of civic action upon which to draw for future action if we are wise enough to do so, and that's where you come in. Milwaukee has a number of institutions, like this university, dedicated to focusing on both individuals and communities if they have the will and the resources to pursue both goals, and that, too, is where many of you come in. And above all, Milwaukee has you-- people who have knowledge and experience, people who know both the good that has been accomplished and the bad that must be attended to. Public service may not be for everyone, but I fervently hope it is or will be for most of you. My doctorate today is really a symbol of this university's recognition of all of you "out there" who have contributed so much public service to this community. It is also a promise of this university's support for all of you who will contribute public service to this community and to our country in the years ahead. Today's celebration is a wonderful prelude to tomorrow's action. May you find both richly rewarding.

At the May 10, 1998, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee commencement ceremony, Jean B. Tyler was awarded an honorary doctor of public service degree. In awarding the degree, the university issued the following statement:

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee



For her distinguished career in public service where she used her leadership talents to facilitate creation of strategies to respond to urgent public problems.

For her leadership at the Public Policy Forum—an independent organization designed to gather information, undertake research, and promote action to strengthen local governments and school systems in the greater Milwaukee area—during ten of its critical growth years.

For her able leadership in the important Goals for Greater Milwaukee 2000 through which thousands of people in the Milwaukee area were able to analyze concerns, set goals, and formulate actions to enhance employment, schools, community health, housing, land use, recreation, transportation, and the environment.

For the dedication, wisdom, and vigor she has devoted to enhancing educational opportunities in our community, including her leadership in efforts to strengthen local schools, create a Start Smart Milwaukee program, and produce better-trained civic leaders.

For her energetic involvement in civic and humanitarian projects and her commitment to social justice in the Milwaukee community.

May 10, 1998