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The overriding challenge Americans face in this election year is that "we are losing a shared sense of the common good, of a public interest that surpasses private interests," the President of Columbia University said today.
George Rupp, speaking to thousands of graduating students and their families at Commencement Exercises, said:
"If we do not meet this challenge, none of the changes we must make to strengthen the economy, to address the sources of international conflict, to preserve our endanged environment will be achieved."
"Today with the collapse of Communism, our celebration of the dynamism and efficiency of markets has just about drowned out any appeal to the public interest as more than the sum of private interests," he said. "That is a mistake. Interest group politics, identity politics, pressure group politics do not by themselves add up to the common good. Nor do great new levels of wealth achieved by a few ensure a healthy economy where all have the opportunity for achievement."
Citing the savings and loan scandal as an example of how private interests have damaged public ones, the Columbia president warned that the nation must be careful not to allow a similar outcome under managed health care.
"To increase efficiency and thereby to constrain expenses is surely a positive development," the Columbia president said. "But it is crucial that the end toward which this greater efficiency is the means continue to be the provision of quality health care for all - not simply the maximization of profits to a few. Otherwise the common good is no longer served, as privatization subverts the public interest.
"The nightmare we must avoid is that we wake up ten or fifteen or twenty years from now and only then realize that, in our enthusiasm to save money and make money, we weakened health care for everyone. The example of health care illustrates the challenge we face on every side: how to sustain and enhance the common good even as we harness the power of markets for public purposes."
"For most of our history we Americans have had a powerful sense of the common good," said Dr. Rupp. "It found expression in a widely shared social contract. We need a new contract today, where everyone gains - not just a few. Otherwise the gale force of change that is sweeping the globe will blow away what remains of the common good."
By tradition, Dr. Rupp was the principal speaker at the Commencement ceremony, which ended Columbia's 242nd year. The University was founded in 1754 as King's College, the first college in New York and the fifth in the nation.
The President awarded degrees to more than 8,600 students in Columbia's 15 schools and affiliated institutions Barnard College and Teachers College and conferred honorary degrees on Mark O. Hatfield, U.S. Senator from Oregon; Andrei Kozyrev, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia; Irwin D. Mandel, an international expert in dentistry and professor emeritus at Columbia's School of Dental and Oral Surgery; Wynton Marsalis, composer and musician; Sadako Ogata, U. N. High Commissioner for Refugees; Franz Rosenthal, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Languages at Yale University; and Edward Witten, mathematical physicist at the School of Natural Science of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Dr. Helene Gayle, director of the National Center for HIV, STD, TB at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and a 1976 graduate of Barnard received the University Medal for Excellence.