Print View - Return to Normal View

Making a Difference

By UCLA Chancellor Gene Block

Published Oct 1, 2016 8:00 AM

Many UCLA scholars devote their careers to preparing students for a lifetime of public service. That commitment takes on special meaning in an election year.


Photo by Amanda Friedman.

“Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”

Abraham Lincoln said that more than 150 years ago, but it’s arguably never been more relevant than right now. With the election a few weeks away, after a particularly divisive campaign, we are preparing to choose our 45th president.

Perhaps you believe that our country has never been this polarized and has no chance of coming together after the election. But the experts at UCLA will tell you otherwise.

“If you want to see polarization, come back with me to the McCarthy years” in the 1950s, says 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, who teaches every winter quarter at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. “Joe McCarthy was running around the country questioning people’s patriotism. I’ve seen a lot more polarization than we’ve had thus far in this campaign.”

Leave it to a UCLA scholar to put things in perspective.

And then there’s this history lesson from Mark Peterson, chair of the Department of Public Policy at UCLA Luskin.

“If we look at American history, there have been plenty of campaigns that have been hard-nosed and hard-hitting,” Peterson says. “We can go through American politics and find times that were even more challenging to the democratic process. In 1800, campaigners were dealing with the Alien and Sedition Acts. In 1789, it became a crime to say anything ‘false’ about the government or people in the government.”

Dukakis and Peterson are among many UCLA scholars who have dedicated their academic careers to preparing our students for a lifetime of public service.

That commitment to serving the global community is embedded in UCLA’s DNA. Approximately half of our undergraduate students participate in some form of community service. This service is based on the same principle underlying higher education, which is that research and reason, compassion and compromise, and melding our best intentions to our best efforts give us the power to solve problems and improve lives.

“There is nothing more fulfilling or satisfying in life than being in a position where you can make a difference,” says Dukakis, a three-term governor of Massachusetts. “A career in public service makes that possible.”

As Peterson tells his students, public service is a noble calling, one that demands a fearless, selfless dedication to improving the world.

“I tell the students that their commitment and passion, their goal for a better society — however they define it individually — is needed today more than it ever has been,” Peterson says. “This is a world in which their talents [and] their expertise are more important than ever.”

Says Dukakis, “I have had the great satisfaction of seeing dozens of my students enter public life professionally at every level of government. Thanks to their training and education here, they are doing great work.”

Enriched by their UCLA experience, Bruins have served on city councils and in the U.S. Congress; they run grassroots nonprofits and innovative businesses; and they are pioneers in the sciences and leaders in the humanities.

We call Bruins “optimists.” Optimism is not blind faith that everything will magically be all right. Optimism is the conviction that human intelligence, hard work, courage and creativity can make tomorrow better than today.

When the election is over, we will need to, in the words of Lincoln, “bind up the nation’s wounds.” We will need to heal, to find each other again and to forge a path forward. I am optimistic that Bruins will help lead the way.