Acceptance of Honorary Degree from Hunter College

On November 19, 2014, Hunter College President Jennifer J. Raab presented an honorary doctorate in humane letters to Jonathan F. Fanton. His remarks upon receiving the honor follow.

It is wonderful for me and Cynthia to be home again at Roosevelt House with so many friends from the Hunter family and other dear friends that reach back to our time at The New School.

Thank you, Jennifer, for this honor—and even more for the opportunity to make common cause with you and the Hunter faculty in building the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute. You are one of the best university presidents of this generation, and Hunter benefits immensely from your vision, energy, determination, and courage. You challenge us all to do our best, to stretch our capacities, and to set high goals and exceed them. It has been a pleasure to work with you and learn from you.

We share a belief that universities have a role to play in strengthening our democracy, educating students to be engaged citizens, and producing research that improves public policy to embody the values upon which our country was founded.

Franklin Roosevelt understood the importance of higher education to the future of the nation then enduring the pain of the Great Depression. He gave the commencement address at Temple University, where he received an honorary degree, on February 22, 1936—Washington’s birthday. Hear his words:

“Suffice it to say this: What President Washington pointed out on many occasions and in many practical ways was that a broad and cosmopolitan education in every stratum of society is a necessary factor in any free Nation governed through a democratic system.”

Roosevelt elaborated on that theme in a message for American Education Week in September 1938:

“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education. It has been well said that no system of government gives so much to the individual or exacts so much as a democracy. Upon our educational system must largely depend the perpetuity of those institutions upon which our freedom and our security rest.”

I think Franklin and Eleanor would be pleased with what happens every day in their home. Hunter students from every background and from all over the world study human rights and public policy—how to make the world more just humane and peaceful. And students, Hunter faculty, policy-makers, and the general public—all of us—come together to discuss and debate the critical issues of our time through candid, spirited, deep conversations informed by evidence, not ideology.

I leave Hunter full of hope and faith in the future. I loved my years at Hunter, one of my happiest times of my life. What a privilege to work with its extraordinary faculty, leaders in their disciplines, caring teachers, and wonderful colleagues, all optimistic that research can inform public policy and strengthen our democracy.

We were a great team in creating this new institution, only five years old but already recognized as a leading public policy center. Professor Jon Rosenberg led our strategic planning process. John Wallach and Manu Bhagavan chair the Human Rights Faculty Committee. Joe Viteritti and Pam Stone gave leadership to our public policy committee. Lawrence Moss and Shyama Venkateswar proved to be strong choices to direct our undergraduate programs. And I owe a special debt to Judith Friedlander, who proposed to Jennifer that I become the first Franklin Roosevelt Visiting Fellow and who was later my wise and generous mentor in learning the culture of Hunter and helping me to connect with its faculty and students. And thank you to Vita Rabinowitz for her steadfast support. You are all great colleagues who have become dear friends.

But we could not have turned our dreams for Roosevelt House into reality without Fay Rosenfeld and her talented team. Our partnership means a great deal to me. How fortunate we are to have one of the most able, hard-working, decent, caring, and politically savvy people I know as the real leader of Roosevelt House. Fay not only supports other people’s good ideas but she is also the source of some of our most creative and effective programs, reaching high to ensure a continuous flow of interesting people through our institute. And what a team to make it all happen: Sindy, Dylan, Amyrose, and so many others.

We could not have built Roosevelt House so quickly without the support—both substantive and financial—of our Board, chaired by my friend Mike Gellert, whose steady flow of good advice and flexible resources were my bedrock. Romano and Ada Peluso provided the critical financial and moral support for every facet of Roosevelt House. Joe Califano made our landmark LBJ conference happen, Bob Katzmann educated us about justice for immigrants, Rita Hauser lifted our sites for the human rights program she generously supported, Ira Katznelson is helping us explore “The Anxieties of Democracy,” and Stan Litow introduced us to IBM’s Watson and P-Tech. David Rockefeller, Elbrun Kimmelman, Adam Wolfensohn, and Richard Menschel were sources of great ideas for Roosevelt House programs. We are grateful to Richard and his family for providing support for those thought-provoking public events. And Bill Vanden Heuvel was my indispensable teacher in all things Roosevelt.

So I accept this honor on behalf of all of you who have made common cause to create an institution of which Franklin and Eleanor would be proud. A passage in our strategic plans says it well:

“Roosevelt House has developed a personality in its early years. Rather than becoming an independent academic center, it seeks to serve the faculty and students of Hunter, supporting their interests and research. When a request is made of Roosevelt House the disposition is to say ‘yes, we will help.’ Words that describe the character of this new institution are nimble, flexible, nonpartisan, creative, connected, and modern. Its undergraduate and public programs are high-quality, interesting, and innovative. All points of view are welcome in the search for objective evidence to inform public policy. Roosevelt House is a meeting place for faculty and students from all across Hunter wishing to transcend disciplinary boundaries and to focus on serious challenges and opportunities that face New York, the U.S., and the wider world.”

I am honored to remain on the Roosevelt House Board, I am pleased with how Jack Rosenthal is moving forward on our plans, and I look forward to doing a few more of my conversations next year. Indeed, I hope the American Academy might partner with Roosevelt House in the future.

You can count on my steadfast commitment to Roosevelt House in the years ahead. You are friends for a lifetime.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s