A Call to Public Service

Sept. 26, 2013, 1:16 a.m.

I am a visiting professor at the Graduate School of Education. Ernestine Fu ’13 M.S. ’13 is a Ph.D. student in the School of Engineering. More than 57 years in age separate us. But we share a common passion for public service, or what we call “civic work.” Three years ago, we began collaborating on a book about why and how people of all ages, especially young people, should engage in public service. The book was published this summer and is titled “Civic Work, Civic Lessons: Two Generations Reflect on Public Service.”

Our book results from the extended conversations that we have had concerning the goals of civic engagement. We believe that our democracy requires men and women of all ages and all walks of life to find their own civic paths and to pursue them with determination, compassion, respect for others and humility about the limitations of their own perspectives. Our public service paths were very different, but each holds valuable lessons for any and all interested in civic work.

I served in part of the Kennedy administration, and subsequent administrations of Presidents Johnson, Ford, Carter and Clinton, in part because I had been stirred by President John F. Kennedy and his call to ask ourselves “not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

In the book, I recall a fall day in 1963. I was in a drab auditorium in the Department of State in Washington, D.C. The room was packed with those designated as “senior officials,” and I had the good fortune to be one of them, though I was only a 29-year-old special assistant to Under Secretary of State George W. Ball.

We all stood as President Kennedy walked into the room and up to a podium. He began by thanking us for our civic work and then he spoke eloquently about the importance of that work. I felt he was talking directly to me and remember also that I felt 10-feet tall as I listened to his brief remarks.

Over time, my commitment to public service deepened as I witnessed first-hand the ways in which government can help both the country as a whole in times of crisis and how individual citizens who, through no fault of their own, are the most vulnerable among us. Public service became an increasingly part of my sense of self as I participated in various forms of that service.

I have since held a number of full-time jobs in government and served in the administrations of four presidents, including responsibility for foreign aid policy, reporting directly to President Carter. The rest of my full-time professional life has been working in universities.

My early years in education were as a faculty member and administrator at Stanford University, where I was first a professor and then the dean of the Law School. Later I was provost at the University of Pennsylvania. I then consciously chose to move from Penn to a public institution, Indiana University, where I was president, because I wanted to grapple with issues of public access to higher education as well as ones of quality.

Ernestine and I both recognize that moral leadership is essential in civic work, and this is one of our key lessons.

As I describe in the book, I was a young assistant to Abram Chayes, legal adviser in the State Department, and I was assigned the role of legal counsel for the State Department in negotiating the sale of nuclear missiles to the United Kingdom, which President Kennedy and British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan had agreed to. This was the first sale of nuclear missiles to any foreign government and the negotiations at the Pentagon were cloaked in great secrecy.

At the outset, the admiral in charge of the U.S. team said, in effect, “Let’s agree that no transcript will be kept of the negotiations so that no one will feel inhibited about speaking. In short, there will be no records kept until we have the final text of an agreement covering all aspects of the sale.”

The British agreed and the negotiations proceeded. At the end of the second day of negotiations, I was alone in the meeting room when a sailor came in, ducked under the table around which we had all been sitting, and pulled out a box from which he extracted several recording tapes. It was instantly clear to me that a secret recording machine had been taping all our discussions.

I quickly went to the Defense Department lawyer who had been present and told him that the recording violated the commitment not to keep a record of the proceedings. “Oh, don’t worry about that,” he told me. “The British will never know.”

But I did worry about it, and when I returned to the State Department I told this story to Chayes. He immediately called Secretary of State Dean Rusk and asked for an appointment urgently. A few minutes later we went up to the Secretary’s cavernous office on the seventh floor, where I repeated my tale to Rusk.

While Chayes and I were still in his office, Rusk picked up a special phone that connected him directly to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Rusk told McNamara my story and said it was not acceptable for the United States to be violating its word to our closest ally. McNamara instantly agreed that the recording would be suspended.

Our headlines are often crowded with stories of civic leaders who stumble morally when doing their civic work, and even more often with tales of civic leaders whose personal lives are morally flawed. The connection between personal and public morality is not as clear-cut as many news commentators would suggest.

But civic leaders, whether in charge of non profit organizations or government agencies, should be role models, particularly for those people who work with them, and moral lapses in their personal or professional lives often leave scars that weaken their authority in their civic work. Moral rectitude is an essential component of civic leadership.

Although my path of public service differs from Ernestine’s, reflecting the differences in our particular interests as well as our ages, we both find that civic work has become part of our identities, part of who we are as human beings. That work has enabled us both to feel connected to something larger than ourselves and to the world around us in ways that would not have happened without our commitment to public service.

Thomas Ehrlich is a visiting professor at the Graduate School of Education. Previously, he was the dean of Stanford Law School, provost of the University of Pennsylvania and president of Indiana University.

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