L. D. Britt, MD, MPH
Valedictory Address, University of Virginia
May 17, 2003
Distinguished colleagues on the dais and my University
You can understand the great pride that I have…having a relative (who has been an accomplished student at the University) introduce you. I want to recognize his equally proud parents and sister. If pride were dollars, everyone on the Lawn today would be millionaires. You know - I told my lovely wife (an alumnus of UNC-Chapel Hill) that I wanted her to accompany me to The University for the commencement exercise and attend the valedictory address. Before I could tell her who would be speaking this year, she beamed with joy for I believe she was well aware of the headliners who had previously given this coveted address (Ms. Katie Couric, Mr. Tom Brokaw, Mr. Andy Rooney, The Honorable Thurgood Marshall and the list goes on…). Before I could say why specifically we had to go, I could see that she was anticipating, perhaps, hearing a Peter Jennings, Sec. Colin Powell or a Condoleeza Rice or maybe a Denzel Washington. Oh well……
……To add insult to injury, as I was preparing this talk, one of my senior surgical colleagues (Dr. Schwartz) cautioned me that I would likely have recurrent anxiety related to the preparation of this address…an address which would inevitably be exposed to comparison and criticism but, unfortunately, would rarely be remembered by the audience.
Seriously though, I do have many colleagues and friends here today (and mentor – Dr. Scott Jones). So I look at today as being a True Homecoming. You know - speaking of homecoming, I had a chance to walk around the “Grounds” when I was here a few weeks ago as a Visiting Professor in the Department of Surgery. When I passed the old dorm (Bonnecastle), I couldn’t help but have a flashback to the time (over 30 years ago) when I sat in one of the old basement desks and studied – on average – 8 hours a day…building the foundation for my career pursuit. Without question, the four years that I spent at the University had the most significant impact on me.
It was 1968, when I started my “professional journey”. In fact, my arrival to UVA was only a couple of months after the assassination of Martin Luther King and just a few weeks after the assassination of Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy. At this same time, the country was in the midst of a war that was anything but definitive (-the Vietnam War – spanned over 15 years with 58,000 lives lost). To somewhat balance this experience, there were streams of encouraging (dream building) moments also. In 1971 (my junior year), I remember hearing about the development of microchips (under the leadership of Andrew Grove of Intel) – what some people were calling the “electronic Lego blocks” which subsequently developed into microprocessors which ultimately became the heart of the PC (personal computer). This along with “Al Gore’s internet discovery” has to be considered one of the greatest inventions of modern times. That junior year also ushered in, formally, the first undergraduate coed class at the University. In my opinion, it was that transition that made Mr. Jefferson’s University a true academic village.
I know that I am preaching to the choir for I believe we all recognize the pivotal role that The University has played, nationally and internationally, as a template for academic excellence. Make no mistake about it, for over two centuries, the strengths have outweighed any drawbacks, discrepancies, or denials.
You know – if there is one theme that best represents the Jefferson tradition it is doing what is Best for The Public. Unfortunately, we have gone through a period in this nation which has been the antithesis of this philosophy. Just like the biblical reference to the fact that the poor will always be amongst us…the selfish will also always be amongst us. However, I don’t think any of us could have predicted the egregious practices so detrimental to employees by the thousands and to the public – the Enron/Tyco/World Com scams.
Even in my field where nothing is more sacred than providing a helping hand and medical assistance for the sick and disabled, there have been abuses. I was recently down at the University of Alabama as a Visiting Professor and I got some firsthand accounts of the abuses and the elaborate deceptions of the leader of HealthSouth. A person, who was supposed to be a steward of health care delivery, essentially stealing from sick and disadvantaged to support an incredibly lavish background…I know what you are thinking that these were actually “fly-by-nite/upstart” companies with no real history or anchoring tradition. Unfortunately, this was just the “tip of the iceberg”.
Why am I bringing this up during this upscale ceremony? Because you (the graduates) sitting here today are considered, by all, to be the best and the brightest. When you receive your degree tomorrow amidst all the jubilation, you will also be making a contract with the public…to be good stewards for the public (Will it be legally binding? – No; Will it be ethically binding? –Yes) Many of you will have very lucrative careers (I am sure many of the parents in the audience are thrilled about this prediction). But if you allow your character to be severely compromised or if you trade in your ethics for profits then you have placed yourself out on a limb where there is often no “safety net”. You know - your foundation and support (even a foundation built at the University) can sometimes evaporate overnight. Well – think about it…whether or not it is a Martha Stewart or an organization that was even more established, an organization that had an 89-year history…an organization that was arguably, the best in its field…but an organization that stepped across that forbidden line and abandoned its ethical code/compromised its character and is now for all practical purposes nonexistent!! Arthur Anderson is mentioned now only as a historical reference. Unfortunately, the streets have become littered with these examples. We can attempt to put a “Clintonian spin” on this but the common denominator for most of this is simply greed.
However, I do believe (and I am not sure that I will get unanimous support on this point)…that when people accumulate wealth on a colossal scale, they should convert a substantial amount into public trusts…and go beyond self-oriented and trivial pursuits. As your illustrious stories are beginning to be written on each one of you, there will be no chapter that will define you better than the one emphasizing your role as a public servant. This is a realization that oftentimes occurs late for some. Consider Carnegie and Mellon…consider John Rockefeller (the wealthiest person of his time). Sure he had some dark sides that were well chronicled by the author Chernow in the book the Titan…but John Rockefeller, the Standard oil magnate, realized that some of his money had to be used for the good of the public. In today’s environment, some might consider him for the canonization process to sainthood.
Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with having a healthy appetite for life…and I know it might be counterintuitive to even consider “uncoupling” success from the accumulation of wealth. But the accumulation of wealth by itself has never been a necessary component of the formula for real success. Mr. Jefferson stated in a correspondence of 1807 that “I have the consolation of having added nothing to my private fortune, during my public service”.
You know – I don’t care what the pundits might say as they attempt to identify the “cornerstone” of this nation’s strength. Contrary to popular belief, it has not been the expansive military might…not the impressive entrepreneurial spirit…not even the best and most resilient economy the world has ever known (which rivals the entire Roman Empire at its peak). No – all these have contributed – in their own way – to this nation’s strength, resilience, and resistance to the devastating storms of erosion and decay which have plagued other great nations in the past. No - the “cornerstone” has been our history of public service…doing what is Best for the Public. Public service transcends all periods and all time zones.
I know many of you have not taken that leap of faith to the point of seeing yourself in a leadership role or embracing the fact that you will have a substantial impact on the public. You know – you have so many people quick to say that they are not slated for this or that they haven’t been prepared for this or that or that they have no formal training….Everything cannot and will not require a detailed plan or an extensive background. Hiker Aron Ralston had no formal operative training. As a surgeon and a teacher of surgeons, I read with great amazement the logical and methodical approach that he took in performing quite an elaborate one hour operation to amputate his right (and likely his dominant arm) and this was done under duress! I know this is an extreme and gruesome case but it still highlights the point that you will not always be prepared for all situations. Actually, the greatest threats in life are the things you don’t see coming!
The other day I saw the headline of a non-mainstream magazine that was titled “Accepting (or embracing) the New Normal”. I expect this “new normal” would include these boutique cellular phones, beepers continually going off during lectures, formal dining and religious services and weddings. I guess that “new normal” means accepting the wave of free-for-all class action suits like the one recently filed by the 56-year old 400 pound man who feels that four of the fast-food companies were responsible for his diabetes and stroke.
Now – will there be a “new normal” for quality? Well – in my profession quality is not relative, it is absolute!
Someone once asked me “what is that one attribute that is so essential to being a leading surgeon and, without hesitation, I said judgement. Unfortunately, it is so easy to believe that with a great fund of knowledge, spectacular technical skills, outstanding organizational abilities, one can assume good judgement…not the case.
I know it is a little risky for me to say this in Charlottesville and particularly today, but in my opinion – if you consider the most substantial impact on humankind – Mr. Jefferson’s best judgement call was not the decision he made or the judgement that he demonstrated in establishing this great university. No – it was his orchestrating the purchase of the Louisiana Territory and in a masterful way unleashing the growth potential of a young nation. Some people call it having a vision (which is no more than good judgement that goes against popular opinion). Can you imagine where we would be, as a nation, had this not been done? I guess we wouldn’t have the Los Angeles Lakers.
So I say today to one of the most talented class of graduates to leave any university that it will be judgement that will help you recognize that talent is distributed broadly and that the “Academic Village” can go beyond the walls of the University. It will be judgement that will fuel the desire to always support a system of fairness. It will be judgement that will help you differentiate between the random hand of misfortune and the cruel hand of neglect.
No – as you leave here today, judgement will be your main compass to help you navigate life’s hardships. I don’t care what degree or pedigree you have there is no immunity from life’s hardships…but it will be judgement that helps you keep that Not-For-Sale sign in front of the door of character.
And; hopefully, it will be judgement (not the pursuit of prestige/not peer pressure/and certainly not the desire for wealth) that will lead you down that road called Public Service. It has been well highlighted (although often ignored) that the true test of a Great Society is not how it treats its best citizens but how it treats the disadvantaged. All of you need to be the ambassadors for this message. I would like to dedicate this address to my cousin, Mr. Edmund Newsome, and the graduating class of 2003. Also, I would like to make a special dedication to my Mother who passed a couple of months ago. It was her judgement that directed me to The University in 1968. During my commencement ceremony, it was my Mother who had the vision. She saw how far I would go. In fact, she whispered to me during graduation that I would one day give the main address at a graduation ceremony at The University.