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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University June 7, 2004 | Vol. 33 No. 37
Thinking Out Loud

William R. Brody

By William R. Brody

"There are many more ways to give than by writing a check"

I think of Commencement as our students' one last opportunity to consider an idea in the company of their classmates, and it's my job each year as speaker to come up with something worthy of their consideration. This year, I wanted them to leave Johns Hopkins thinking about giving back.

We Americans have long prided ourselves on the tremendous generosity we display toward charitable causes of all kinds. Individual Americans do in fact give, on average, twice as much of their income to their houses of worship and favorite charities as the next most generous nation. And in recent years, charitable organizations have reported record numbers of dollars received.

But if we dig down, we discover that those record gifts are largely the result of the prosperity effect caused by the tremendous growth in the economy and our national wealth. In fact, giving as a percentage of income is down — lower than it has been in 40 years. As a nation we've been getting richer and richer — and we've been giving a smaller and smaller share of it away.

There are many more ways to give than by writing a check, of course. At the core of our system of self-government there has always been a strong reliance on voluntary associations of citizens coming together to do everything from running baseball leagues to raising money to fight cancer.

Our system of justice depends upon citizen juries, and the political legitimacy of our leaders depends upon voter turnout orchestrated by partisan political associations. But here, too, the numbers are cause for concern.

In April, The Baltimore Sun revealed that every day Baltimore Circuit Court officials summon 800 residents to fill the jury pool and feel lucky if 250 of those summoned actually appear. In Philadelphia and Dallas, less than a third of jurors summoned report for duty. Two years ago in Shelby, N.C., sheriff's deputies handed out summonses to shoppers at the local Wal-Mart in a desperate effort to fill out a jury pool.

The decline in voter turnout and political involvement in our nation is well-documented. In the 1990s Americans were about half as likely to volunteer for a political candidate or attend a political rally as they were just 20 years earlier. And during that same 20-year period, the number of Americans who reported attending just one public meeting on town or school affairs within the previous 12 months declined by 40 percent.

To some, these numbers may indicate that the season of giving is past, and that Americans are no longer willing to sow what future generations will reap. But I don't believe it.

When the Sept. 11 attacks occurred, across America people's first response was to try to give back. We all remember the long lines of people waiting patiently to give blood that, sadly, was never needed. So many people tried to help feed the rescue workers that soon city officials had to say, Please, no more food.

Clearly, the desire to give back has not gone away. But in the rush of our lives — filled with cell phones and pagers and e-mail and the constant buzz of activity — it can be difficult to know how to give in a way that is both efficacious and meaningful. As charitable and nonprofit agencies have grown more professional, they have also become more impersonal. What prevents many of us from giving is the feeling that our contribution is so small as to be almost meaningless.

So often, it is the small acts of personal giving that mean the most. At the end of last year, we learned that professor of biological chemistry Peter Agre had been awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry. A Nobel Prize confers a kind of celebrity, and recipients are quickly overwhelmed with requests for their time. Dr. Agre has used his newfound fame to give back in a very personal and meaningful way.

In his Nobel acceptance speech, Dr. Agre talked about the transformative power of education, and the difference a teacher can make in students' lives. "Early in the life of every scientist," he said, "the child's first interest was sparked by a teacher." And since that speech, despite the demands of his research and the innumerable requests for his time, Dr. Agre has been making opportunities to give back in a unique way. He's been taking his message of the importance of teachers into Baltimore's public schools and other venues. He tells his audience: Look at how important good teachers were in my own life and in what I have been able to achieve. What you do for your students is extraordinary, and I am here today to say thank you. Your contributions are not only vitally important; they are also deeply appreciated.

And this is what I asked our graduates to do for us. Starting the next day, I said, I wanted them to give back to Johns Hopkins.

"This is not a plea for money," I said. "The greatest gift you can give back to Johns Hopkins is your personal integrity, hard work and the fruits of your discoveries offered freely to others to make a better world. I am asking that you give the knowledge you have gained here to the world on behalf of Johns Hopkins. Give of yourselves. When you do, I have no doubt, great things will come to us all."

William R. Brody is president of The Johns Hopkins University. This column was adapted from his address to the graduating class on May 20, 2004.


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