Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Way Forward

Great leaders, when faced with a crisis, do not just think about a way out for themselves or the organizations they lead; they think of a way forward for those they serve.

We now find ourselves in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. The way out seems unclear and a long way off. Some leaders will draw the understandable conclusion that there is nothing to do but accept these hard realities. They will direct their organizations to cut back and resign themselves to a long recessionary winter. Yes, it would be imprudent to ignore these realities but the example of other leaders in even more difficult times might remind us of the importance of looking ahead, no matter what.

The perils and uncertainty of our present crisis pale when compared to those faced by Lincoln in the summer of 1862. Union forces had been bested in most of the Civil War's early battles, sometimes by a lesser numbers of poorly equipped Confederates. To make matters worse, on June 1, command of the rebel army was given to the immensely capable Robert E. Lee who immediately organized his emboldened soldiers to move on the nation's increasingly vulnerable capital. In the Seven Days Battles, beginning on June 25, Lee attacked the main Union army under the feckless command of General McClellan near Richmond. By July 1, McClellan was in retreat. The survival of the Union was now in question.

And, yet, the day after McClellan's retreat, Lincoln signed a remarkable piece of legislation that would forever distinguish the troubled nation and provide unparalleled opportunities for its citizens for centuries to come. The bill he signed was the Morrill Act, named for the Vermont senator who had sponsored it. Today, we know it better as the first of the land-grant college acts. The act allowed for tens of thousands of acres of public lands in each state to be sold to create endowments that would support dozens of new public colleges and educate millions Americans. From this act, 69 colleges were created including those we know today as Cornell, MIT, and the universities of Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin.

There was no precedent or parallel in human history for such a sweeping concept. No nation or society had imagined educating its citizenry to such an extent or on such a scale. A year later, in his famous address at Gettysburg, Lincoln would ask his audience to remember the sacrifices of the fallen soldiers by rededicating themselves to nation's ideals so that "a government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth." But, with the passage of the Morrill Act, he had taken a most bold and practical step toward ensuring the success of that form of government. Lincoln and the framers of the Morrill Act saw higher education and the personal and economic development it would promote, as a means of enriching and expanding the democratic franchise. But it is doubtful that they could have fully appreciated how American universities would continue to grow and provide the means for the brightest of youngsters from the most modest of circumstance to rapidly elevate themselves above the circumstances of their birth or how this system would not only bring out the best of those born on American soil but attract enormously talented people from around the globe. It would have been impossible for them to have envisioned how these colleges and universities would give the nation an economic advantage in peace and a technological edge in war, or how the knowledge created in the many classrooms and laboratories would fuel innovation across so many fields of human endeavor.

On the second day of July in 1862, Lincoln had every reason to say, "Not now. We are in the throes of a terrible conflict. The hopes of the future must wait until this conflict is resolved." But he did not. He listened to the voices of the future and responded to the "angels of our better nature." He looked beyond the Confederate encroachment on Washington and saw a way forward on one of the darkest days in American history. And, having benefited so much from the foresight and resilience of our fore bearers, so should we, so must we.

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