Mark Gearan, president of Hobart & William Smith Colleges and former director of the U.S. Peace Corps, spoke last night in a speech titled, “Public Service in the 21st Century.” Gearan was invited to Cornell as a part of the 2006-07 Colloquium Series presented by The Cornell Institute for Public Affairs.
In his lecture, Gearan touched upon such topics as politics, presidents, campaigns and student financial aid, but seized the opportunity mainly to discuss the state of public service in today’s world.
Gearan asked those in the audience who are thinking about international development to look into becoming involved with the Peace Corps.
“Allow me this commercial,” said Gearan, “to encourage you to think about the [U.S.] Peace Corps service.”
Gearan said the satisfaction experienced by Peace Corps volunteers is nothing less than significant. Peace Corps volunteers make a 27 month commitment to the Corps. He conveyed that 9 out of 10 volunteers surveyed while working in the field would choose to volunteer again, while the same ratio of volunteers would recommend the experience to others.
Gearan defined the term “public service” as being comprised of two parts: “community service and volunteerism aspect and a public service aspect” in regards to public service with federal and state governments.
“When we look back at our past as Americans, there has been an ethic of service since our founding,” said Gearan.
“From minutemen, to thee early founding fathers [who established] our country in the deep routes of freedom, to Alexis de Tocqueville who was struck by the efforts of [early American] ‘joiners,’ those getting involved in their communities and meeting houses, we have [historically] fostered this sense of volunteerism during times of crisis, war and peace,” said Gearan.
Gearan continued his talk with his opinion of the state of volunteerism in today’s world.
“What can we think about to promote a greater sense of these services in the 21st century?” asked Gearan.
“The number of college students who volunteer is up 20 percent from 2002 to 2005,” said Gearan. “This is more than double [the volunteering] by adults,” whose numbers have increased by only 9 percent.
Gearan explained that this spike in a sense of the importance of service by college students can be attributed to a post 9/11 phenomenon. According to Gearan, the fact that college undergraduates were adolescents during this time is a reason for the high levels of volunteerism.
Gearan expressed concern regarding the importance of volunteerism as reflected by U.S. government spending. Each year, numerous applicants are turned away by the Peace Corps because the Corps simply cannot afford to fund enough projects.
“Why has the most fortunate country in the world said ‘no’ to these volunteers?” asked Gearan. “We spend more on our military marching band than on the Peace Corps. Not my priority.”
When the room opened up for questions, an AmeriCorps alumna raised concern over the budget cuts of both the Peace Corp and AmeriCorps.
“Funding is being slightly shaved off every year,” said Gearan.
Because there is no one really fighting against it, there is also no one strongly fighting for it.
“Without an engaged constituency [the Corps] suffers.”
In regards to the second aspect of his definition of service – service with the federal government – Gearan was less optimistic about involvement.
“Here, in contrast to community service volunteerism, the news is not very good,” said Gearan. “Baby boomers are retiring in huge numbers [opening] many opportunities for young people … Why am I depressed? Let me tell you why.”
In a survey administered to a few thousand college students, only 13 percent of those interviewed were knowledgeable about what it would be like to work for the federal government. Some think there is too much bureaucracy, others think salaries are not high enough, and most notably, there is no recruiting process.
When was the last time a federal recruiter has been here from the federal government? asked Gearan. “Don’t take it personally, they don’t go anywhere.”
“This is where I get to my concern,” said Gearan, “Who is going to be the next leadership wave in service?” Will we have people voting? Running for office? Working for the EPA?”
According to Gearan, a service position with the federal, state or local government offers many opportunities to young people, including: exposure to issues, the excitement of public and government service and an enormous amount of responsibility at a very young age.
“There is certainly enough for us to critique about this government and [its] efforts … [however] the opportunity to move through such a system so quickly is very satisfying and unique experience,” said Gearan.
Gearan called out to students, educators and citizens of all ages to both volunteer in the community as well as at the federal level.
“We all have somewhat of a responsibility here,” said Gearan. “The first step is to have the interest to make a difference.”