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Student Reflections: Conversation with the Founding Mothers of NPR

A panel of experienced leaders -- a Trinity alum, a public policy and law alum and a Durham native -- took to the stage in Penn Pavilion on April 14 to address large questions about political division in the country and the value of public service for our democracy. 

Michael Sorrell MPP’90/JD’94, president of Paul Quinn College; PBS journalist Judy Woodruff T’68; and David Gergen, former presidential adviser, gave the David M. Rubenstein Distinguished Lecture, as one of the final events marking 50 years of public policy at Duke.

How did we get here?

Sorrell started the discussion by noting that democracy in the United State is under attack and asked, “How did we get here?”

Woodruff pointed to the election of Bill Clinton and the Newt Gingrich revolution as an inflection point, when “resentment began to override the usual partisanship.”  The trend toward increased partisanship accelerated during the controversial election of 2000, while the elections of Obama and Trump continued the process of political division  “We now see the full fruition of not just partisanship, but polarization,” Woodruff said.

Gergen said some of these changes were generational. For Duke, these changes have beneficial, as he’s seen it grown from being a regional school during his Durham childhood to a global institution.  “A lot solutions will come from places like this,” he said.  But across America, many of these changes have left us “a country on the edge of authoritarianism.”

“I’d like to introduce the notion of generations, of what a difference a generation makes,” he said. Gergen noted that when he first went to D.C., the leaders were from the WWII generation, including seven presidents who all served in the military. They made mistakes, such as Vietnam and Watergate, but kept the country together. “Those leaders left behind a country the strongest since Rome.”

The five Baby Boomer presidents since then have “been a disappointment,” he said.


Michael Sorrell (left) with Judy Woodruff and David Gergen. Photo: Chris Hildreth/Rooster Media

Sorrell offered a variation to that vision, saying the Obama presidency offered “the idea that we might evolve, that we might live up to the promise of the country, and I look back to the response to reconstruction,” as similar he said. The exhaustion Gergen referenced may come from the disappointment of seeing a door that had been opened being slammed shut, Sorrell said.

“I think of the response of my students to Trump’s election,” he said, who leads a historically black college in Texas with 20 percent of Latino students. “The idea that the country turned its back on them…. I saw terror in the eyes of our students, and there were people who wanted them to feel that terror.” The country had betrayed their hope, and the task now, Sorrell said, is “How do we get that hope back?”

Gergen acknowledged that there has been backsliding, but that “every generation faces existential threats,” and came through by being committed to something larger than themselves.

“Our generation is leaving a big mess,” Woodruff said, with climate change, polarization and rising authoritarianism. We have to “keep looking for facts, for the truth,” and to keep doing the job.

“We need to find heroes again,” Gergen responded. “Where are our Zelinskys?” He noted how Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelinsky is keeping his people informed, being transparent and keeping trust with them.  He also noted that among the promising leaders of younger generation, “black women occupy the high ground in moral leadership.”

“I can tell you that’s always been the case,” Sorrell replied.

Sorrell asked if the West’s response to the Russian invasion has been strong enough.  Gergen thought it was slow in the quality of the weapons offered, but picking up now, and that Biden should not have promised that there would be no U.S. troops on the ground in Ukraine, but admitted he was offering “back seat driving.”

“I think we cornered Putin so much, he has nothing to lose,” said Gergen.

“I think it’s too early to judge,” said Woodruff. “Right now, the Ukrainians are holding on.”

Be in listening mode, be open, don’t think you have to have it all figured out.

Judy Woodruff's advice to her younger self

Advice to Younger Self

The panelists also spoke to the students in the audience, and particularly those in public policy. Sorrell asked, “What would you tell your 25-year-old self about how to make a difference?”

“Be in listening mode, be open, don’t think you have to have it all figured out,” said Woodruff, in addition to finding your passion.

Gergen recalled advice Barack Obama gave to young campaign workers, to find the thing that excites you as “you can’t plan your jobs, jobs will come to you.” 

Sorrell then told about a student in his class on problem-solving who asked, “What do you do with people who are so desperate to keep truth out of the public discourse?”  Sorrell admitted, “I had no answer.”

“We have to keep focusing on the truth,” Woodruff said. “Give me the evidence, think like a lawyer.”

Attending to the voices of the marginalized

During the Q&A afterward, a student asked about how to give marginalized populations a stronger voice.

Gergen pointed to a lot of anger among Black students at a system they believe is skewed against them.  The response, he said, is to put people first in policies, invoking the legacy of former N.C. governor and U.S. senator Terry Sanford.  “He faced up to these issues as governor and moved the state in the right direction.”

“People are angry because every institution has betrayed them,” Sorrell said. “The irony is that that vitriol isn’t coming from them, what’s coming from them is legitimate concerns about what has frustrated them. The vitriol is coming from people whom the system has worked for.”

“We have to push back on those who are disingenuous, who really mean none of us good,” he said. “Folks have to be willing to hear the pain that others have suffered.”

A prospective graduate student asked whether a public policy education could help address these issues when so many things seem broken.

“There is no better degree to have than a public policy degree,” Sorrell answered, as a graduate of the master of public policy program at Sanford. “Whatever successes I have today are because I was prepared to do battle. I was challenged and still think the first year was unnecessarily hard…. They were absolutely preparing you for what you were going to face when you walked outside those doors.”

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