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Commencement Address
William E. Kennard
Federal Communications Commission
Southampton College of
Long Island University
Southampton, NY
May 17, 1998

(as prepared for delivery)

Thank you. It is a great honor for me to be with you today, to share this occasion with you and to receive this wonderful honor along with Harry Marmion and Mary Francis Berry.

Today, May 17, 1998, is a great day. It is a great day in your education, but I can't resist mentioning another reason why May 17 is important for education, and for our country.

May 17 is the day the United States Supreme Court handed down a decision that's been called "the most important of the 20th Century." It was so urgent that the first Associate Press bulletin about it simply announced that the decision had been released. Then a few minutes later the reporter filed a story to say he was still reading but couldn't tell what the verdict was.

Finally, at 1:20 p.m., on this day in 1954, he sent a third story out with the news: by a unanimous vote, Supreme Court declared segregation in education unconstitutional. The case of course, was Brown v. Board of Education.

May 17, 1954.

Today, at a point when you as graduates wonder about what's coming next in your lives, it's useful to look back to that day and see what happened next in the lives of Americans, white and black.

In many ways, it was a terrible time in America: a time of murder and a church bombing in Birmingham, and violence in the streets.

It was a bitter period for America. But it was also a time of hope.

For not only did that decision allow millions of African-American children go to better schools. That decision helped demolish barriers separating races all over America, whether at lunch counters or water fountains -- or on the job.

It provided opportunity for millions of Americans -- opportunity to go as far in society as their hard work and potential would allow.

Today, 44 years later, you're being given an opportunity.

In fact, getting this diploma is the capstone of the opportunity you've had since 1994: four years on one of the nicest campuses anywhere in the United States.

I came to know Southampton College some years ago when I was in private law practice and Tim Bishop hired me to help him get a new frequency for the college radio station. Unfortunately, I never got to spend much time here. Tim used to tell me what I was missing and -- as usual -- he was right.

As I walked by the windmill, earlier, and now, looking out to the Atlantic I can see some of what made you want to come here.

Of course, you didn't come just for the location. It was the chance to study in some of the most innovative programs anywhere in education, whether on the water during SEAmester, or anywhere in the world for those of you of in the Friends World Program, or studying writing with Roger Rosenblatt and the other world-class authors that he has brought to this campus.

You are truly blessed to have this education. So what will you do with it?

Is it possible to make the kind of difference all those people, whether lawyers or demonstrators, or ministers or even politicians -- made a generation back at the time of Brown v. Board of Education? The kind of difference that Mary Francis Berry has made in her lifelong struggle to bring equal opportunity to all Americans?

Can you have the effect they had when they created a revolution to bring equality to education?

Well, I believe you can. Although there are certainly cynics today -- too many cynics today, in my view -- who say that it doesn't much matter what a single individual does anymore. Whether you're involved or not, Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, political or indifferent, they say, either way it makes no difference.

All this cynicism reminds me of the story about two people who decided to share office space. One was a veterinarian, one was a taxidermist.

They had the perfect slogan: Either way you get your dog back.

I say the path you choose does make a difference -- to others and to you.

Let me suggest one that's becoming more and more urgent to me.

For, like people in 1954, we are also in the middle of a revolution.

A revolution of technology.

By itself, that's not entirely new for Americans.

Through much of this century technology has fueled our economic growth. Increasingly, it has defined what each person can achieve in our society -- and what we can achieve as a nation.

But in span, depth, and speed, the telecommunications revolution has no precedent. It is changing the way we work, live, think, and communicate.

You see the signs everywhere. You see it on the streets of Washington and Southampton where every third person seems to have a wallet sized cellphone pressed to the ear.

You certainly see it on this campus, whether in the computer labs, or using e-mail to communicate with students and faculty in India, or out on ships, surveying dolphin populations.

When an instructor in Kyoto, Japan, gives a Long Island University writing course to students in Israel and Kenya, you're not just watching a revolution. You're in it.

Four in 10 American families have a personal computer in their homes. More Americans make semiconductors than work in construction.

By the year 2000, 46 million Americans will be buying products on line.

What about jobs? Well, the United States will need 1.3 million new workers in information technology occupations by 2006. Well over 100,000 a year.

That's like graduating a class like yours every day, seven days a week for ten years, just to keep up.

Tremendous opportunity -- for those prepared to seize it. Your generation will benefit from information technology more than any other generation in history.

Newsweek wrote about a survey a few weeks ago that compared what top corporate executives and sixth graders know about technology. Now, anyone who has turned to a twelve-year-old for help in programming a VCR will not be surprised by these results.

Here are some of the questions from the survey. See how well you do.

Fiona Apple. Computer or rock star?

43% of top corporate execs said -- computer.

Arch Deluxe. What is it?

53% of corporate execs thought it was part of a personal computer.

What's a modem?

93% of Sixth Graders knew -- but only 23% of the execs.

Who owns the Internet?

98% of kids knew the right answer: no one.

68% of execs said a corporation -- 23% said it was Microsoft.

Now, the divide between young and old is an American tradition. Each generation is more open to change than the one before it.

But there is another divide in our country that we should be concerned about -- a divide among those of your generation that is far more serious. It's the divide between young people who have access to technology in their education, and those who don't.

I call this the "digital divide," and the dividing line is between the affluent and the poor; between black and white.

Because in the race to bring technology to all of America's schoolchildren, we're not doing the job we should.

Not when 78% of schools in affluent communities have Internet access -- but only half the schools in low-income areas.

Not when the percentage of white children with home computers is triple the percentage of black and Latino and Native American kids.

Whether the inner cities, or the tiniest rural towns, this generation has a responsibility to make sure that all children have access to the technology that will define what they can become in our society.

They must have access to the tools this generation needs just as surely as our parents needed a hammer or screwdriver or typewriter -- or the ability to read.

And this challenge to bring equality of access to technology to education is every bit as important and profound for our country as the challenge to bring racial equality to education. It's every bit as profound and important as the struggle in Brown v. Board of Education that we mark today.

In the years to come most of you will be far away from Southampton.

You won't be sitting by that magnificent windmill having long discussions with your friends here. You won't be pondering your future as you survey the spectacular vistas of the Atlantic or the Bay here at Southampton. You'll be too far away to tune into Southampton's radio station, WPBX-FM -- and we did get that new frequency for you, by the way.

It's time to leave these things behind. It's time to take a moment here today and savor your achievements, and give thanks to your parents and families and teachers who got you this far. And to think about tomorrow.

For soon, you'll be at Woods Hole, or MIT, and then following careers that take you thousands of miles away.

But you will take away not only a great education, and wonderful memories of your time here, but you will also take with you the relationships with the friends you made here, many of which will last for the rest of your lives. That is what makes this institution so very special.

But my hope is that is that just as this -- your teachers, your education, your friends -- changed your life, you'll use this experience to change the lives of others. So that this generation leaves in its wake, a better future, more opportunity, for the next generation of graduates.

Not long ago, I had the opportunity to visit an inner city school in Newark, New Jersey. The school was very proud that day because it had just opened a computer lab for the students. I had the privilege that day of sitting next to a nine-year-old named John who had never accessed the Internet before.

So I showed him how to boot up the computer and get on the Internet. We found a website about the life of Martin Luther King Jr. and one about the FCC, and had a great time. Well, at one point, I asked John what he thought about the Internet.

His whole face lit up and he said, "This is great. It's so fast. It's more fun than books!" Well, we certainly don't want John to abandon books. But it occurred to me, at that very instant, that John had summed up the promise of this revolution -- this technological revolution. John described a revolution that is fundamentally changing the way that people get and process information in our society.

And I left the school thinking that what John learned that day had the potential to change the course of his life.

On May 17, 1954, those Supreme Court Justices, and lawyers and brave plaintiffs -- they changed the course of history and made a difference in the life of our country.

My hope is that four decades from now you look back on this May 17, and can say you used this distinguished diploma to make a difference too -- whether you're doing it on the Supreme Court of the United States, or just helping to change the life of one little child.

Thank you and congratulations.

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