Judith Rodin was the first non-interim female president of an Ivy League university, serving as the seventh president of the University of Pennsylvania from 1994-2004. During that time the university tripled its endowment, doubled its research funding, and rose from 16th to 4th in the U.S. News & World Report college ranking. She was, at one point, the highest paid president of any university.
Trained as a research psychologist, a pioneer in the behavioral medicine movement, and former provost of Yale University, today Dr. Rodin is President of the Rockefeller Foundation. She now sits on the boards of Aethna, AMR Corporation, Citigroup and Comcast and has written or co-written twelve books including Public Discourse in America and The University and Urban Revival: Out of the Ivory Tower and Into the Streets. She is the type of person, in other words, who tends to be too busy for interviews lasting longer than 10 minutes. Which means that I got to ask about a fourth of the questions I had lined up.
You can download the entire audio (right click, save as) of our conversation. What follows is an abridged and edited transcription.
DS: The readers of my blog, they come from all over the world, but most of them are in their late 20’s, early 30’s, and a lot of them, including myself, don’t have health insurance. But we don’t talk about health very much when we write. What can be done to make health policy more interesting and relevant to young people?
JR: Well I want to invite you to our website because we just published a survey with Time Magazine looking at economic insecurity in America and we had the data stratified by age and one of the things that was most striking is that people 18 – 29 both feel the most economically insecure, have the least health care, and often have the least access to health care. A third of the workers in that population are independent workers – they don’t have the standard traditional employer – and so the mechanisms through which I got health care at your age aren’t happening. So we have actually been funding a variety of partnerships and experiments focused particularly on your age group saying, you’re probably going to want to buy your health care over the internet, you’re not going to want a mediator, you want your risk to be spread over young healthy lives, and you want it to be portable because you don’t know with who and where you are going to be working. You’ll find information about those projects on the Rockefeller website and I hope you’ll use some of the data in your blog because they directly speak to those who are using blogs in your age group and reflect also what people are feeling about the American economy.
DS: How has the world changed since you were a recent college graduate going out into your career path? What changes did you expect and what has surprised you?
JR: Well, we expected, as did every generation after me, until yours, to do better than our parents. We knew that if we got well educated that the world of opportunities would be open to us. And, again, the thing that is most striking in these data is that this is the first generation I’ve seen who honestly don’t think that they are going to do better than their parents. So it is very disheartening and we’re really thinking a lot about what kind of new social contract for the 21st century needs to be written. That is a big part of our work. So we work locally, domestically, as well as internationally, all in the frame of globalization.
Globalization sort of washed on American shores without your parents being prepared for it. We all thought twenty years ago or so that globalization was going to mean everyone watching American movies and wearing blue jeans. So, I think that we are caught by surprise in some ways and it’s what is leading to the discussions about immigration, the concern about off-shoring, the trade protection – we just saw that this week at the Doha round. It’s all because America doesn’t have a strategy for globalization and all of our work at Rockefeller is about how you predict smart strategies for globalization whether it’s in the developed world or the developing world.
DS: Speaking of America and globalization, I saw that only four of the 25 wealthiest individuals are Americans. How is philanthropy going to change when it becomes more international?
JR: I think philanthropy will really advance. For us that is actually an exciting outcome. It is a little paternalistic for Americans alone to say here’s what we think should happen in the developing world, here is how we’re going to spend money to make it happen. So having partners who come from those emerging economies and are really deploying their own resources, their own ideas will totally enrich the landscape of philanthropy and, to my mind, create new kinds of partnerships and create very positive dynamics.
DS: This information revolution has brought us so many sources of information, of media, of news … what is your media diet like? How do you stay informed about the world?
JR: Well, every morning I read print newspapers – I am still of the generation who tries to make my way through – but also on the web. We also have a great communications department at Rockefeller and so what they are doing every day is screening all of the media all around the world that are in our interest areas and our issue areas. In addition we have a very robust research and forecasting unit so we are looking to monitor global trends a year or so out. And that combination of the daily media and the longer term forecasting I think gives us a very good perspective.
DS: You recently wrote a book on American public discourse. Do you think that the internet is having a positive effect on American public discourse or a negative effect?
JR: Well I started that work because I thought talk radio was having a horrible impact, and television too. That was in the mid-90’s when discourse was really at its shrillest. I think the internet is having a positive effect. I really do, because it’s allowing more voices to be heard and it’s allowing responses. I mean, the whole idea of good discourse is to have engaged robust dialogue. Larry Lessig was part of the group that worked on these ideas with us and, as you know, he was the first to really think in the academic sphere about cyber-communities and what the internet means in terms of discourse and I think that he was very prescient because I think that’s what we’ve been seeing enormously and it’s fantastic.
DS: Finally, what would be your advice to the recent college graduate who studies, let’s say international relations, and wants to “save the world”?
JR: Learn a lot of languages. Don’t just speak English, because the world is changing. Obviously, work in and live in foreign countries. Get a lot of experience. Don’t decide how you are going to change the world until you’ve lived someplace and you’ve gotten to see the world.
My overall impression of Judith Rodin is that she is both fiercely intelligent and eloquent. Like most people in leadership positions, she has the tendency (and the talent) to transform just about any question into a platform for her polished talking points. And I don’t blame her – those practiced talking points add up to an articulate survey of the modern world and a vision for how to make it better. I just wish I had more time with her. Another 20 minutes, say, to get beneath the obvious and ask some of the hard-hitting questions. Like why young idealists these days would rather work for NGO’s than city governments. Are our governments caring for us less as philanthropic foundations step in to, for example, rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina? Is giving $5 million to a single African leader an effective use of philanthropy? What is the ideal role of a celebrity like Bono when it comes to global development? (Rodin and Bono are friends.)
Then there are all the non-philanthropy-related questions as well: why did the Doha round of trade talks fail? What are her thoughts on the elections? Is it worrying that Tsinghua and Peking Universities are now the top feeder schools for American PhD programs? But you can’t get to those questions without setting a little context first.
I promise a future post about healthcare for the modern semi-nomadic young person. For now, I recommend a post Judith Rodin published (with the help of her communications department, I imagine) on the Huffington Post.