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“Public Service is a Noble Pursuit, a Higher Calling:” Commencement Address, Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, University of Texas, Austin

Austin, TX

May 6, 2023

Friends and family, distinguished guests, Class of 2023:

As a proud Class of 1990 graduate of this distinguished school, it is a great honor to be here today on this joyous occasion.[1]

The power of higher education to expand opportunities for all is undeniable. Today’s graduates have earned the advanced degrees that will serve them and our country well. You have much to be proud of.

More than three decades ago, I arrived in Austin fresh out of college with a mix of excitement and worry about what the future might bring. Like many of you here, my fascination with politics, public policy, and social justice led me to prepare myself for a career in public service.

It was inspiring to be with classmates who shared my passion.

We also shared a common conviction that transcended our politics: that what we learned here empowered us to make the world a better place.

Our class pride was channeled through our friendly rivalry with the UT Law School. In a class-wide vote, the slogan for our t-shirts that won out was: “We don’t practice law. We make it!”

As graduates, we were about to step into a world that was suddenly experiencing seismic, historic shifts.

The Cold War that had raised the specter of nuclear annihilation and that dominated our domestic political dynamic for generations was nearing a peaceful end.

The dominant narrative of the time was about the inexorable triumph of democracy and capitalism worldwide. It raised the prospect of a new, enlightened age full of promise and opportunity for our own country.

In the ensuing thirty-three years, technology revolutionized government, our financial markets, and the way we interact with each other. Our elected leaders have grappled with many of the same public policy challenges that span our generations – climate change, the wealth gap, persistent economic and social disparities, the racial divide, and many others.  

You will now contribute your talents and fresh perspective to these challenges.

In doing so, you will advance the noble aspiration enshrined by our founders in those timeless and powerful words in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution: “to form a more perfect union.

The spirit of this aspiration is present in all that we do in government. For those of you who opt to pursue public service, you will by definition contribute to that permanent exercise.

Because public service is a noble pursuit, a higher calling. 

My class, the Class of 1990, coincided with the 25th anniversary of The Great Society, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s vision for building a more perfect union.

He once said: “This country is rich enough to do anything it has the guts to do and the vision to do and the will to do.” Simple but powerful words that eloquently convey the exceptional character of our country and of all of our people.

The LBJ School marked the anniversary with a symposium widely attended by Johnson Administration alumni.

For us as students, it was an exciting opportunity to hear the stories that President Johnson’s advisers recounted.

The portrait that emerged was one of an extraordinary leader, who accomplished extraordinary things during extraordinary times. It was fascinating to see how one person’s leadership could make such an enormous difference in the lives of millions.

But implementing his vision depended on the work of his close advisers and the many public servants in his administration – many of them, like you and me, students of public policy.

The very existence of this graduate school speaks to the importance President Johnson gave to empowering future leaders like yourselves to carry on the critical work of government, to make it work better for the public that we serve.

Committed public policy professionals like you now administer the Great Society programs and policies that have withstood the test of time – Medicare, Medicaid, civil and voting rights, Head Start, child nutrition, elementary and secondary education, higher education, and many others. All are essential in helping millions of working families in our country build a better future for themselves.

This kind of historic, transformational change takes exceptional leadership skills, like those of President Johnson. Or more recently, those of Speaker Nancy Pelosi – also an extraordinary leader and historic figure, who accomplished extraordinary things during extraordinary times.

Her record of achievement as House Speaker is unprecedented in American history – from climate change to affordable health care to Wall Street reform to equal pay to advancing gender and LGTBQ rights, voting and civil rights, immigrant rights, human rights abroad. Witnessing these historic achievements up close was the opportunity of a lifetime – a public policy student’s dream.

In 2019, the LBJ Foundation honored Speaker Pelosi with the LBJ Liberty and Justice for All Award, describing her as “one of the most consequential political figures of our generation.”

LBJ Foundation Chairman Larry Temple said:  “Speaker Pelosi embodies the beliefs that President Johnson held dear – that our mission in public service is to serve the common good and provide opportunity to all.”

Like President Johnson, she leveraged her mastery of the political process and her powers of persuasion to pursue her vision for a fairer, more just society.  To build a more perfect union through public service.

This fundamental idea will take on its own meaning for you in the context of your own policy interests and of your own vision for the future.

To me, in my current role, it means protecting the interests of working families who invest in our financial markets. These families invest their savings as an optimistic way of channeling their hopes for the future, to safely build long-term wealth – in essence, to achieve the American Dream.

They depend on public servants like us to protect them, to elevate their interests above all others. 

This is why Congress created the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

In the middle of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law several bills that now make up the federal securities laws. These laws created the Commission to promote honest markets and to protect the public against the rampant investment frauds that ruined so many lives prior to the stock market crash of 1929.

Our job is to protect an estimated 150 million investors against misconduct, wherever it occurs in our capital markets. Because misconduct weakens trust, undermines market integrity, and increases costs for all market participants.

For nearly a century, the Commission has served our country well. It is a great success story. A triumph of effective government.

Because of the work of 4,500 public servants who advance our mission every day, our $100 trillion capital markets – 40 percent of the world’s total – are safe, transparent, liquid, and resilient.

These public servants – lawyers, accountants, economists, and other public policy professionals – in Washington and across eleven regional offices, help the Commission oversee more than 40,000 entities. From registered investment advisers to broker dealers to stock exchanges to thousands of publicly traded companies.

Yet, we’re budget neutral. Our $2.1 billion budget is paid from fees by market participants. In enforcement actions alone, last year we recovered three times the size of our budget – $6.5 billion, the most in our history. Wherever possible, we returned those funds to wronged investors.

But despite our successes, we have detractors. We face criticism for doing too much, too fast. Or when things go wrong, for doing too little, too late. We’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.

When things do go wrong, the questions the public understandably asks are: How did this happen? Did the government do enough to protect my interests?

Frankly, I would rather be damned if we do. It is preferable to answer questions about what we did to protect the public than questions about what we didn’t do to avoid the criticism that we’re doing too much.

Our duty is to do everything in our power to prevent harm and to keep up with the times – that means robust enforcement of our laws without fear or favor and modernizing our outdated rules.

Under the leadership of our current Chair, Gary Gensler, the Commission is at the forefront of modernizing our regulatory framework, so that it can continue to fulfill its promise to America’s investing public.

We are considering a range of rules, including requiring public companies to inform investors on how they are dealing with climate risks, how they invest in their workers, or when investors are victims of a cybersecurity breach; how retail investors like you and I can buy stocks at the best available price; or if we invest in mutual funds, that we receive relevant, easy-to-understand information about them.  

We are holding corporate executives accountable for their misdeeds, and closing loopholes in our insider trading rules.

We are updating rules that are more than 20-years old – on cybersecurity, for example.

But we’ve faced substantial criticism for these modernization efforts. As policymakers and as policy professionals, you will also face constant criticism and scrutiny. It comes with the territory.

You will also face many difficult choices. Inevitably, you’ll also be damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

So I offer you a few thoughts – some key lessons from more than thirty-three years in public service.

First, never, ever give up. The people’s business, at its core, is a business about helping people. At the end of every technical policy discussion is an individual, a family, a community that needs to be assisted.

I’ve had the fortune to be involved in some of the most consequential public policy challenges of our time. But the moments that truly stand out, some of the most rewarding, have been seeing the direct impact of our work on real people – helping seniors, veterans or persons with AIDS stay housed; helping a neighborhood family business with COVID relief programs; or helping families in Puerto Rico with hurricane relief.

In my current work, it has meant trying our best to make defrauded investors whole, those who are victims of Ponzi, pyramid and other fraudulent schemes. Some of these schemes specifically target seniors, service-members, ethnic and religious communities, and other vulnerable groups. It’s heart-breaking. 

So whether or not you’re interfacing directly with the public, I encourage you to never lose sight of how your work has a direct impact on people, the public that you serve.

The great civil and labor rights leader Cesar Chavez said it well: “The fight is never about grapes or lettuce. It’s always about people.”

Second, because our business is all about people, clear and effective communication with the public matters – a lot.

It is difficult to defend the relevance of your mission if the public is unable to understand its significance – its value – and why it matters to them.

We confront this challenge at the Commission every day, where extreme complexity is the norm.

But as public servants, we are accountable to the public and it is our responsibility to communicate the significance and the positive impact of what we do.

Public support for our mission depends on it. It will for yours too.

Third, in our business, relationships are everything. Build them, nurture them, and value them. The intern of today may be the leader of tomorrow.

Throughout the years, many of my fellow LBJ School alums have reached out for advice. I have sought theirs, including for this speech.

You are exceptional resources, to each other and to the organizations that you serve.  

Fourth, whether anyone is looking or not, always take the high road.

A pop philosopher I follow closely said it best: “…listen to your gut, and on the way down to your gut, check in with your heart. Between those two things, they’ll let you know what’s what.” Because, “Doing the right thing is never the wrong thing.” These are the words of Ted Lasso.

Lastly, take pride in your public service and remind yourself often of why it matters to you and to the public that you serve.

To those who choose public service, we owe them our respect and gratitude. Through their commitment, they honor the aspiration of our founders to build a more perfect union.

There will always be public policy challenges to confront and solve. Together, we can all do our part to strive for a more perfect union. Full perfection may not be reachable, but we owe it to our country to keep trying.

I have my own way of reminding myself of this. On top of my office desk, there are three things within easy reach: the U.S. Constitution; the federal securities laws; and this passage from Scripture, from the Book of Isaiah (1:17):

“Learn to do right; seek justice.
   Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
   plead the case of the widow.”

All three of them are reminders of why I’m in public service. Reminders to do my part in securing a better financial future for America’s working families; to respect the dignity of working people; and to serve the public with fairness, equality of opportunity, empathy and compassion. To help build a more perfect union.

To the LBJ School Class of 2023: congratulations on your monumental achievement. Your families, friends, and the LBJ School are all enormously proud of you. Best wishes to you for a bright future and for success in all that you do. And thank you for this unforgettable honor. 


[1] The thoughts I express today are my own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of my fellow Commissioners or the staff at the SEC.

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