Dr. Robert Ross Delivers Keynote at Charles Drew University

Dr. Robert Ross delivered the keynote address at Charles Drew University’s Inauguration of its new president, Dr. David Carlisle. The text of his inspirational speech, in which he extols Dr. Carlisle’s brilliance, record of accomplishment and integrity, as well as the university’s crucial role as a centuries-old institution serving African-American and Latino communities, is featured in full below:

Thank you, and thank you to the friends, family and supporters of Charles R. Drew University, the dedicated faculty, the supportive administration and staff, the students, the Trustees, and of course, our new President, Dr. David Carlisle.

The definition of Inauguration:

· The formal admission of someone to office; a ceremonial induction into office.

· A ceremony to mark the beginning or introduction of something.
· The beginning or introduction of a system, policy, or period.

So, among three standard dictionaries – the British & World English Dictionary, the Merriam Webster Dictionary, and Dictonary.com – three similar, but not identical definitions.

In preparing for these remarks today, I initially struggled with the question of which of these three definitions was most appropriate for this particular ceremony, at this particular time, on this particular day. Which one of these three would I hinge this set of 10-minute, 600 seconds worth of remarks about?

Answer: all three. Upon reflection, this ceremony is certainly about the induction of a person. But it is also about a thing, an institution. Most powerfully, it is about an idea.

As to the first definition, and the one that is most concretely evident as recorded in the printed program, we are indeed marking a “ceremonial induction into office.” It is the representation among the three definitions of the term “inauguration” that is about a particular person being inducted into a particular office.

I have known Dr. David Carlisle for more than two decades, although I will confess that in the earlier portion of that time frame, we did not get to know one another well. We were both participants in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholars Program in the late eighties. I can attest to the fact that, at the time, David embodied, certainly by reputation, being both clinical, and a scholar. (For me, I represented one of the two, and it most certainly was not the scholarly portion.)

Ladies and Gentlemen, allow me to submit that Dr. David Carlisle is a timeless sort of leader. He is a leader who represents the sensibilities and values from a bygone era, but desperately needed in leaders of our current time.

He is obviously bright, even brilliant, certainly accomplished, utterly mission driven, and of tremendous integrity. He is soft spoken, even-tempered, fair-minded, justice-oriented, and, in the tradition of leaders of academic institutions, science-, data-, and evidence-driven. Today’s leaders appear to be suited to the accommodation of political convenience – and even celebrated for their ability to craft political maneuvering.

David, on the other hand, is the umpire dutifully calling balls and strikes, and fair and foul balls, in the World Series Game. He will not sacrifice integrity or truth for the politics or drama of the stage or the moment. He will call them the way he sees them, and he will do so in service of integrity, accountability, and the mission of this extraordinary institution. And he will do so because the institution is bigger than any one of us.

Which brings me to the second definition of the term “inauguration”: a ceremony to mark the introduction, or in this case, the re-birth, of some “thing”. The “thing”, in this case, is Charles R. Drew University, the only historically African-American, Hispanic-serving educational institution in the 230-year plus history of this great nation. This “thing”, the institution, is different – even unique – a community-birthed and community-driven institution who, named after a great figure in African-American history and American medical lore, endures and even thrives in spite of all conceivable manner of financial, political, leadership, and management challenge.

Nearly two years ago our foundation, The California Endowment, was approached to rally to the cause of this institution, and the question on the table for me as CEO, and ultimately, our Board of Directors, was the following: was Charles R. Drew University, as a financially embattled institution, “an investable proposition?”

Many other institutions answered either “no”, or “we’ll wait and see.”

My answer to our Board of Directors – as I requested funding and support for CDU — was a “Yes, we must.” And a key reason was its people. The community it served. The institution’s mission-hungry and passion-driven students. It’s highly committed faculty, sticking with the institution through all and any manner of difficulty. A staff who would never give up on the value that the institution brings to the community.

Which brings me to the third definition of the term “inauguration”: the beginning of a system, policy, or period. And what, precisely, is the “system” or “period” that we, more accurately, “re-inaugurate” today? Most critically, it is that of an idea. And that idea is the idea of health justice. It is as alive and as powerfully relevant today as it was circa 1965 to 1968, when Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi and Cesar Chavez and Malcolm X and the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were controversial vehicles of social change and social justice and social equity.

While the idea of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cesar Chavez is too often symbolically reduced to holidays and postage stamps, and festivals, and parades, it is the daily, weekly, and monthly work and commitment to service by Charles R. Drew University that keeps the idea of social and health justice meaningfully, authentically, and palpably alive. And that idea has been fed, nourished and nurtured by the passing of a social justice relay baton, a torch if you will, handled and carried by individuals carrying the names of Drew, and Hawkins, and Gill, and Satcher, and Williams, and Hopper, and Francis, and Dowling, and Norris, and Baker, and Wilson, and Ridley-Thomas, – and now Carlisle.

Men and Women, Ladies and Gentlemen, there is no more extraordinary moment than the moment of now to realize the vision and mission of Charles Drew University. An African-American President of these United States has imposed his leadership will on this nation, to bring forward a policy instrument, a policy platform, in the name of the Affordable Care Act. Accessible, affordable, quality care for all. We cannot waste this moment, and CDU is rising at precisely the right moment in time.

You have a community, and a student body, and an administrative staff, and a faculty, and a Board of Trustees behind you. And you have Dr. David Carlisle to lead you there.

Thank you for permitting me and The California Endowment an opportunity to contribute to an extraordinary saga in the history of health justice in this nation. God Bless You, and the Charles R. Drew University, and congratulations to Doctor David Carlisle.

Robert K. Ross, M.D.
President & CEO
The California Endowment
February 2013