Reasons for Hope
Larry Brilliant is in his third year as head of Google.org, the philanthropic arm of Google. As of September, Google.org had committed more than $150 million to support projects aimed at slowing global warming, predicting and preventing the spread of infectious diseases, improving public services in the developing world, and fueling the growth of small and medium-sized enterprises in India and East Africa. It's the kind of work Brilliant, who earned his M.P.H. from Michigan in 1977, has done throughout his life, most famously in the early 1970s when he spent six years in India helping to eradicate smallpox. Last April, the man Rolling Stone calls the "guru of Google" came back to SPH to address the class of 2008 at graduation. His speech was vintage Brilliant—funny, wise, packed with information, and brimming with optimism. Here's an excerpt:
Thirty years ago when I lived on the subcontinent, 50 percent of children died before their fifth birthday in Bangladesh and Nepal. Today it is half that many. Similar progress is being made throughout Asia and Africa, even in economics: last year's list of best performing stock exchanges includes names like Peru and Indonesia and countries in sub-Saharan Africa. And whatever we may think of human rights issues, China has created a modern-day miracle, lifting 300 million people out of poverty and thrusting them into the middle class.
In large part because of the Gates Foundation, children's deaths from vaccine-preventable diseases are plummeting. Thirty years ago, less than one in five kids was vaccin-ated against childhood diseases in developing countries. Today it is the reverse four in five children in most developing countries have gotten all their childhood immunizations.
As the Dalai Lama has said, "We are improving."
As you go forth today you will find many reasons to be optimistic.
But you need to speed it up. That is your destiny.
Young people can and are making things better, faster.
I am constantly encouraged by a related trend: the sea-change I see in philanthropy. Charity used to be mainly the province of the very old and often the very guilty, who waited until they died so a foundation named after them could fund the university or opera house. Now we see 30- and 40-somethings with fortunes to dispose of talking about "strategic" giving and thinking seriously and imaginatively about huge problems that include sustainable jobs in Africa, rainforests in Indonesia, green-collar jobs in Oakland, California.
These changes in philanthropy are also creating a new and much broader context for public health careers. If I were giving this talk a decade ago, I might have warned you of how little funding there was for a lifetime car-eer serving the poorest and sickest in the world. Yet that is simply not true any longer, thanks to the expanded awareness of new philanthropists such as Bill Gates, Herb and Marion Sandler, eBay's Jeff Skoll and Pierre Omidyar, Salesforce's Marc Benioff, and two people I admire greatly, Google's Sergey Brin and Larry Page. These are great times for strategic philanthropy and for the opportunities they will give birth to.
So my hope for you today is to go forward with confidence. Yes, things are not as good as they should be and they are not as good as they will be, but thank God they are not as bad as they once were.
Here is the best news for you, class of 2008. This is your time.
The largest movement for good in human history is taking place today and they have saved a place for you.
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A new global partnership is strengthening public health training in India and providing opportunities for SPH faculty and students to deepen their understanding of the health issues confronting the world's second most populous nation. Last spring, on behalf of SPH, Dean Kenneth Warner signed a memorandum of understanding between UM and KLE University, in Belgaum, a city of 43,000 in southern India. Under the terms of the agreement, SPH faculty members will give lectures at the Institute of Public Health at KLEU, and KLEU will periodically send visiting scholars to SPH. Graduate students from both institutions will also take part in educational exchanges. "The emergence of formal institutions to train people in public health in India is a brand new development," Warner points out. "We're excited to be in on the ground floor to help one of our fellow institutions begin this critical form of education."
The UM Regents have named biostatistician Michael Boehnke a Distinguished University Professor, the highest honor the university bestows on its faculty. Told of the award, Boehnke said, "Given my feelings for the department, school, and university, I cannot imagine a more meaningful honor." (He also said he might need a face massage to recover from "smiling so much.") In the past year, Boehnke, his research team, and their collaborators have identified ten new genetic variants that predispose for Type-2 diabetes, as well as a range of genetic variants that influence cholesterol, triglyceride, glucose levels, and height.
For her prowess on the soccer field and in the classroom, second-year SPH student Lindsey Cottrell received the Big Ten Conference Medal of Honor for 2007–2008. The award—the Big Ten's oldest—honors excellence in both scholarship and athletics, and Cottrell, a two-time captain of the UM women's soccer team, says she's "very humbled" to receive it. Off the field, Cottrell is co-founder of the Olevolos Project, a nonprofit program that's building an orphanage in Olevolos, Tanzania.