Lowell Milken: Speeches


Acceptance Speech - UCLA School of Law 2009 Alumnus of the Year

May 15, 2009

Lowell Milken
Milken Family Foundation

Thank you, Dean Schill, for your generous words and thank you to all of you gathered here this afternoon. Nancy, I offer my congratulations to you on your many impressive achievements.

I am deeply appreciative of this honor in the area of public service. That it is bestowed by this particular institution has special meaning for me not only because the UCLA School of Law is my alma mater, but because it is an institution which itself is dedicated to public service...to putting justice, excellence and equal opportunity into the service of creating better lives for all people.

As Dean Schill mentioned, the public service that I have pursued, indeed for most of my adult life, is education...and for a number of reasons.

To begin with, I have always enjoyed learning always found it stimulating. I have my parents to thank for that, of course. And I have the LA Unified School District to thank for nurturing that eagerness with many outstanding teachers. I had a similar experience at UC Berkeley and again here, at law school.

I was a beneficiary of a K12 public education system in an era when it was still a source of national pride when it was still rigorous and attuned to American's needs and potential.

This is not the condition of K12 education today when you consider that right here in LA, for every student who graduates there is one who drops out; that nationally half of all black and Latino 4th graders cannot read; and most bizarrely, that the longer U.S. students are in school, the poorer their comparative performance whether in math, science, history and writing. These few facts alone—tell us that we have a failure in public k-12 education that is systemic. This is undemocratic, unnecessary and profoundly unjust.

This is why I have devoted much of my time, thought and resources to improving kindergarten through 12th grade education. If your aim is to enrich people's lives, and that has always been my aim, then the key is to prepare people with the skills, knowledge and experiences that will allow them to take advantage of life's opportunities.

My formation in law school—including my perception of society and of how to improve it—had a direct bearing on my decision to focus on education. Among other sound habits of mind instilled in law school it teaches how to constructively look for what might be wrong or go wrong in a situation with the aim, of course, of avoiding it. For me it was the next logical step to look at what could go right that wasn't going right. What could be done differently and much better.

Moreover, because law underpins so much of our social order, having a thorough grasp of it can confer real confidence. It can give you drive and embolden you to carry out your vision. Put this perception, training and determination together—as law School helped me to do—and it can allow you to reform and I do mean, re-form on a very large scale.

That's what we've been doing by means of the system for teacher and student advancement called TAP. TAP re-forms K-12 education by restructuring the teaching profession to significantly improve teacher recruitment, retention, practices, motivation and performance.

In the process, TAP is yielding impressive student gains among tens of thousands of students around the country particularly in those districts with intractably low achievement rates. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan championed and implemented TAP in Chicago when he was superintendent there and President Obama, in his first major education address, singled out TAP for its promise in helping ensure that "anyone entrusted with educating our children is doing the job as well as it can be done."

Getting something fundamentally new to work on this scale is enormously gratifying. That encourages excellence, fosters equal opportunity and is fundamentally just makes it all the more so. It also explains my optimism that despite the immense challenges facing our nation on so many fronts as long as people are equipped with a sound education with the confidence it confers and with the awareness that public service is essential, satisfying and noble our country can be equal to every challenge and equipped to assure its own secure future.

Again, my deep thanks to Dean Shill and the law school for this honor. And to all of you for your continued support of the law school.