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Remarks as prepared for delivery by Laurie Robinson, Assistant Attorney General
Office of Justice Programs

University of Pennsylvania
Master of Science in Criminology Commencement
Saturday, May 15, 2010
Philadelphia, PA

       Thank you, Adrian. It's wonderful to be back here with friends and colleagues. It truly feels like coming home.

       Before I begin, I just have to call out a few people. First of all, let me recognize Adrian for the terrific job he's doing as Chair of the Criminology Department. We all owe him a true debt of gratitude.

       And Freda - you've so clearly done a magnificent job running the Master of Science program.

       Next, I want to recognize the distinguished faculty who are here - Caroline, Geof, Stephanos, Heather, John MacDonald, and John Roman. And also my former colleagues Knakiya and Janel, without whom the Department could not function.

       And most especially, my dear friends and co-founders of the M.S. program, Larry and Bill. It's so great to be back with you again.

       Thank you all for indulging me as I reconnect with old friends. My roots here are strong, and I'm forever drawing on the associations I formed at Penn and the things I learned here over the years - from both students AND faculty.

       I hope that each of you will do the same as you embark on your careers. I hope that you'll remember, not just the material you were taught, but also the principles instilled by this program.

       When Larry, Bill, and I launched the M.S. program in 2004, a key aim - and we were single-minded about this - was to work towards bridging the gap in criminal justice between research, on the one hand, and policy and practice, on the other. As I look back at my time at Penn, I was very happy here, passing along to students like all of you the lessons I'd learned over my career, and I honestly thought I'd be here for a long time. I never dreamed then that I'd be going back to work in government.

       But as I always said to my students then, you should take advantage of opportunities when they come along - and when President Obama said in his inaugural address that he wanted to "restore science to its rightful place," I knew this was an opportunity.

       I'd followed closely what was happening on the federal level before the election, and frankly, I was disturbed by what I saw: In our arena, in criminal justice, little attention was too often being paid to research; program and policy decisions were being made with little regard to the evidence; and perhaps worst of all, politics had managed to insinuate itself into the domain of science.

       I've always spoken candidly about the role that science and data should play in criminal justice policy and practice, and I was vocal about the problems that I saw. So when Eric Holder asked me to return to the Department of Justice to TEMPORARILY lead the Office of Justice Programs, I was then in the position of having to act on my words.

       I told Adrian, Bill, and Larry that - not to worry - I'd only be gone for a short time. First, it was just to assist with the Obama transition. That turned into a stint as ACTING Assistant Attorney General. . . until someone else could be appointed to the permanent position. Little did I know that I would be that someone else.

       Before I knew about the President's intention to nominate me, I laid out 10 goals for OJP. One of them was to restore the integrity of, and respect for, science. Another was to instill a focus on data-driven, evidence-based approaches for reducing crime.

       Then came the call from the Attorney General. As I said, I had not intended to come back to the Department permanently, but when the Attorney General calls, you don't ignore him.

       I feel incredibly fortunate to be part of an historic administration. But I didn't fully realize what I was in for.

       The Recovery Act that President Obama signed into law basically doubled the funding in my agency - which of course multiplied the amount of work and scrutiny. And things got interesting really fast.

       I always remembered what Larry Sherman had taught me about the importance of evidence-based approaches, and I realized that I could accomplish in my new position what I knew would take years to do on the outside.

       So I slowly came to terms with leaving my cherished position at Penn, at least taking a leave. I still miss it, but I'm embracing the chance to make a difference. And I'm very honored to be working for an Attorney General whom I deeply respect and admire - and who I am talking to all the time, as Larry knows, about science and evidence-based approaches.

       One of the main objectives of our Penn criminology program (I still say "our") is to turn students into change agents. The idea is not just to have you expand the body of research - although that certainly is ONE of the objectives - but actually to have a real, lasting impact on the criminal and juvenile justice fields as a whole. Now that I was back in government, I had a chance to really become one of those change agents.

       So not long after I returned to OJP, I launched what I called an Evidence Integration Initiative - or E2I, as we refer to it. E2I has three goals:

  • to improve the quantity and quality of evidence that we generate through research, evaluations, and statistics;
  • to better integrate evidence into program and policy decisions;
  • and to improve the translation of evidence into practice - how we get it out to the field.

       E2I is an agency-wide effort, and its goal is to help criminal and juvenile justice policymakers and practitioners better understand what works to address crime.

       One of E2I's objectives is to expand the use of randomized controlled trials. After those years I spent with Larry, I truly became a convert - so this element of E2I should be no surprise! I believe RCTs are a core element in strengthening our base of scientific knowledge, and they're a vital step toward realizing the full potential of research in fighting crime.

       For example, right now, two of our bureaus at OJP - the National Institute of Justice and the Bureau of Justice Assistance - are collaborating on a solicitation to support an RCT evaluation as part of a multi-site demonstration program on prisoner reentry.

       We're going to fund the testing of a specific reentry model implemented in up to six sites, and we're hoping the evaluation will establish clear causal connections between program activities and outcomes.

       I think this is a big - and important - step forward: to have the federal government actively involved in helping to generate quality research. And I hope that it represents a sea change in how policy- and decision-makers at the federal level view research and evidence.

       As I keep telling people, this truly is a watershed moment, and much will depend on people like you who are now entering the field.

       So as you embark on your new role as change agents in a tight job market, I'd like to recycle some old advice. I know you've probably been getting lots of advice lately, but I think it bears repeating. There are three things that I've found over the years - in my career and in the careers of others I admire - that make a difference in one's ability to succeed.

       First, I'd urge you to be tenacious.

       Your mothers probably lectured you not to be stubborn. But I'm going to tell you that the best thing you can be out there in this very competitive work environment is, in fact, to be stubborn - tenacious is the more elegant word.

       I know I never would have gotten anywhere as a female, non-lawyer at the ABA back in the 70s were it not for a healthy dose of tenacity. And there are people like Maureen Rush, who you met in class this year - I think it's safe to say that she wouldn't have lasted very long in the male-dominated world of policing in Philadelphia without a stubborn streak.

       Second, pay close attention to PEOPLE.

       This may sound obvious, but I've seen incredibly bright individuals fail in their careers because they didn't know how to deal with their colleagues and others. As you continue to hone your knowledge and skills, remember that your ability to interact successfully with others, to build relationships, may be your biggest asset.

       Doris Kearns Goodwin, in one of my favorite books - Team of Rivals - demonstrates how that kind of emotional intelligence was a hallmark of Abraham Lincoln's career. And you could find worse role models than Lincoln.

       Third, be open to opportunity - and stay flexible. Let me illustrate that with a story I heard from one of my colleagues in the Justice Department.

       A group of high school students visited his office and expressed interest in law and related careers. One then spoke up and asked - a little pointedly - "What if I wanted a job like yours, what would I have to do?"

       "Well," he responded to her, "I'd say always be open to opportunities, even when you're not sure about them."

       And then a related a story: When he was a student at Harvard Law School, he said, he had a favorite professor whom he deeply admired. He did some TA'ing for her and hoped at some point to perhaps do more - perhaps co-author an article, for example. One day, she told him that she would be hosting a dinner for a visiting group of foreign professors. Excited, he envisioned an opportunity to mingle and talk with them. Instead, she asked him if he would be willing to help cook dinner for the group.

       He was taken aback - and disappointed - but agreed. He decided, as long as he had to do it, to tackle cooking he liked - Asian food - and to ask a new friend in the class to take on the project with him.

       That new friend? Barack Obama.

       So. . . stay flexible. You never know where future opportunities may lie.

       And this is important - remember that integrity is a leadership quality. As the Attorney General told last year's graduating class, your moral compass is the best tool you have, so rely on it in your dealings with others.

       This is a tremendous time to be graduating from a program like this one. Despite the challenges brought on by the economy, we have a leadership investment in criminal justice research from the highest levels of government - and criminal justice practitioners like police chiefs and prosecutors are more interested than ever in what research has to show. A few years ago, that would have seemed almost as improbable as the election of the first African American president.

       But here we are, poised to bring science to the center of law and order. This has been a dream of criminologists for decades. Now it's within our reach.

       I encourage you to take advantage of this moment in history - and don't deny yourselves ANY opportunity.

       Thank you.

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