Fugate calls on grads not to take the 'convenient' route


Craig Fugate, the director of FEMA and former Alachua County Emergency Manager, delivers the commencement address to doctoral students graduating in the 2014 Summer Commencement at the University of Florida.

Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Friday, August 8, 2014 at 7:18 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 8, 2014 at 7:18 p.m.

Craig Fugate, public servant, had some inconvenient truths for the several hundred University of Florida Ph.D. students at the O'Connell Center waiting to have their doctoral degrees conferred on them Friday by President Bernie Machen.

“Being truthful is the hardest job you have as a public servant because the truth is sometimes inconvenient,” said Fugate, who has been the director of the Federal Emergency Management Administration since his appointment in 2009 by President Barack Obama.

And, at some point in your careers, Fugate told the graduates, you are going to reach a crossroad where you must make a decision “to be a success and compromise, or always be committed to the truth.”

Fugate has been in public service almost all of his life, starting as a paramedic and firefighter for Alachua County, then becoming Alachua County's emergency management director and then Florida's director of emergency management.

He oversaw emergency response to some of the state's worst hurricanes — Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne in 2004, and Dennis, Katrina and Wilma in 2005.

About 850 of the 2,204 students who applied for graduation were expected to participate in ceremonies Friday and Saturday, A ceremony for those receiving bachelor's, master's or specialist degrees will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday.

Nearly 1,000 undergraduates, close to 800 master's and specialist candidates, and 455 doctoral candidates applied to graduate, officials said.

Fugate gave the doctoral graduates a view of life inside the Beltway, the kinds of decisions that bureaucrats must make in a political climate where the “Chattering Class” is always waiting to pounce and knock you down.

“It's easy to get ... bogged down in the politics inside the Beltway, but the people I see every day believe they can make a difference,” Fugate said. It was a phrase Fugate would return to several times.

He also told the doctoral graduates to stick to the facts, and stand by their science.

“There's an attack on science in this country we haven't seen in decades,” Fugate said.

He said was perplexed by attempts of media organizations to be “fair and balanced” by countering people who talk about issues from factual or scientific positions with someone who hasn't got facts but has a strong opinion.

Particularly troubling, he said, are “actors” promoting myths about vaccinations, despite the scientific evidence debunking these myths. “Do you want science and medicine debated by actors?” he asked.

The harm they do to public health can result in an increased rise in the preventable outbreak of diseases like measles and whooping cough, he said.

Fugate took to task the political and business leaders in Florida who ignore the overwhelming evidence on climate change, especially considering that most of the state's economy and population is based on or near the coast.

There is scientifically proven evidence of rising sea levels, he said, “yet nobody wants to talk about global warming.”

Even after catastrophe occurs, he mused, politicians will rationalize the facts. “After Miami's underwater, we'll be debating about, well, it really wasn't as bad as we thought it would be,” he said.

“It's easy to take the position people want to hear, to take the popular position, and more difficult to stand up for what's right, he said. “Your degree and its value will also be measured against you, whether you are truthful and fact-based.

“The biggest test will come when you stand up against something that is not popular,” Fugate said.

The University of Florida has produced those leaders, he said. Governors who fought for integration when it wasn't popular. Governors who created environmental protection programs when Big Business complained.

“At times when this nation faced some of its toughest situations, you will find that a UF graduate didn't take the easiest position or the most popular,” Fugate said.

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