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Creating a Brighter Future for Humankind

January 8, 2020
head portrait of a man

By Neil Theobald 

Our country’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, was among the first Americans to propose what was to become one of our country’s greatest inventions: the public university. Late in his life, Jefferson wrote a letter to John Adams, our second president, in which he lamented work left undone in the nearly 50 years since the founding of our country: 

“At the first session of our legislature after the Declaration of Independence … I prepared a bill for the more general diffusion of learning … at public expense … at a university. Worth and genius would thus have been sought out from every condition of life. Although this law has not yet been acted on … I have great hope that some patriotic spirit will, at a favorable moment, call it up, and make it the keystone of the arch of our government.” 

It would not be until after World War II that the GI Bill would create the first system of mass public higher education in the world.

Last month, as we celebrated the accomplishments of the University of Wyoming’s class of 2019, it was clear that Jefferson’s “great hope” has been realized. The members of the class of 2019 burst with “worth and genius”; the public education that they received at UW, as Jefferson hoped, continues to play the same central role in our American democracy that a keystone plays in an arch.

Much is written in the modern press about how the education that our newest alumni received at the UW will benefit them. For decades, the consensus has been that public universities are a core component of the American Dream—the notion that Americans can succeed regardless of the economic circumstances in which they are born. Americans who earn college degrees continue to be paid much more than those who do not graduate from college, and the difference has been growing over the past few decades. In addition to higher earnings, they have better health and higher job satisfaction. Of the 11.6 million jobs created in the last 10 years, 95 percent went to people with at least some college education.

Much less, though, is written about the incredibly valuable public asset—available to all of society—that our graduates are creating. Some among them will dedicate their lives to finding cures for the diseases that ravage mankind. Others among them will provide leadership for businesses that create jobs and improve lives. Among our December 2019 graduates are many who will teach our children and grandchildren and prepare them to take our places in health care, commerce and education.

The education our graduates receive at the university has prepared them to contribute meaningfully to the prosperity and progress of Wyoming, the nation and, indeed, the world. They will make countless vitally important contributions to society. To borrow another Jefferson quote, their time at university will help to “advance the happiness of mankind.”

As Jefferson foresaw almost 250 years ago, public universities equalize opportunity and thereby expand the public good. Our graduates have created a bright future for themselves. In doing so, they are creating an even brighter future for humankind. 

Neil Theobald is the acting president of the University of Wyoming.

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