Sunday, January 11, 2009

Funeral of Senator Claiborne Pell

On Monday, January 5, 2008, I attended the funeral of former Senator Claiborne de Borda Pell in Newport, Rhode Island. I attended with Dr. Arnold Mitchem, President of the Council for Opportunity in Education, Dr. Chandra Taylor Smith, Director of the Pell Institute for the Study of Higher Education, and two TRiO directors from Rhode Island.

I had known for years that when this inevitable day arrived I wanted to be there. I wanted to show and express my profound respect for the life of this very great man. It is no accident that I am a Senior Scholar at The Pell Institute—we named this think tank in honor of Senator Pell. So when his passing on January 1st was announced to the media, I scrambled to clear my schedule, get an airplane ticket to Providence, find a hotel room in Newport, and arrange for a shuttle ride between Providence and Newport.

Trinity Episcopal Church in Newport was filled to its limit—600 to 700 people—who had their own reasons for attending Senator Pell’s funeral. Many were family members (the Pell Family is very large), some were former staff of the Senator from his long career in Washington, and his very many friends from Rhode Island and New England. Also in attendance were Senator Ted Kennedy, President Bill Clinton, Vice President-Elect Joe Biden, Senator Jack Reed—all of whom gave moving eulogies for Senator Pell. I also noted Senators Durbin, Reid, Sarbanes, Leahy, Chaffee, Whitehouse, Lieberman, Bingaman, Dodd, as well as many congressmen with names that included Kennedy.

What I also noticed about those attending this funeral was the almost total absence of higher education leadership at this important funeral. Outside of TRiO leadership, there was no one I could recognize from Washington, DC, based higher education organizations. There was no one I could recognize from the financial aid community. Despite the enormity of the federal Pell Grant program, none of those who lobby for it’s funding or package Pell Grants for students at institutions could find time to clear their schedules and attend his final public event.

So I have been thinking about what the absence of most of the higher education community or their representatives at Senator Pell’s funeral means. Are they only in it for the money? What does this say about the life of this very great man when a good share of the U.S. Senate can break away from busy schedules in Washington but the higher education leadership in that same city cannot attend? Where was NASFAA, of all organizations?


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