Educated Quest: Harvard Alumni Association president gives back by paying forward

Muller-1

EAGLE SCOUT CARL F. MULLER left Harvard University in 1976, but Harvard has never left him. After returning to South Carolina with a trio of degrees (bachelor of arts, juris doctorate, and master of business administration), the Greenville attorney rebuilt the Harvard Club of South Carolina and began screening local applicants.

Thus began more than 35 years of service to the Harvard Alumni Association, service that culminated last summer in his selection as the group’s 2012-2013 president.

Eagle Scout Magazine spoke with Muller recently to get his thoughts on the value—and values—of higher education.

(Note: Muller is speaking for himself, not for Harvard University or the Harvard Alumni Association.)

EAGLE SCOUT MAGAZINE: What excited you about working with the Harvard Alumni Association? 

CARL MULLER: I thought we might do some good for the university along the way. That’s why I continue to do it. Not only can you do things for the university, but you can do things with the university. Here’s what I mean by that: It is a major asset not only unto itself, but it’s a major asset for America and in many ways for the world. Especially in the past 25 years, it truly has developed a global span. What it does and what its alumni can do is remarkable. What you want to do is to make sure that people use that asset to its fullest to improve the lives of others. That sounds, perhaps, lofty, but it really is something that is possible.

ESM: Of course, Harvard has a most impressive alumni base. 

C.M.: The alumni body has some enormously influential people within its ranks. What they can do with their position and their talents is just mind-boggling. What’s important is to get people to realize their fullest potential—not only the university’s fullest potential but also their fullest potential. That’s not purely confined to Harvard. It’s true of many organizations. What you have to do sometimes is give a little direction, a little guidance, a little nudge, and things will begin to happen.

ESM: How do you define the importance of education?

C.M.: One thing I think about a lot—maybe because of what I do for a living or because of who I am—is the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. If you think about the Declaration of Independence, what Thomas Jefferson wrote, he said that what people search for is life, liberty, and happiness. He didn’t say they search for jobs. He didn’t say they search for wealth. He talked about those three things: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. When I think about education, that’s what I think about.

ESM: Yet many people today think education equals job training, don’t they?

Muller-2C.M.: It’s not just vocational training. I went to the law school at Harvard, and I went to the business school at Harvard, which are both vocational schools in some sense. But if that’s all I had done, I would not be the person I am today. As the world becomes increasingly global, it’s ever more important for people to develop an understanding of other people and to be able to have a clear vision and an open mind so that they can participate in that global community. That’s what you get with a liberal arts education. Having said that, I think it’s also very important for people to understand how the world works, which means a basic understanding of science is important—chemistry, physics, biology, and other sciences as well.

ESM: It sounds as if you’re talking about laying a foundation on which students can build their lives. 

C.M.: You need to provide a basic foundation of knowledge. And then you need to develop on top of that the ability of people to think the way they should in order to use that foundation and add more knowledge to it. They can say, “Aha, I know what they’re talking about, and I can figure that out.” Or when a new market opens up in China or India or Burma or Bolivia, they can say, “I’m not afraid to go there. I can talk to those people; I can relate to them. Their culture is different, but I can navigate my way through that.”

ESM: Can you cite another example? 

C.M.: Take derivatives and credit default swaps and all those crazy things that have been swirling around Wall Street for the past 10 years. None of that existed when I was in business school, but people had a foundation enough to understand it when it appeared. Some people missed out on honor and decency. You’re always going to have that.

ESM: In a fast-changing world, are we training students for jobs that no longer exist?

C.M.: If you think about where the world is today from a scientific and technology standpoint, it’s at a very different place than it was 25 years ago, 50 years ago, or 100 years ago. It’s difficult to say that we should focus on a narrow technological field because, “That’s where the money is and that’s where the jobs are.” You have to look at this thing from the standpoint of one’s lifetime and from the standpoint of the overall society and the direction of the country for generations.

ESM: Higher education gets more expensive every year. How can colleges help? 

C.M.: I can tell you what Harvard does, but I cannot tell you what the University of South Carolina, for example, does, because I haven’t looked at their circumstances. What Harvard does is raise vast amounts of money from its alumni to provide scholarships for students who are admitted and need the money. It’s fortunate to have a very wealthy alumni base that’s also very generous and sees the value of education.

ESM: Is it also important for society as a whole to fund higher education?

C.M.: It’s important to provide the resources to education in order to give people the opportunity to participate in it at whatever level and in whatever category is right for them. If you do that, you will ultimately get what the world needs: an educated populace. If you go back over the history of the world, you have not had free societies where there have been ignorant people. The cornerstone of freedom is education. The cornerstone of democracy is education.

ESM: Unfortunately, education funding often gets political, doesn’t it?

C.M.: I think the most important thing is for people not to get combative about it. It’s so easy to dig in, sometimes in a partisan political way and sometimes just in a limited way, and to miss the importance of funding education at an adequate level to ensure that it can do what it needs to do. You also have to recognize this about it: It’s not going to work perfectly every time. If you stay behind it, and you don’t give up on it, and you don’t become too narrow in your focus, then you will get not only education but you will get the country to be where you want it to be.

ESM: What was the message of your Harvard Class Day speech?

C.M.: Honor the past. Shape the future. Embrace the present. Wherever you are in life, if you can do those three things, you will have done well for yourself and others.


A lifetime in Scouting

CARL MULLER JOINED Cub Scouting in Blythewood, S.C., the day he became eligible to join, and he remained active in Scouting until he left for college. In addition to becoming an Eagle Scout in 1965, he received the Honor Medal for a swimming rescue when he was 14 years old. Despite being just 5-foot-4 and 92 pounds, he singlehandedly pulled two stranded swimmers from the Atlantic Ocean, one of whom survived.

Muller says it’s impossible to describe just how much Scouting shaped him. “It’s like asking, ‘How did your family shape you?’” But he credits the program with instilling in him self-confidence and a sense of duty and honor.

When his son, Wiley, was old enough for Cub Scouting, Muller returned to the program. In addition to working in pack and troop positions, he led two Philmont expeditions, served on the staffs of the 2005 and 2010 national Scout jamborees, and will lead the Blue Ridge Council’s contingent to the 2013 jamboree. He’s also a member of the council’s executive board.

He says people often ask him why he remains involved in Scouting when his son is 28 years old. His answer: “I say, ‘Why wouldn’t I do this? It gives me a chance to be a boy all over again.’ It’s pretty simple stuff.”

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