(Michael Ford, eldest son of Betty and Gerald Ford, and student Nadine Jawad)
Former First Lady Betty Ford was a pioneer in bringing to the forefront such critical social issues as mental illness, substance abuse, women’s rights, and breast cancer—discussions we take for granted today.
Her voice and actions improved the lives of many, and it’s a legacy and spirit that the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy carries on today in its teaching and research.
Joan and Sanford Weill Dean of Public Policy Michael S. Barr, at a reception to mark what would have been Betty Ford’s 100th birthday, said that her legacy “is very much alive” at the Ford School.
He noted that she took a leadership role on controversial issues at a time when it wasn’t easy for a woman to do so—particularly a first lady.
“A lot of advisors at the White House thought the first lady should not get involved in these things and she said, ‘No, being a lady doesn’t mean not speaking,’” said Barr. “And she spoke about equal rights. She was very open about her problems with mental health and addiction and she made it safe for people to talk about these issues.”
Today’s teaching at the Ford School is inspired by the way she compassionately engaged with people and took action to build treatment centers and raise money for research
“We’re trying to teach our students to speak up, speak out, and understand the value of civic engagement,” said Barr. “And we’re trying to teach them to be kind and respectful to each other and those around them. I think that combination of respectful engagement and civil discourse is something that’s sorely missing in the country today.”
Barr hosted the Fords’ eldest son Michael, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, Ford friend and philanthropist Susan Rogel, and Ford School student Nadine Jawad, a Rhodes Scholar, at the reception.
Jawad said she’s inspired by Betty Ford’s legacy of promoting equality for women of all backgrounds, noting that she fought for women to not only have a place at the table, but to speak at the table.
“In her time it was not as easy for women to speak, and she was called out and criticized for wanting to have a say in the affairs of our nation,” said Jawad. “But she didn’t let that stop her.”
Both Barr and Jawad noted that Betty Ford’s spirit and character set as much of an example for future leaders as her accomplishments.
“I was once told that I wear my heart on my sleeve, and for that reason I would never make it as a leader,” said Jawad, who is student body vice president. “Betty Ford’s legacy embodies the fallacy of this thought.”
— Terry Kosdrosky, communications manager for public engagement