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Magic Johnson steals the show at World Affairs Council gala
Diplomatic Pouch / June 18, 2015

By Larry Luxner

German Ambassador Peter Wittig made a dinner speech. So did Rajiv Shah, former chief of the U.S. Agency for International Development. And BJ Levin, executive producer of VICE Media. And Javier Miyares, president of the University of Maryland University College. And half a dozen other people.

But Earvin “Magic” Johnson stole the spotlight from all of them at the World Affairs Council-DC’s 35th anniversary fundraising gala.

During the June 10 event, hosted by Washington’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel, the world-famous basketball star surprised the crowd by announcing he’d personally donate $200,000 to the cause. He then conducted an impromptu silent auction for seven Lakers tickets and dinner with “Magic” himself in Los Angeles. He also auctioned off three autographed jerseys, including a rare, white custom-made one.

“The World Affairs Council is doing amazing work around the world,” said the 55-year-old, 6’9” retired NBA star, who is now considered the most powerful African-American man in business. “When you think about the 21st century and where we’re headed, this council is way ahead of the game: 35 years of making sure we put education first. We’re still behind in America.”

He added: “We’ve got to help these young people understand that the jobs are in technology and engineering — especially me, for people of color, I have to push that.”

In all, the three-hour-long event raised $900,000 for the WAC. Some 620 people, including 40 ambassadors, were there. One of them was Wittig, who accepted this year’s Distinguished Diplomatic Service Award on behalf of his country.

“Last November, we commemorated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and this year, we commemorate the 25th anniversary of the unification of my country,” he said. “At these decisive moments in our history, the United States was at our side, helping make our dream of freedom and unity a reality. We will never forget what the U.S. did for us, and we’re really grateful.”

Wittig, who was introduced by retired Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA), said he feels completely at home in the United States, where he has spent eight years of his diplomatic life — including the last one as ambassador.

“There was a time when the two sides of the Atlantic seemed to be drifting apart, but the turmoil that the world saw in 2014 was a wakeup call,” Wittig told his guests. “It’s against the backdrop of the Ukraine crisis and ISIS that we are reminded of our greatest asset: our strong transatlantic bond. Only if we stand united can we cope with the challenges facing the world in 2015.”

Miyares accepted WAC’s 2015 Educator of the Year award on behalf of UMUC, which has more than 150 locations worldwide and is headquartered in Adelphi, Md.

“When I fled Cuba on the Fourth of July in 1961 at the age of 14, I had no money and I had no connections. What I had was a desire to learn — instilled in me by my parents, who were both teachers,” he said. “Little could I have imagined that coming to this land of freedom and opportunity would eventually lead me here, speaking on behalf of UMUC, the largest public online university in America.”

But the world of education is changing, said Miyares.

“Costs are up, funding is down, demographics are shifting, and global demand for access to higher education is growing. The reality is that the traditional model of higher education is not scalable to meet demand at an acceptable cost,” he said. “It’s no surprise the so-called traditional college experience is not traditional anymore. Students just out of high school who attend college full-time and live on campus are now the minority.”

In fact, of UMUC’s 90,000 or so students worldwide, 74 percent of them have full-time jobs, 48 percent have families and 37 percent are first-generation foreign students. In addition, more than half are active-duty military, reservists or veterans.

“Today, the classroom is untethered by time and space. In the mid-1990s, UMUC was among the first institutions in the world to see the potential of the Internet to make education more accessible. Today, we have some 250,000 online course enrollments each year — more than any other public university,” he said.

“Meanwhile, the power of big data is being applied to higher education,” he added. “For instance, on the first day of an online class at UMUC, data analytics tell us — with better than 85 percent accuracy — whether any given student will pass or fail, and we can intervene to help at-risk students stay on track.”

Miyares also praised UMUC’s advances in adaptive learning — which uses intelligent software that interacts with students and promotes learning — as well as the adoption of open-source, online educational resources in place of traditional textbooks. In short, he said, “thanks in large part to technology, the Holy Grail of higher education — the nexus of access, affordability and quality — is finally and fully within reach.”

Also honored by the World Affairs Council was Vice Media, which began life in 1994 as a punk magazine called Voice of Montrealand is today a $2.5 billion youth media empire — in print, on TV and online. Executive producer BJ Levin came from New York to accept the 2015 Global Communications Award on behalf of his company.

“Compared to my offices in Brooklyn, you guys are well-behaved,” Levin joked, then got serious. “Vice isn’t as wild and crazy a place you might expect. Twenty years after its founding, Vice is a global brand operating in 30 countries, many of which are represented here tonight. You can really feel the passion of the employees who fill our hallways. For that reason, over the last four years, we’ve undergone a pretty unlikely transformation. We’ve become a news organization.”

He added: “A lot of people expressed doubts when we started. They said the news industry is dying. But the youth of tomorrow are hungry and ready for change. And we’ve spoken to our audience and they’ve spoken back.”

Levin said Vice now has 1.3 million subscribers on YouTube, and thanks to an arrangement with HBO is now available in 220 million homes.

“Young people don’t just care about what’s happening in the world today, they’re extremely passionate about it,” Levin told his audience. “This year alone, we covered the Ebola crisis in West Africa, the black market for human organs in Bangladesh, sanitation problems in India, and bitter homophobia in Uganda. There’s a fundamental misunderstanding. We see young people buried in their phones and for some reason we think they’re turned off and uninterested. What it really means is they turned outwards, because information is shared so fast these days.”

Then he added: “If you don’t know what an app is, I’m sitting at Table 3.”

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