Speeches & Writings

151st Cornell University Commencement Address

by Martha E. Pollack, President

As prepared for delivery
May 26, 2019
Ithaca, New York

Good morning everyone, and welcome to Cornell’s one hundred and fifty-first Commencement!

Now, if any of you are thinking, ohh, we missed the sesquicentennial graduation by just one year, I want you all to know that last year, it rained so hard that when I looked out at the graduates and into the stands, I felt like I was speaking to 26,000 very enthusiastic umbrellas. So while you might not have a nice round number on your commencement program, you also didn’t get the pouring rain, and it’s great to see people, not umbrellas, in dry caps and gowns!

Thank you all so much for coming. And before we continue, I want to take a moment to remember those who are not with us today: the friends whose memory we honor with an empty chair on today’s field.

Since this is our 151st Commencement, that of course means that Cornell’s very first Commencement was held 150 years ago. It was, as you can imagine, a significantly smaller affair than this Cornell graduation is today. There was no stadium; no Glee Club, Chorus, or Wind Symphony; no caps or gowns; and definitely no livestream. But I have to admit that the parents of those first graduates did have one notable advantage. It was a lot easier for them to pick their own children out of the graduating class—because it only had eight members.

Today, it’s a little bit harder for family and friends to find their graduates in a sea of over 5,500 mortarboards, or for graduates to spot their parents among the 22,000 people in the stands today. But no graduation speech would be complete without acknowledging the importance of family and friends.

A Cornell education is rigorous, and a Cornell degree is a tremendous achievement. You all worked so hard to get here and today, we celebrate you—and the people who helped you along the way. You are here today because of your own talent and perseverance, and because of the love and support of your parents and grandparents, your siblings, spouses, partners, children, and friends. It would be impossible to express enough gratitude for what they have done for all of you.

But the impossible doesn’t stop Cornellians. So, graduates, could you please stand up? But don’t do anything else yet. Just stand up. That’s it.

Now if you know where your family and friends are sitting, turn toward them in the stands. If you don’t, just face the stands.

Okay, now, at the count of three, I want to hear the biggest Cornell thank-you you’ve got, in whatever language it belongs in. So I should be hearing “thank you” in at least forty different languages out there. Are you ready? One, two, three, THANK YOU!

It sounds a lot better with fifty-five hundred students and forty languages than I imagine it would have with just eight students and one language.

I want to talk a little bit more about those eight students who graduated with that first Cornell class, 150 years ago. All of them were transfers, because, remember, the university had only been in operation for one year. Cornell at that time had only two completed buildings: Cascadilla Hall, in what is now Collegetown, and Morrill Hall, which is still right there on the Arts Quad. In between, there was a notoriously muddy field. Wandering that field were cows, whose hazards were legion.

Cornell back then was tiny. It was remote. And it was radical. We tend to forget that now, accustomed as we are to the enormous, world-class university Cornell is today. But Cornell’s founding principles were so radical that many saw the entire place as deeply suspect. Morris Bishop, an early Cornell alumnus who went on to become a professor and then historian here, wrote that “those who chose the new radical college were likely to be the self-willed, the adventurous, who took with ill grace the advice of their elders.”

In fact, if you’re wondering what brought those first eight students to Cornell: Apparently at least some of them came after having been warned so strongly against the radical new university in Ithaca that they got curious. And then they transferred.

I myself came to Cornell just over two years ago, along with those of you who arrived as master’s or transfer students. And I came to discover, as all of you have discovered, what is unique, and still so radical, about Cornell. Much of it lies in Ezra Cornell’s words: “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.” Even today, those words sound incredibly ambitious. But back then, they were downright revolutionary: the rallying cry of a university designed to change not just the lives of its students, but the future of our nation.

Remember that Cornell received its charter in 1865—just a few weeks after the end of the American Civil War. The country was divided, and that division threatened to destroy it. It was against that backdrop that Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White developed their shared vision of a university—a truly American university, built on American ideals of opportunity and equality—a place that they believed would help to bring America forward into a new era.

If the genesis of Cornell can be traced to one place, and one time, perhaps it would be the afternoon in Albany, in January 1865, when Cornell and White, both state senators, were walking together down the stairs of the capitol building. Ezra Cornell, born poor and raised poor, had made a fortune on the telegraph. He said to White that he had about half a million dollars—worth much more then than it is today—that were “surplus to the needs” of his family. He was grappling with a great question. In those dark days for the nation, how could he use that money to do the most good?

Senator White might have said to build hospitals for the wounded, or orphanages for the children of the fallen. He might have suggested any number of charitable ideas to help the poor. But what he said was, build a university.

And not just any university. Build a new kind of university, on an entirely new American model. A university created on the premise, then still novel, that education was a public good—not just for the individual student, but for everyone. A university that would foster innovation, creativity, and the sharing of ideas and understanding across all of society. A university that recognized that the fewer boundaries we place on our learning, the better off we all are.

When you get right down to it, Ezra Cornell bet his fortune on one idea: that a university that is open—to people and to knowledge—provides a better education, and ultimately builds a better world, than a university that is narrow in whom it will accept or what it will teach. I think all of you here today would agree that it’s a bet he won.

But today—when the importance of diversity and interdisciplinarity in education is anything but a radical idea—we might still ask, what is so special about Cornell? It’s a fair question to ask of the Cornell story. And I’d like to answer it by telling you a Cornell story of my own.

A few weeks after I was inaugurated as Cornell’s president, I opened my email one morning and saw that I had an invitation—from Chris Kim, Cornell’s director of orchestras. He was inviting me to speak. But it wasn’t the kind of speaking I was used to doing. He wanted to know if I would be willing to join the Cornell Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Gunther Schuller’s Journey into Jazz. It’s an amazing piece—written for a full orchestra, and a narrator who reads a story along with the music. He wanted me to serve as the narrator.

My first thought was, that sounds like fun! My second thought—and my third, fourth, and fifth—were all the ways it might go wrong.

I’m a computer scientist, whose musical training consists solely of the elementary-school violin lessons my parents made me take—and then (out of kindness to me and the neighbors) let me stop taking. I’m used to speaking in front of crowds, but this was something entirely new—and the chance of disaster seemed uncomfortably high.  The last thing I wanted to do was ruin the performance that our talented students had worked so hard to prepare for.

Still—as Cornell’s new president, I was spending my days encouraging people to try new things, to build out-of-the-box partnerships, to push their own boundaries. So I swallowed hard, and called my dad, to thank him for the violin lessons which had finally come in handy. I could at least read music.

And I began working on my part: telling the story of a boy named Eddie, who learns to make music first with his trumpet, then with other players, and finally with his full self. A few weeks later, my fears mostly gone, I told the story of Eddie’s journey to a packed audience in Bailey. The musicians were amazing, I didn’t ruin anything, and it will always be one of my warmest memories of my earliest days at Cornell.

But looking back on it now, what I think about, when I remember Journey into Jazz, isn’t how nervous I was, or that it all turned out OK. It’s how much Eddie’s story has to say, about the ethos of “any person, any study”—and what’s still so special about Cornell.

Eddie’s singular obsession, his whole goal in life, is learning to play the jazz trumpet. And what he learned was that he couldn’t learn jazz trumpet—at least, not at the level he wanted—just by playing the trumpet. He had to learn from the oboes, the pianos, and the saxophones. He had to learn from different orchestras, traditions, and styles. He had to learn how to make his music with others, before he could make his music his own.

It’s an amazing metaphor for how all of us learn and explore, how any of us learn deeply and well: not just from each other, but with each other; through experimentation and innovation: across fields and disciplines, through our differences and our diversity, with everything that makes us who we are. Just as an orchestra needs every instrument to create its fullest sound, so does Cornell need the diversity of its community, and the breadth of our fields of study, to create the fullest environment for learning.

“Any person, any study,” has always been at the heart of what makes us Cornell. And perhaps that idea at the heart of Cornell is also at the heart of why education, and universities like ours, matter more today than ever before.

You came to Cornell for your degrees, and today you have them. But each of you also came to Cornell for something more. You came to explore the world as you did not yet know it; to learn with, and from, and among, people and ideas you had never met; to master the questions of life, as Ezra Cornell put it, “with success and with honor.”

Today, as you get ready to start the next stage of your lives—whatever your goals, whatever your own paths—I won’t give you advice. But I will make one request. I will ask you to remember, when you think back on your time here, not just the university as you have known it, but also its radical origins; and the belief of Ezra Cornell that spreading truth and knowledge, openness and curiosity, through generations of graduates like yourselves, was the greatest good he could possibly do.

Cornell will always be a part of you, just as you will always be a part of Cornell.