2017 Winter Commencement Address
by Martha E. Pollack, President
As prepared for delivery
December 16, 2017
Ithaca, New York
Thank you, Professor Walcott, and good morning, everyone.
I extend an especially warm welcome to the families and friends of the graduates, who have come from near and far (and braved the infamous Ithaca weather) to share this memorable day with loved ones who are earning Cornell degrees. I know that the graduates join me in thanking you for all the love and support that you’ve provided them—without that, they’d never have made it to this day.
A couple of weeks ago, as I was thinking about today’s ceremony, and pondering what I might say here, I spent some time reading old commencement addresses. It turns out that there is a website, maintained by NPR, called “The Best Commencement Speeches, Ever.”[i] Someone has populated it with 350 speeches, dating back to 1774. Think about that: you just have to sit through one graduation speech, while the curator of this site had to read. . . well somewhere north of 350 of them!
Now I confess, I did not read all 350, but I sampled liberally. What I found was interesting. Surprisingly to me, many of them did not mention current events at all. Instead, they provided advice from the personal perspective of the speaker. Others, however, did address the current context, and I have to tell you, not a one said, “The world you’re graduating into is great; we, your elders, have done a terrific job of keeping it in shape for you; go out and now and do whatever you want.” No, instead, these speeches were filled with statements like this:
“The world we have made out of the inheritance of our grandfathers is a pretty sad botch. It is full of gross injustices.” So said journalist William Allen White, speaking at Northwestern in 1936.
Or: “This country has profound and pressing social problems on its agenda. It needs the best energies of all its citizens, especially its gifted young people, to remedy these ills.” That one is from Edward Brooke, the first African American popularly elected to the U.S. Senate, speaking at Wellesley in 1969.
Or this, from filmmaker and author Tiffany Shlain at Berkeley’s graduation in 2010: “We’re facing a vast array of interconnected problems. The economy, the environment, expanding women’s rights, overpopulation, progress without thinking of consequences, health care, nuclear proliferation, access to education, and the massive oil spill in the ocean, just to name a few. We’ve faced many of these problems before, but because the world is so much more connected, and there are so many more people, the stakes are that much higher.”
Well, perhaps you’re starting to see why we don’t invite an outside speaker to Cornell graduation!
It’s certainly hard, on a day like this, not to think about the world into which you’re graduating, and about the issues you’ll face. Let me be clear: it’s not all bad. Indeed, looking across the globe, in many ways the world is a better place than it was, even a few decades ago. For example,
- The proportion of the world’s population living in absolute poverty has decreased threefold since 1990.[ii]
- Across the globe, mortality rates for children under the age of 5 have dropped by 56% in roughly that same time span.[iii]
- And here in the United States, violent crime has dropped by more than half.[iv]
There are many more such examples, and yet, as you well know, all is not rosy. Just as White noted in his 1936 graduation speech, the world is (still) full of gross injustices; as was true in 1969, our country has profound and pressing social problems. And, as was the case in 2010, we’re facing a vast array of interconnected problems, with the interconnections accelerating by the second.
So new graduates, what are you to do? How will you avoid becoming overwhelmed with the challenges of our society, instead positioning yourself to make a difference and have a positive impact?
Today, I have just one suggestion for you. Start with compassion. With understanding. With kindness and with love.
The biggest, most difficult problems we face today seem to me to stem from divisiveness in our communities and in the broader society. They stem from an apparent inability to reach across differences, to listen, and to really understand, communicate and compromise. I hope that during your time at Cornell, you’ve seized the opportunity to interact with others who are truly different from you, who bring to the table different life experiences, different perspectives, different skills and different weaknesses. And I hope that you’ve learned to appreciate the strength that comes from melding a vision out of different points of view.
One of my great pleasures is reading. So let me recommend a book. It’s a novel, published earlier this year, and written by George Saunders. Entitled Lincoln in the Bardo, it is a fictional account of what occurred the night after Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie died. It takes place in the cemetery where Willie was temporarily entombed in a crypt, and is largely narrated by a set of ghosts who also reside in the cemetery, where they are in “the bardo,” the Tibetan state of transition between death and rebirth. Their story is interspersed with both real and fictional historical documents describing the Civil War, a time at which our country was certainly fraught with divisiveness.
I won’t tell you more, but will leave you to (hopefully) enjoy the book as much as I did. It’s a masterpiece, winner of this year’s Man Booker prize. On accepting the prize, Saunders said that while the book’s style may be complex, the question he was posing at its heart is simple: Do we respond to uncertain times with fear and division, “or do we take that ancient great leap of faith and try to respond with love?”[v]
Graduates, during your time at Cornell you have gained much knowledge, and have developed the habits of mind of an educated person. You’ve learned to carefully analyze situations, to check facts, to communicate clearly. All of this will serve you well as you take on our messy, troubled, but often wonderful world.
But heart and mind go together, so as you leave Cornell and set off on your path of difference-making, I want to leave you with the words of another writer, this time a composer and playwright instead of a novelist, speaking at another award ceremony. On receiving the Tony award for his score to the play “Hamilton,” the day after the horrific nightclub shooting in Orlando, Lin-Manuel Miranda recited a sonnet he’d written. It includes these lines:
We live through times when hate and fear seem stronger.
We rise and fall, and light from dying embers
Remembrances that hope and love last longer.
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love;
Cannot be killed or swept aside.
Graduates, I wish you a future of success, of happiness, of making a difference, and of doing so with love.
Please come back and visit us, and share with us your successes. Remember that Cornell will always be a part of you, and you will always be a part of Cornell. Congratulations to you all!
And now it is my pleasure to introduce to you S.J. Munsi, the Class of 2018 Senior Class President.
[ii] In Oct. 2016, World Bank calculated that in 2013 (its latest figures) 10.7 percent of the world’s population lived on less than $1.90/day–down from 35 percent in 1990. See http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/poverty/overview
[iii] See World Health Organization report: http://www.who.int/gho/child_health/mortality/mortality_under_five_text/en/
[iv] See http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/02/21/5-facts-about-crime-in-the-u-s/
FBI data: violent crime decreased by 50% between 1993 and 2015; Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates (which include reported and unreported crimes) shows a 77% percent drop during same timeframe.