Presidential Archives

2016 New Student Convocation

August 20, 2016

Good morning, everyone. I want to add my own welcome to those you have already received from Ryan Lombardi and our student leaders, and to tell you how pleased we are to have you at Cornell. My wife Elizabeth and I have been associated with Cornell for more than two decades now. We have a deep commitment to the university, and I am pleased to be able to pinch-hit until a new president assumes the office.

Welcoming new students and their families to Cornell is always a fascinating experience. By the New Student Convocation of 2003, I had already noticed that the freshmen were getting younger every year. Imagine how you look to me now, 13 years later! Now, I have to say, the parents look like freshmen.

We worked hard to select a diverse group of talented students who would be likely to contribute to our academic community in significant ways. Members of the Class of 2020 come from 59 countries outside the US and from 48 states, plus Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. You were selected from nearly 45,000 applicants, the largest applicant pool in Cornell history. You are in fact the most selective class in Cornell history.

The question, of course, is what are you going to do now? Coming to a great university can and should be a life-changing experience—but like so much else in life, what you gain from the experience will depend, to a considerable degree, on the effort you put into it. Most people seem not to understand this point. Practically everyone now evaluates college purely in economic terms, thus reducing it to a commodity like a house or a car. So, just for the record—and to reassure you and your parents—the average “college premium” in lifetime earnings for those with a college degree is now about $1 million above the lifetime earnings of someone with only a high school diploma.

But when we think of degrees as products, colleges as purveyors of those products, and students as customers, the results are terrible. Students can feel entitled to classes that do not push them too hard, to high grades, and to course material that does not challenge their assumptions or make them uncomfortable. I want to advise you: that is not likely to happen at Cornell. At this university, we work hard to counter the “consumerist” mindset, because college is not a commodity. It is a challenging engagement in which both parties—the university and the student—have to play an active and risk-taking role.

There is a wonderful story, possibly apocryphal, about a university president who said this to new students each year: “For those of you who have come here in order to get a degree, congratulations. I have good news for you. I am giving you your degree today and you can go home now. For those who came here to get an education, welcome to four great years of learning at this university.”

At Cornell, as at other great universities, you will find professors who will inspire, prod, and irritate you while also creating engaging environments that enable learning to take place. The interaction between professors and students is quite different from what happens when you read a book or watch a film or surf the Web. All those activities can add depth to the material, but it is the professors, by and large, who make the material come alive for their students and invite them to engage with it. Tomorrow’s “Explore Series,” for example, will give you a taste of the University Courses being offered in the fall and spring and an opportunity to meet the faculty members who will be teaching them.

As my friend Bill Chase, former president of Emory University, has said, good teachers supply “oxygen” to their classrooms. But you, as students, need to breathe in that oxygen and use it to do your own thinking.

The courses you decide to take (or not to take), the amount of work you do, the intellectual curiosity you exhibit, the degree to which you participate in class, your focus and determination will contribute to the value of your time at Cornell just as surely as to the quality of our courses. I have taught classes which my students made great through their efforts, and classes made mediocre or worse for lack of student effort. Unlike a car, or a house, or a television, college requires the “buyer” to do most of the work to obtain its value. As students, you owe it to your teachers, your parents, but most of all, to yourselves, to make the most of your time at Cornell.

So how do you choose, from among the vast array of courses available at Cornell, the best ones for you? As someone who majored in ancient Greek and Latin in college and has managed to have a job with benefits ever since, I would argue that a broad liberal education is the best preparation available for virtually any career—in fact, it is the best preparation for engaged citizenship and for a fulfilling, meaningful life. In its original Latin sense, a liberal education is one suited to shaping free citizens, and our democracy today needs an educated citizenry more than ever.

A good liberal education includes science and technology, and it also includes the arts, humanities and social sciences. Such an education encourages you to apply yourselves to the daunting task of using your minds. To write a thoughtful, persuasive argument requires hard thinking and clear, cogent rhetoric. To investigate any moderately complex topic requires formulating good questions, critically examining lots of evidence, analyzing your data, and presenting your findings in succinct prose or scientific formulas. Those skills carry over into later life and transfer to virtually any career.

A good liberal arts education will help set you on the path to a fulfilling career that requires critical thinking. But it will do something more important: It will teach you that it is both a responsibility and a pleasure to use your mind.

In 1870, the young Henry Cabot Lodge, who would go on to be a U.S. Senator and confidant of Theodore Roosevelt, took a course at Harvard from the nearly equally young Henry Adams. Here is what Lodge had to say about the difference that course made in his life:

In all my four years, I never really studied anything, never had my mind roused to any exertion or to anything resembling active thought until in my senior year I stumbled into the course in medieval history given by Henry Adams, who had then just come to Harvard…. [Adams] had the power not only of exciting interest, but he awakened opposition to his own views, and this is one great secret of success in teaching. In any event, I worked hard in that course because it gave me pleasure. I took the highest marks, for which I cared, as I found, singularly little, because marks were not my object, and for the first time I got a glimpse of what education might be and really learned something.… Yet it was not what I learned but the fact that I learned something, that I discovered that it was the keenest of pleasures to use one’s mind, a new sensation, and one which made Mr. Adams’s course in the history of the Middle Ages so memorable to me.

To teach students that it is a pleasure to use one’s mind and to encourage critical thought are our most important tasks at universities.

You are about to begin one of the most demanding, most stimulating, and most rewarding experiences of your life. We will do our utmost to challenge you, to encourage you, to support you in your education. We will hold you to high standards of academic integrity. We hope and expect that you will do your part to make our joint enterprise a success. Those of us on the faculty and staff, as well as your fellow students, look forward to getting to know you personally, to working with you closely, and to enjoying with you the rigors, the excitement—and the fun—of academic life.

Welcome to Cornell.