Presidential Archives

2006 New Student Convocation

President David J. Skorton

As delivered
August 19, 2006
Barton Hall

Good morning, Cornellians. That’s the Big Red spirit. My wife and I are freshmen. My wife is sitting in the front row. She’s a professor in the Vet School and Weill Medical College. We either consider ourselves first-year students or transfer students after 22 and 26 years, respectively, at the University of Iowa. We hope to finish up successfully here. We are going to be living in Mary Donlon, and for those of you who are in Donlon, I’m sorry. You thought you were going to be getting rid of the older generation in just a few hours. But we won’t bother you, and we won’t be watching what you’re doing. We won’t be keeping an eye on you. We won’t be telling your parents what you’re doing, really.

Most importantly, how many of you have not yet passed your swimming test and are taking it Monday? I, too, am taking my swimming test Monday at one o’clock at Teagle. I’m going to ask you very few personal favors during our years together at Cornell, but if you happen to be there around one o’clock you make sure I get through this thing ok, all right? I’ll be counting on you. I’ll be the one wearing two little Cornell-colored floaties on my arms.

I want to start this morning by thanking the Orientation Steering Committee members seated with me and the 700-plus orientation leaders. We thanked them already, but I’ve been through this a lot at Iowa, I’ve been through this with my son at Stanford two years ago, and I honestly have never seen anything quite as smooth and terrific as this orientation. Let’s hear it one more time for these people who made it happen.

Well, let’s hear a little bit about the class of 2010: an impressive class. Three thousand two hundred and thirty eight students, 48 percent female, and I will let the math majors figure out the percent of males. Thirty percent of you consider yourselves students of color; you come from 49 states — all except Arkansas — and from 57 countries besides the United States. Fifty-seven countries! The largest number come from South Korea, China, Canada, India, and Singapore, but you also come from many, many other countries including Ghana, Venezuela, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Vietnam…. Thirty-one percent are from New York State, and 28 students are from Ithaca.

You’re a very distinguished group academically. Only about half of you come from high schools that still report class rank, but of those of you who come from these high schools, 85 percent are in the top ten percent. Now many of you are transfer students. I had the great joy of meeting many of the parents of the transfer students last evening. I was a transfer student; I started many years and decades ago at UCLA and then transferred as a junior to Northwestern. So I remember clearly that experience. The transfer students are also 48 percent female, about 19 percent report yourselves as students of color, 46 percent are from New York, but you come from all regions of the country, and four percent are international.

The overall campus that you have joined is one of 13,500 undergraduates, about 6,000 graduate and professional students here in Ithaca, and also of course there are those at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. Overall we’re fifty-fifty male, female in the undergraduate population, 42 percent female in the graduate population. Twenty-eight percent of us, among undergraduates, consider ourselves students of color, and of graduate and professional, 15 percent. Thirty-three percent of the students on this campus are from New York State and 3,000 students — 16 percent — are international, from 118 countries. And therein lies one of the great, great strengths of Cornell.

Now I’m up here to share with you a few pieces of advice. I wouldn’t call them wisdom about Cornell yet because honestly I don’t know enough about it to give you wisdom about this campus. So I want to talk to you instead about the collegiate experience. I want to ask you to consider things that will be specific to Cornell and some things that are more general, and the first one is general. I want to ask each student here to think very carefully some time during your experience here, and hopefully sooner rather than later, to find a way to put yourself into an uncomfortable situation. Doug mentioned earlier, and I thought it was very important, that he has learned a lot, to paraphrase him, from people with whom he disagreed. And nothing will broaden your horizons more than going to hear a speaker whose political view you despise. Or spending some time with a dorm mate or a classmate whose background is much different than yours, who comes from a different part of the country, a different part of the world, a different religious or philosophical background, a very religious person, or a non-believer, someone who is different than you.

Toward this I hope that you will attend a wonderful thing that we’re going to offer you called, “A Tapestry of Possibilities.” It’s a theatrical performance and discussion meant to heighten awareness of what it means to be a member of a diverse community, and when I say diversity, I’m talking about racial, gender, sexual orientation, international, political, philosophical. This is a very diverse community, and I hope you will take advantage of it. “A Tapestry of Possibilities” will be offered during the first few weeks of this semester. All first-year and transfer students are expected to attend, and I hope you make it. It’s performed by a student theatre troupe, Ordinary People, and uses personal experience of earlier Cornell students to address issues of difference and conscious and unconscious discrimination. I hope to see you there.

Let me also put in a plug for our first-year reading project, The Great Gatsby. Many of the parents here may have read The Great Gatsby, either by choice or not by choice, in an earlier part of your life. You should all have read it by now, and I know just looking out at your honest young faces that you’ve all read The Great Gatsby by now or else the SparkNotes version. I do look forward to our discussion of it in Barton Hall tomorrow afternoon and in group sessions on Monday. My wife and I will each be taking one of these small groups. She’ll be dealing with the molecular biology of Great Gatsby, and I’ll be dealing with the cardiology implications of Great Gatsby. It should be a short discussion.

I want to talk a little bit about the characteristics of Cornell, and I want to share with you a personal view of why we chose to come to Cornell after 26 years and 22 years at an institution where we were very happy and fulfilled as well. It’s because there really is no other place in higher education like Cornell. Over on that side of the room you see the banners of the Ivy League. These are very distinguished schools, but none of them is a land grant university for its state, but Cornell is a land grant university. If you think of the very distinguished private universities in the United States, none of them has the particular mix of private and public offerings and private and public conscience and soul that Cornell does.

And this is one of the world’s great research-intensive universities. The academic leaders whom you see before you on your right — the distinguished deans of many of the colleges that are here today — lead a research operation that brings in and spends about half a billion dollars on research and discovers everything from apparel design, where we have the first Ph.D. program in the country, to space science, to everything imaginable in between. But these deans and the distinguished faculty focus very, very carefully and very, very truly on the undergraduate experience. And please take it from me: every research-intensive university does not focus on the undergraduate experience.

I want to tell you a few things that have happened here, some highlights, and I hope to make you as proud of your new home as I am. The Mars Rover, defying all expectations, still going strong two and a half years after bouncing onto the Mars surface in January 2004. I’m sure, Dean Lepage, there’s a more elegant way to say that than “bouncing,” but I think that’s actually what it did.

You’re hearing today, with the Cornell Chorus and Glee Club, some of the wonderful musical soul of the campus. Another musical group, the Cornell Wind Ensemble, during a winter break trip to Costa Rica, brought 50 donated musical instruments in the rural village of Matapalo and gave the children music lessons on their new instruments.

In Food Science 101, students take on the challenge of designing a new ice cream flavor. They gave me a chance to figure out a new ice cream flavor, and I said “chocolate,” and they were not impressed. But the winning flavor is produced by the Cornell Dairy and sold on campus and served in the dining halls. Parents will be really happy to hear that last year the winning flavor was “Sloppy Slope Jolt.” Boy, does that sound just yummy! It won by a small margin over two other flavors: “Rawling’s Green” and “Lynah Faithful,” of course referring to our beloved hockey fans. Try some this year or take the course and design your own. But you can’t do chocolate; I’ve got dibbs on that one.

The Solar Decathlon Team: Cornell’s student team took second place in last year’s international competition on the National Mall in Washington, DC for designing, funding, and building a completely solar-powered house. We’re gearing up again to compete in 2007, and student team members can earn up to three credits a semester for working on the project.

You’ve already heard about the formula SAE racecar competition. You’ll be proud of your fellow Cornell students in planning, design, and public policy who worked on rebuilding New Orleans with leadership from Professor Ken Reardon and who participated in service learning courses last year.

Do any of you like video games? An all-female Cornell team took first prize in Cornell’s first computer game design competition and then went on to win the Games for Girls programming competition in Urbana, Illinois last spring with an interactive game called “Green Eggs and Pan.”

There’s even a philanthropy course. Students in Brenda Bricker’s course in the College of Human Ecology, “Leadership in the Non-Profit Environment,” experienced the joys and responsibilities of philanthropy firsthand by giving away $10,000 to local organizations with funds provided through a gift from the Sunshine Lady Foundation.

And, finally, in the College of Human Ecology, the Urban Semester: Students learn about multi-cultural issues and urban affairs, while living, working and studying in New York City. And Cornell University, in addition to the Weill Medical College, is all over New York City, as you will learn.

Let’s talk a bit about the social scene. That’s what students want is to hear about the social scene from a fifty-six-year-old guy from Iowa. I’m sure I’m the most qualified to tell you about it. These have been cleared through my son, who’s a junior at Stanford, and they have the Good Housekeeping® seal of approval as of great interest to students: John Stewart gave two shows here in Barton Hall, in this very setting, back to back, and sold out both times. Snoop Dogg headlined Slope Day in 2005. It’s too bad I wasn’t here because it would have been Snoop Dogg and Skorton together at last. This year the Cornell Concert Commission’s first show will be Motion City Soundtrack, next Saturday — a week from today– August 26, on the Arts Quad, and it’s free.

Athletics: There are 36 intercollegiate sports. Cornell offers opportunities to cheer them on or participate.  Almost no matter what your sport, you’ll find something that you’ll really enjoy. Last year — remember those Ivy banners over there — Cornell won nine Ivy League titles and a national title in lightweight crew. Cornell teams have won 31 Ivy titles over the last four years. You came to the right spot.

Now I want to talk about a more serious topic, and it has to do with caring for each other as a community. Thousands of faculty and staff, tens of thousands of students, hundreds of thousands of alumni, all consider themselves Cornellians. But we have a focus here, and we hope to draw you into the focus and bring your strength and spirit and heart along to develop a caring community everywhere that there is the name Cornell.

When we’re aware of someone else who is in distress — physical, emotional, mental, spiritual — and we demonstrate compassion toward them, we are growing in the most important way. When we adhere to the highest standards of academic integrity, we manifest our character and recognize that our choices have consequences for others as well as for ourselves, and when our social behavior is consistent with the standards of the community and free from coercion and open, open, open to choice, then we demonstrate respect for the rights of others. I urge you, as you move through the wonderful and tremendously enlightening experience that is Cornell, to think about the person next to you, the person across the hall, the person in your class, and to help us develop an even more caring community. We need each other, we care about each other, and we need and want you to be a part of it.

Now finally a word to parents from a fellow parent. The hardest thing for me when I dropped my son at college was leaving. And although you’ve heard many jokes about it this morning, it is very, very, very hard (or at least it was for me). It was hard to realize that I had a young adult and that I was turning my back and the young adult would have to find his way through the easy times, the hard times, the challenging times, the surprising times, and that I would have to allow him to contact me if something needed to be discussed. I urge you to think carefully — every family is different, every situation is different — and I know you showed the great judgment to be here today.  I know you’ll show great judgment to find where you should fall on that spectrum. I urge you to think about your Cornell student as a young adult entering the world, really for the first time on his or her own. We do care about each other here. We are going to do a magnificent job in being available and caring for your student, and I know you will find the right way to help that transition occur.

And for those of you students who are lucky enough to be in Mary Donlon, you won’t be far from a parent figure, someone with tremendous, tremendous judgment, who’s able to help you in any little way you want. Of course, I’m talking about my wife. But I will be there, too, to talk about Snoop Dogg and anything you need to know in a cultural sense. So welcome to Cornell. Thank you for being a part of all this, and “Go Big Red!”