Presidential Archives

139th Commencement Address

President David J. Skorton

As prepared for presentation
May 27, 2007
Schoellkopf Stadium

Chairman Meinig, members of the Board of Trustees, members of the faculty and staff, families and friends of the graduates, and most of all, members of the Class of 2007 and candidates for advanced degrees: Today marks the 139th time Cornell has come together to confer degrees upon its graduates, and it is a special pleasure for me to be here in Schoellkopf Stadium to congratulate you on your achievements in and out of the classroom—from passing the infamous swim test, to discussing Sophocles’s Antigone as part of the fall 2003 New Student Reading Project, to organizing Asia Night 2007 in Barton Hall, where 36 student organizations collaborated to showcase their cuisines, music, and other aspects of their cultures for all of us to enjoy.

This year—your last and my first at Cornell—we earned an impressive number of Ivy athletic titles, and many of you contributed to those victories as scholar athletes in intercollegiate sports or as enthusiastic fans. I want especially to note the success of men’s lacrosse, which, with the leadership of several outstanding seniors, made it all the way to yesterday’s NCAA Final Four competition. Thank you for sharing these, and so many other memorable parts of the college experience, with us during your time here.

Before we go on with the ceremony, though, I want to take a moment to recognize the other heroes of today’s commencement: The mothers, fathers, grandparents, spouses, children and other family members, partners and friends who helped, financially or emotionally, to make this day a reality.  No one makes it to commencement without assistance and support along the way, and I invite the graduates to join me in applauding those who helped make your education possible here at Cornell.

Each of you has your own story and a unique path that has brought you to Schoellkopf Stadium this morning—of hardships overcome, challenges surmounted, contributions along the way. I want to make special mention of a fellow physician who is among today’s graduates.  Milton Kogan matriculated with the Cornell Class of 1957, and although he was a few credits short of completing his Cornell bachelor’s degree, he went on to earn D.O., M.D. and MPH degrees, to serve as a Peace Corps physician in West Africa and with the National Health Service Corp in our own country.  He practiced for 40 years as a family physician while working concurrently as an actor. Last year, his daughter graduated from the Hotel School, and following her good example, Dr. Kogan successfully completed his undergraduate work at Cornell this spring – just in time to celebrate his 50th Cornell reunion with the Class of 1957.

Yes, each of you has your own story—and a unique path that has brought you to Schoellkopf Stadium this morning. Whatever that path, you are all about to become graduates of one of the most distinguished institutions of higher education in the world, taught by a faculty of great distinction, skill and dedication. Therefore, all of you earning degrees today are among the most qualified and privileged graduates in the world, and are prepared to take your places among society’s leaders.

One of the challenges that you will face—and one that we are all confronting as a society in the U.S. and around the globe—is the enormous problem of societal inequalities. Here in the U.S., 37 million people lived in poverty in 2005, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.  The poverty rate for non-Hispanic Whites that year was 8.3 percent, while the poverty rate was 24.9 percent for African-Americans and 21.8 percent for Hispanics. Perhaps most troubling, the poverty rate for children under 18 years of age was 17.6 percent or 12.9 million children.1 Worldwide, of course, the statistics are enormously sobering: More than 2 billion people—nearly 7 times the entire population of the United States—currently live on less than $2 per day.2Some 1.2 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, and 2.9 billion people have inadequate access to sanitation. About 150 million children are malnourished, and more than 10 million children under five years of age die each year, many of them from causes that would be preventable with better nutrition and access to basic health care.3

This is a humanitarian crisis of the first order, and it is also a threat to the stability of a world community, to intercultural understanding, to peace, to your future as new Cornell graduates. At a time when the world is becoming smaller and more interconnected, when our economy and our futures—your futures—are linked to what is going on elsewhere, all of us should be concerned that the economic strength and growth we take for granted in the U.S., and that are beginning to benefit an increasing number of people in places like India, China, South Korea, and Singapore, are bypassing hundreds of millions of others in Asia, in the Middle East, in parts of Latin America, and in Africa, and, indeed, here in the U.S. as well.

As the WorldWatch Institute noted, “Globalization has raised expectations, even as modern communications make the rising inequality between a rich, powerful, and imposing West and the rest of the world visible to all.  Poverty and deprivation do not automatically translate into hatred.  But people whose hopes have worn thin, whose aspirations have been thwarted, and whose discontent is rising, are far more likely to succumb to the siren song of extremism.”4

As global integration accelerates, these inequalities will affect all of us directly and personally. Although the causes of these societal inequalities are complex, remedies must be sought, sought vigorously, and sought by each of us. I hope that our new Cornell graduates and all of us in this stadium will consider the roles we can play personally—and also the roles that our institutions and our nation can play in confronting and redressing global inequalities.

During this past year, I have been heartened by the strong commitment of Cornell students to activism and to service. Despite demanding academic schedules, a remarkable number of you have worked long and hard to make our local community and the world better places—giving generously of your talents and your time to teach, mentor, engage and lead. You have shared with us your talents, energy, and perspectives on some of the most important issues of our time—from the need to combat global climate change, for which students from KyotoNOW! and other campus organizations have been effective advocates, to the crisis in Darfur, about which students have been creating awareness and examining possibilities for action.

I ask that you continue to stay abreast of the issues facing our world and that active engagement remain a part of your life no matter where you go or what you do after Cornell.  By working for change in your communities and beyond—even as you pursue the bright futures that lie ahead for you personally—you can make your own lives more meaningful while also helping to reduce inequalities in the larger world.

Individual action, pursued individually, is necessary for human progress. Necessary, but not sufficient. The problems facing our world are so great and the inequalities so unfair—and so explosive, if they are not ameliorated—that the U.S. must provide leadership here, as it did in the rebuilding of Europe after World War II.  Sixty years ago, almost to the week, on June 5, 1947, U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall, speaking at a Harvard Commencement, suggested the need for a massive program of aid and redevelopment for Europe that came to be known as the Marshall Plan.

In his speech, General Marshall said, “It is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace. Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine, but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos….”  And he stressed that the plan for European recovery had to be a joint one, involving the nations of Europe, rather than being imposed unilaterally by the U.S. The U.S. offered $13 billion in economic and technical assistance—more than $120 billion in today’s dollars—but only if Europeans drew up a rational plan for using the aid and agreed to act cooperatively. The plan was shrewd and visionary at the same time—informed by enlightened American self-interest and a capacious national sense of self. The result was unprecedented international cooperation that created what continues to be seen as an economic—and political—miracle that helped bring lasting peace and prosperity to the European continent after two of the deadliest wars in history.

Over the years there have been many calls for new Marshall Plans to address various needs elsewhere in the world.  But none of the plans of which I am aware has grasped the potential of universities, through comprehensive programs of teaching, research and outreach, to assist countries struggling to meet the needs of their citizens.

Universities? What do our universities have to do with these urgent questions of inequality and poverty? One of the greatest contributions that our great research and land-grant universities have made over time—beginning long before the Marshall Plan and continuing to this day—is the development of human capacity through the dissemination of our research, teaching and outreach. Enhancement of human capacity relies on and ensures political stability, security, robust public health, and effective education, which, in turn, lead to inquiry, discovery, and innovation in places where they are most needed. Since the Industrial Revolution and increasingly in the last half-century, innovation has led to enormous economic growth; the foundation of innovation is research; and the seat of fundamental research is the university. The university is also the seat of undergraduate, graduate and professional education—education that leads to new generations of those who inquire, who discover, who innovate.

As a result of its core missions of education and research, the university reaches out materially and directly to assist and improve the quality of life. For example, Cornell’s first effort to provide technical assistance internationally—in the land-grant tradition—was the Cornell-Nanking Plant Improvement Program. Based at the University of Nanking, with direct involvement from Cornell plant breeding professors in the 1920s and 1930s, it greatly increased yields of rice, wheat, barley and other crops in China. But its most important legacy was the development of a generation of Chinese plant breeders who could carry on the work in China once Cornell’s formal involvement ended.

Higher education’s greatest contributions going forward can be to carry out research on issues where new knowledge could make a difference, to extend itself to institutions of higher learning in other parts of the world, and to ensure access to our own system of higher education for those who are victims of social and economic inequality here at home. The role of universities in building educational and research capacity in other places is particularly important in a world that has become increasingly distrustful of the U.S. government.

Since the end of the Cold War, when the U.S. stood as the world’s sole superpower, there has been a steady erosion of America’s stature in the world.  Other nations are now challenging us economically and on religious, moral and ideological grounds. Our credibility has waned and, although seen as a powerful nation, we are not universally seen as devoted to helping our global neighbors in ways and on terms of their own design and aspiration. Indeed, much of the hundreds of billions of dollars that have been spent on development aid in the last 40 to 50 years has not produced sustainable progress in many countries, and in some cases may have been counterproductive, for reasons that range from poor governance, internal conflict and corruption to badly designed programs and inconsistent funding. Even our cherished ideals of freedom and democracy no longer have the power to motivate and inspire that they once did.

Yet our major universities continue to be a beacon of hope and opportunity for the world. For example, faced with the challenge of meeting the educational needs of its middle class, expected to expand to 400 million by 2020, India has more than doubled the number of its universities and colleges since the turn of the millennium and is on track to quadruple the number over the next 7 to 9 years. In Africa, as noted in last Sunday’s New York Times, even some of the best universities are in a state of near-collapse at a time when Africa desperately needs local expertise and an educated citizenry to lift itself out of poverty. The efforts of universities like Cornell will be critical to empowering young women and men throughout the world who seek to better their fortunes through education.

Many of you know about Cornell’s internationalism firsthand: With students from some 120 nations, Cornell ranks 13th among the top 25 leading host institutions for international students in the U.S., even though our total enrollment is much lower than many of the other institutions on that list.5Many of the international students graduating today will be returning home and putting to use the knowledge they have gained here to advance the development of their own countries—in partnership, I hope, with some of the faculty members and fellow students they have come to know here at Cornell.  Some of you have studied abroad; others have become aware of international issues through the programs of the Einaudi Center; still others have put your knowledge to work internationally as part of service-learning courses. And I note that Cornell provided 52 Peace Corps volunteers last year—the highest number of any Ivy League university and the third highest among schools our size nationally.

Unfortunately, however, for two decades there has been an erosion of government funds for university-based capacity building overseas. Peter McPherson, former head of United States Agency for International Development (USAID), former president of Michigan State University, and now president of the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges, supports funds for short-term needs like HIV-AIDS and child health. However, he argues that we must also make investments that will increase incomes and capacity over time—for example, in education and the creation of technology.  Without those investments, people will not move into a position to take care of their own needs and the needs of their families. Yet USAID has almost walked away from long-term training for poor countries.  In the 1980s, AID brought about 15,000 people a year from the developing world to the U.S. for credit/degree earning studies.  Last year it was only about 1,000.

Today, as we celebrate your achievements, I want to honor your work here at Cornell and the potential you have to change the world by calling for a new type of Marshall Plan to reduce inequalities in the world—inequalities that put members of your own generation in mortal danger. No single university, acting alone, can achieve what will be needed, but together the nation’s great universities—public and private, land grant and Ivy league—can offer a more focused application of our own resources, building on our ongoing efforts to partner with and learn from universities and their faculties in other parts of the world. Such an approach will enable us to contribute together to long-term reductions in poverty through capacity building in the form of education, research and shared expertise. In keeping with a conversation with India’s Prime Minister Singh in January, Cornell will work with other U.S. universities and Indian counterpart institutions to create a faculty-led Indo-U.S. working group to develop joint research agendas on critical challenges of mutual or complementary interest.

But we must also join together to voice a more forceful call for transformed U.S. economic, political and military policy on international relations that would encourage and support capacity building by the nation’s universities. In this transformed policy, our government, our private sector including non-governmental organizations or NGOs, our philanthropic organizations and, most importantly, our colleagues overseas would all play a critical role.

There is already much going on at Cornell and elsewhere that is contributing in a positive way to building the capacities that will reduce global inequalities. The Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture, and Development, under the leadership of Professor Alice Pell, and the Cornell Food and Nutrition Policy Program, directed by Professor David Sahn, have significant capacity building programs in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world. Our Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise, directed by Professor Stuart Hart, aims “to use financial success as a motivation for solving the world’s social and environmental problems,” and we are about to begin a program on Globalization and the Workforce in ILR, with start-up support from David and Abby Joseph Cohen, both 1973 Cornell graduates. The Division of International Medicine and Infectious Diseases at the Weill Cornell Medical College, through its work in Haiti, has helped bring about a decrease in HIV infection from 6.2% of the Haitian population in 1993 to 2.9% currently. This academic year, Weill Cornell and the Ithaca campus launched a new Program in Global Health, which will enable us to contribute even more effectively to global health through teaching, research and outreach.

Cornell’s role since its founding has included the extension of our research and education to build human capacity. We are the land grant university to the world. Magnified by the efforts of other major research universities, and by the redoubling of our own efforts, energized by a substantial and sustained national commitment, Cornell stands poised to be a prime mover in a new Marshall Plan of research, teaching and outreach to address the inequalities and global health challenges that threaten our world.

I call on my counterparts—presidents and chancellors of the nation’s great research and land-grant universities—as well as leaders in the organizations that represent our universities’ interests nationally, in the private sector and the NGOs, and in the American foreign policy community to join me in advocating for a larger unified, cooperative and carefully planned national strategy for reducing global inequalities. We must find ways to move beyond the market-driven relations among universities that our competition for students and research dollars have generated and work cooperatively to address the problems I have outlined here. I call for us to join with our counterparts in other countries, developed and developing, to forge alliances based on enlightened self-interest through which we can tackle common or complementary problems. In the years to come, the number of young people looking for a higher education will rise exponentially worldwide.  Without a plan commensurate to the challenge, we will have a very unhappy and unprepared generation instead.

Not least, I call on this new class of Cornell graduates—members of the Class of 2007 and those earning graduate and professional degrees—to lend your voices and your support to efforts to reduce global inequalities and enhance global health. Some of you will devote your lives to capacity building at home and abroad. Some, like Dr. Milt Kogan, will use your professional skills—in medicine or another field—to address inequalities through periods of international and domestic service over the course of a long and productive career. But all of you—all of us—must raise our collective voices and enlist the aid of others in putting the redress of global inequality at the center of our national agenda. If we do not respond effectively to the challenge of addressing global inequality, we risk further erosion of America’s position as a world leader whose economic and military power is matched by the force of its high ideals.

The stakes are as high—or higher—today as they were 60 years ago, and nothing would honor accomplishments of these graduates more than a major national and international effort, centered in our distinguished universities, to create a saner, safer, more sustainable, prosperous, and equal world.

We are enormously proud of all those who are earning Cornell degrees today.  We congratulate you on your achievements.  We know you will continue to use your skills and your talents to make the world better. We look forward to encouraging you and to supporting your efforts through our continuing work here at Cornell and through the coordinated national and international effort in capacity building that our great universities can lead.

Congratulations—and may the achievements we celebrate today be a prelude to even greater things to come.  Thank you.


2. Campbell, Martha, John Cleland, Alex Ezeh, Ndola Prata, “Return of the Population Growth Factor,” Science, Vol. 315, 16 March 2007, p. 1501.


4. (WorldWatch Institute, October 8, 2001)