Presidential Archives

144th Cornell University Commencement Address

by David J. Skorton, President

As prepared for delivery
Sunday, May 27, 2012

Welcome to the 144th Commencement of Cornell University. I offer congratulations to all of our graduates, and to the faculty, staff, other students, and loved ones, here and back at home, who helped bring us to this day. I offer thanks to the Cornell Wind Ensemble, under the direction of Cynthia Johnston Turner, and the Cornell Chorus and Glee Club, under the direction of Scott Tucker, who are providing the music for today’s ceremony. And our congratulations to Scott Tucker, who is moving on to serve as artistic director for the Choral Arts Society of Washington, D.C. after 17 years at Cornell. Today is a day of commencement for him as well.

Today is a day of ceremony and celebration. Along with the graduates, we on the faculty, senior administrative staff, and the Board of Trustees, don academic regalia—following a tradition that dates from medieval times—to signify the entry of these graduates into the community of scholars. Although the appearance of caps and gowns imparts a seriousness—a solemnity—to the occasion, every commencement is in essence an optimistic statement about the future—and graduates, you give us good reason to believe that the future will be better than today.

Of course, behind every graduate stands a very proud family. Graduates, your families and your friends, in all their endless beauty and variations, have been there for you during your Cornell years. Let’s take a moment to thank them.

Among today’s proud parents is former Cornell University President and Vice Chancellor-designate of NYU Shanghai, Jeffrey S. Lehman, whose son Benjamin is earning his undergraduate degree from the College of Engineering. Congratulations, Jeff, Benjamin, and family.

All of us know that being a college student—whether graduate, professional or undergraduate—is not always easy. There are countless trials to negotiate, along with triumphs to celebrate, and they vary from student to student. One of those completing an undergraduate degree this year is Jean-Marc Pelletier, who came back to Cornell last fall with his wife and young daughter to finish his degree after a 14-year career as a professional hockey player. He is now working for LEGO, the toy company. One of our Ph.D. graduates, Fenaba Addo, grew up in Brooklyn, NY, in the second poorest Congressional district in the nation—and less than two miles away from the city’s wealthy financial district. As a graduate student in Policy Analysis and Management, Fenaba examined the social determinants of health and wealth disparities, focusing on low-income households and racial and ethnic minority populations. Next fall she will begin a two-year postdoctoral fellowship and will then become an assistant professor in the Department of Consumer Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Whether you’re an advanced degree candidate or a member of the Class of 2012; no matter in which college you are earning your degree, you graduate from a special university: distinguished in specific disciplines, but also incredibly broad; steeped in tradition, but ever engaged with new ideas—their creation, evaluation and application; a private, Ivy League university that is also the land-grant university for New York State.

One hundred fifty years ago this July, the land grant universities were created by the federal Morrill Act of 1862. Conceived by Senator Justin Morrill of Vermont, and signed into law by President Lincoln, the Morrill Act was a hopeful, optimistic piece of legislation—premised on the belief that through the education of people from all backgrounds in an expanded range of fields—from agriculture and the mechanic arts to liberal studies—we could become a better, more prosperous nation in a changing world.

In the land-grant spirit, your courses and your research, scholarship and creative endeavors have spanned the theoretical and applied disciplines and the professional fields. Also in the land-grant spirit, you’ve embraced Cornell’s commitment to public engagement—in your volunteer activities, service learning, and other outreach. You’ve risen to the challenges we’ve put before you, and in the process you’ve made a difference here in the Ithaca area and around the world.

We estimate that more than 7,600 Cornell students provide at least 400,000 hours of community service each year. Just a few examples:

Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian poet, playwright and essayist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, once noted, “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”

I am especially appreciative of your efforts to ease the transition of those from other lands into American life and culture—whether they are international students and scholars here for a defined length of time or individuals hoping to become U.S. citizens. My father, who came here from western Russia—what is now Belarus—was ever grateful for the assistance he was offered as an immigrant, unfamiliar with the new language and culture. He became a U.S. citizen, and one of the lessons he passed on to me was the importance of being involved in the community and especially of exercising the right to vote.

Many of your grandparents—or great-grandparents—took the tradition of civic and political involvement to unprecedented levels in the years after World War II. This was especially true for US veterans—from all backgrounds and socioeconomic groups—who used the G.I. Bill to further their education. Suzanne Mettler, Cornell Ph.D. and the Clinton Rossiter Professor of American Institutions in our Government Department, notes in her book, Soldiers to Citizens, that beneficiaries of the G.I Bill’s education and training provisions “became more intensely involved in public life, in activities long considered to be critical to self-governance, and therefore the lifeblood of American democracy.” And while the so-called “Greatest Generation” was studying, organizing, and running for office, they were also joining local chapters of the Rotary, Kiwanis, the League of Women Voters, Parent-Teacher Associations, Knights of Columbus and B’nai B’rith, all of which grew enormously during the 1940s and 1950s.

Among the returning veterans who used the GI bill to further his education was Charles F. Feeney, a Class of 1956 graduate of the School of Hotel Administration. As a first-generation college student of modest means, Chuck made and sold sandwiches to Cornell students late at night to augment his $110-a-month GI Bill scholarship. Building on his entrepreneurial success at Cornell, he went on to make his fortune by pioneering the concept of duty-free shopping. Then, while still a relatively young man, he began to give his fortune away. To date, he has given away nearly $6 billion. Because of his deep concern for disadvantaged children, the elderly, and the marginalized, he has funded schools and hospitals in Vietnam, worked to combat poverty in South Africa, supported peace initiatives in Northern Ireland—and he has transformed his alma mater by providing nearly $1 billion to support, among many other initiatives: scholarships, especially the Cornell Tradition; the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development; the Residential Initiative, and—most recently—CornellNYC Tech on Roosevelt Island in New York City. No other individual in our history even begins to match his giving to his alma mater, within the scope of such broad worldwide philanthropy.

Chuck is with us today—seated on the Tanner Terrace. Chuck, please stand so that we can salute you for your extraordinary public engagement and, as you put it, for “giving while living” to the causes you believe in.

Many in my generation—and your parents’ generation, and even your older siblings’ generation—drifted away from civic engagement in the last quarter of the 20th century as other priorities competed for our time. Robert D. Putnam, in his book Bowling Alone, drew attention to a startling decline in civic engagement in the U.S. between the mid-1970s and the mid-1990s. He saw one hopeful trend, however: an increase in youth volunteering in your generation—the Millennial Generation—that potentially heralded broader generational engagement.

And that, in fact, is how it has turned out. Between 2000 and 2008, voting rates rose more than three times faster for Americans under age 29 than they did for Americans over 30, and, as you’ve demonstrated so well at Cornell, you’ve never lost your enthusiasm for making a difference.

But what happens next? How will you engage the world once you leave the campus—whether for a job, graduate or professional school, or other opportunities?

Of course, there is no single answer for such a large and varied group of graduates. But if there is no single route by which you can continue your commitment to public engagement, there are some things to consider when choosing your path:

First, you can make a contribution whether you are trained in the sciences, a technical field like engineering, or in the social sciences, arts or humanities. For example, Susan McCouch, who earned her Cornell Ph.D. in 1990 and is now a professor of plant breeding and genetics here, is a world expert on rice genetics. She works with international and interdisciplinary collaborators to develop strains of rice that can survive in hostile environments, offering the possibility of increasing rice yields to relieve hunger and poverty.

Jeffrey Gettleman, Cornell Class of 1994, took a different route to public engagement. At Cornell he majored in philosophy, played lacrosse, and worked as a photographer for the Cornell Daily Sun before earning a master’s in social anthropology at Oxford as a Marshall Scholar. He has worked for The New York Times since 2003—and is now East Africa bureau chief, based in Nairobi, Kenya. This year he won a Pulitzer Prize for “for his vivid reports, often at personal peril, on famine and conflict in East Africa, a neglected but increasingly strategic part of the world.”

No matter what your area of expertise—or what path you follow to find your passion—the world needs your skills. And knowing what you have already achieved at Cornell—and what you can now make possible as Cornell graduates—I have great hope for the future.

Second, recognize that making a living and making a difference in the world are not mutually exclusive undertakings. Cornell has given you the experiences and the skills that will allow you to do both.

Last September some of us attended a lecture by Josh Tetrick, Cornell Class of 2004 and the founding CEO of 33needs, a non-profit which enables socially minded startups to raise seed funding from individuals on the Web. Josh, who majored in government and sociology and spent time in Nigeria and South Africa as a Fulbright scholar, described his “long winding path to find that alignment between who I am and what the world needs”—a path he calls “thriving.”

Not all of us will be social entrepreneurs like Josh, but all of us can be advocates within our workplaces for policies that allow employees to combine making a living with family and community life. These policies—such as flex-time, flex-place and job sharing—can help foster civic engagement while encouraging the recruitment and retention of exceptional and dedicated employees. But they are far from universal. No matter where you work, you can be advocates for policies that enable you and your colleagues, in Josh’s words, to “thrive.”

Third, yours is the first generation to grow up with Facebook and YouTube, with tweeting and texting—and I hope you will tap the power of these digital innovations while also recognizing the importance of communicating person-to-person and face-to-face. Here at Cornell an undocumented student in the Class of 2012 was able to raise nearly $10,000 in one week—partly through social media—so that he could remain at Cornell and finish his degree. The student organization that helped raise awareness and support for him and other undocumented students at Cornell—the DREAM Team—earned this year’s Perkins Prize for Interracial Understanding and Harmony, and I applaud them.

Social media and Internet technologies can also vastly expand our ability to collect, share, and explore data. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has been a pioneer in using the Internet and social media to amass vast databases to help determine how birds are affected by habitat loss, pollution, disease, and climate change and to develop strategies for conservation.

The potential of new media to connect across continents and cultures, to bring people together virtually who otherwise might never know they share a common interest or concern, is just beginning to be realized. But as Malcolm Gladwell cogently points out in the New Yorker (“Small Change,” Oct. 4, 2010) “the revolution will not be tweeted.” Social media campaigns can get thousands of people involved by not asking very much of them. Weak-tie networks like Facebook or Twitter are wonderful sources of ideas and information, Gladwell points out, but they are less effective for the kind of potentially transformative activism that, for example, sustained the civil rights movement or led to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I hardly need to tell you to embrace new media—you are already doing that by texting your families in the stadium and friends back home today, maybe right now during my speech. But I hope you will also hold close the friendships you’ve made at Cornell—and create new ones in the communities you will be part of over the years. Our own Matthew Brashears, assistant professor of sociology, has documented that although the average Facebook user may have 130 “friends,” most Americans actually have only two confidantes, down from three 25 years ago.

Real connections are still essential for a full, satisfying life. Personal connections are equally critical for public engagement and social change—and the bonds you’ve formed, with faculty, staff and other students at Cornell and within the greater Ithaca community, will allow you to embrace the best of both worlds.

Finally in this election year, I hope you will express your civic commitment through participation in politics. Many of you have already demonstrated that commitment, for example, by participating in Ithaca’s local elections last November and by filling Lynah Rink a few weeks ago to hear Presidential candidate Ron Paul. No matter what candidates you support—locally, in your state, and nationally–in this election year, be engaged, be involved, and VOTE.

Wendy Wasserstein, the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning author and playwright who was an A.D. White Professor-at-Large at Cornell at the time of her death in 2006, once advised, “Don’t live down to expectations. Go out there and do something remarkable.”

Class of 2012, candidates for advanced degrees: You’ve earned our congratulations. You give us a reason to hope that tomorrow can be better than today. Hold fast to your dreams. Have confidence in your skills. Keep in touch.

Now go out there and do something remarkable. Help others realize their dreams. We believe in you. We are counting on you!