Presidential Archives

147th Cornell University Commencement Address

by David J. Skorton, President
As prepared for delivery
Sunday, May 24, 2015

Cornell University
Ithaca, NY

Thank you, Chairman Harrison, for those very kind words and for the extraordinary opportunity to serve as Cornell’s president. Today is a commencement day not only for these soon-to-be graduates of Cornell University, but also for my wife, Professor Robin Davisson and me. Like many of today’s graduates, we are excited about the opportunities ahead, but sad to be leaving this beautiful campus, this distinguished university and the friends and colleagues who have made the past nine years so memorable.

Today for my last time as president of Cornell University—and in this, the university’s sesquicentennial year—I am privileged to offer congratulations to all of our degree candidates, undergraduate, graduate and professional, and to the faculty, staff, other students, friends, family, mentors, and loved ones, here and back at home, who helped in so many ways.

I extend a special welcome to the degree candidates who have traveled to Ithaca for this ceremony, including those who completed degree programs at Cornell Tech, our new graduate campus in New York City. This marks the first time we are formally recognizing Cornell Tech graduates at the Ithaca commencement ceremony. I ask Dan Huttenlocher, vice provost and dean of Cornell Tech, and all graduates of Cornell Tech to stand so that we can give you a round of applause.

This year, as Cornell celebrates the 150th anniversary of our founding, I’ve been asked many times about what, for me, most clearly reflects the values that have sustained Cornell for a century and a half—and, truthfully, it is this ceremony, year after year, that represents the best of Cornell. It joins individuals of many different interests and backgrounds—graduates and guests alike—in celebration of the high achievement of the graduates and in optimism about their futures and our collective future.

Some of today’s graduates come from a long line of Cornellians. For example, Kate Morris, who is earning her DVM degree today, has been to four Cornell commencements in the past 6 years: two of her own and two for her brothers. Kate traces her Cornell roots, through father, aunts, siblings and cousins, back to her grandparents. Her grandfather and his identical twin graduated #1 and #2 in their Vet School class in 1938, and her grandmother, Iris, Class of 1945, is here today, 70 years after earning her own Cornell degree.

Calvin Graziano, B.S. ’53, M.B.A. ’54 has marched into the stadium with his granddaughter, Liza Graziano, B.A. ’13, who is earning her MILR degree today. Cal missed his own Cornell Commencement in 1954 because he was getting married that day to Diane Johnston Graziano ’53 before heading off to Marine Officer Candidate School. Cal, we’re pleased that you could participate in today’s ceremony. We are delighted with this opportunity to honor you.

I also welcome those families whose graduates are the first in the family to earn a college degree. I, too, was a first-generation college graduate many years ago, and I know what a proud day this is for all of you.

And I extend greetings to those families far away who may be watching the ceremony via live-stream. Among them, I hope, is the family of Olya Homonchuk, who is completing her degree in the ILR School on a Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship and is heading to Oxford University for a highly competitive master’s program in comparative social policy. Olya is from western Ukraine. Because of the situation there, her family was unable to leave the country, but I know they are proud of her achievements, as are we.

Graduates, your families, in all their distinctive and beautiful variations, have been there for you, sharing your disappointments and your triumphs and providing advice, encouragement and support. Let’s take a moment to thank them.

Let’s also take a moment to remember those whose commencement this would have been. We do this every year by keeping an empty chair in the front row to honor classmates lost during your time here and whose loved ones are in our thoughts today. And this year, several members of the senior class, spearheaded by Lara Keskinkaya and Sam Coleman, raised funds to endow a “Tribute Tree” that has been planted on the pathway between the Engineering Quad and Collegetown in memory of the seven members of the Class of 2015 who were lost during the class’s four years here, while Quill & Dagger, a senior honor society, in partnership with Cornell Plantations, has planted a grove of young trees along Cascadilla Creek in their honor. Please join me in a moment of silence in memory of them and all whose commencement this would have been.

Thank you. On this joyful day, as we celebrate your success as graduates of Cornell University, it is worth reflecting on why higher education, across the many fields you’ve studied, is so very important, not only to each of you but to society at large. And there are at least three reasons:

First, the value of higher education is demonstrated in the nurturing of personal characteristics that are likely to benefit you as individuals and also contribute to society. College graduates, according to a recent College Board report (Education Pays, 2013), tend to be happier in their jobs—and believe that they need to keep learning to do their jobs well. They are healthier than those without a college degree—exercising more and smoking less. As parents, they spend more time talking to and reading to their children; by one estimate, children from families where parents are college-educated professionals will hear 30 million more words in their home environment by age 3 than children whose parents have not completed college, and that translates into better school performance and higher measured IQ. College graduates also report having a greater understanding of political issues, and are more likely to vote. And they are more likely to volunteer—and to spend more time volunteering—than those without college degrees.

Those of you graduating today have already demonstrated your commitment to public service during your time at Cornell by volunteering on campus, in the greater Ithaca community and elsewhere, and by supporting a wide variety of organizations and causes, including your fundraising for the people of Nepal in the aftermath of the devastating earthquakes there, for members of our community displaced by the Chapter House fire in Collegetown, and through the Class of 2015’s Senior Class Gift. I hope you’ll continue your public engagement as Cornell alumni, as so many of your predecessors have done and continue to do.

The second reason is vocational: as college graduates, you’ll likely earn more throughout your life than your contemporaries with less education and also be far less likely to be unemployed. During a 40-year full-time working life, according to the College Board study I mentioned earlier, the median lifetime earnings of bachelor’s degree recipients were 65% higher than the median earnings of high school graduates, and median lifetime earnings continued to climb for those with master’s, doctoral, and professional degrees—in that order, by the way. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate for those with only high school diplomas was 6% last month while for those with bachelor’s degrees it was 3.5% and for those with doctoral degrees, 2.1% (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 2, 2015)

As my colleague Richard C. Levin, former president of Yale and now CEO of Coursera, has noted (in his book The Worth of the University, p. 96) “…our colleges and universities are the nation’s principal avenue of upward social mobility, delivering more than any other institution on the promise of making America a land of opportunity.” And as graduates of Cornell—one of the nation’s best universities, that will be especially true for you.

Personal gain and societal contribution are both valuable outcomes of higher education, and I have no doubt that they will be part of your lives as graduates of Cornell. But there is a third value to be gained from higher education, which I believe to be the most valuable of all.

It has to do with what Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust, when she was on campus last month for Charter Day Weekend, described as “habits of mind” that come from a broad-based liberal arts education—an education that includes the arts and humanities, the sciences and the social sciences. These “habits of mind” include inventiveness, imagination, critical capacities to evaluate information and make informed judgments, and curiosity for a lifetime. They endure long after the specific knowledge gained in the course of a college career becomes obsolete, and they enable those who possess them to continue learning, creating and contributing throughout their lives.

My friend and colleague Norm Augustine, former undersecretary of the Army and retired CEO of Lockheed Martin, says the common thread among his best engineers is that they come from an education that balanced a technical background with social sciences. The factor that most distinguished those who advanced in the organization, he added, was the ability to think broadly and read and write clearly.

Such habits of mind are not just instrumental, though; they go far beyond their usefulness in the marketplace. They help us all appreciate other perspectives, other cultures, other ways of looking at the world, and encourage us to develop a degree of empathy for, or at least a better of understanding of, others, even those with whom we may disagree. A broad liberal arts education is not just education for a first job or a second one; it is education for a lifetime of significance and contribution.

Speaking personally, for a moment, I am about to conclude a long career in higher education that has included time as a biomedical researcher, a clinician in academic medical centers, and a university administrator, and I will soon embark on a completely new enterprise as secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Looking back on the past 40 years, I am very aware that my dad’s insistence that I continue my education beyond high school changed my prospects and those of my family.I am extraordinarily grateful to have had the opportunity to experience a broad liberal arts education as an undergraduate. In ways large and small—both personally and professionally—that education has changed and vastly improved my life.

David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, has been much in the news lately for his reflections, in his columns and in a new book, on two sets of virtues: “Résumé virtues,” which he defines as skills you bring to the market place, and “eulogy virtues,” which are the qualities of character that might be talked about at your funeral.

Brooks observes that, even though most people would agree that “eulogy virtues” are more important, our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need to build an external career than to build inner character. He contends that “people on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?”

It’s an interesting dichotomy, but ultimately these virtues are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to have strong résumé virtues, that will—as I’ve suggested—add security in the world of work and still be guided by an inner light that directs your talents toward the world’s needs.

Having spent time with so many of today’s graduates over the past four or more years—and seeing so many of you at events across the campus, including during Charter Day Weekend—I have no doubt that you are well-equipped to lead lives of consequence and contribution, where both your résumé virtues and your eulogy virtues will shine.

And that brings us back to this 147th Cornell Commencement in the university’s sesquicentennial year and the ideals of our founder and first president, which have endured to this day. The practicality of Ezra Cornell—himself an inventor and an entrepreneur—who saw the university as giving talented students from all backgrounds a pathway to a better life, combined with A. D. White’s more sophisticated view of what courses of study a “truly great university” should include. White and Cornell shared a commitment to the idea that ability—not color, sex, religion or social status—would be uppermost in choosing students, so that their university would be open to people of talent from all backgrounds and walks of life. And by securing funds for the university under the federal Morrill Act of 1862—which created the nation’s land-grant universities—they committed Cornell to a mission of public service and public engagement that endures to this day.

And now, members of the Class of 2015 and candidates for advanced degrees, it is your turn. You will leave this stadium today with the most advanced and up-to-date knowledge that your teachers and mentors on the faculty and staff have been able to impart, and with the critical capacities, inventiveness, imagination and curiosity for a lifetime that come from a broad and deep liberal arts education. I hope you also leave with a renewed commitment to direct your talents toward the world’s deep needs, and a generosity of spirit that will guide your activities and your interactions with others wherever in the world you go.

Class of 2015, candidates for advanced degrees: You’ve earned our congratulations and our good wishes, and you carry with you 150 years of Cornell history, and our hopes for a better future that you can help to create.

We are counting on you!

Congratulations to you all.