Interim President Hunter R. Rawlings III
December 18, 2005
Good morning! On behalf of Cornell University and the deans and faculty of its individual schools and colleges, I am pleased to welcome you to this recognition ceremony for students who will be earning their Cornell degrees in January 2006.
I especially want to welcome the families and guests of the graduates and to thank them for making the trip to Ithaca in December for this ceremony. As your students can tell you, there are four seasons in Ithaca: almost winter, winter, still winter, and construction. When you come to Ithaca in December, you get to see them all.
Of course, if you come to Ithaca in May, you may also see them all. Ithaca’s reputation for a challenging climate is well deserved. We’re very pleased that you have risen to the challenge in order to be here today to congratulate the students on the completion of their academic programs and to celebrate their success.
Earning a Cornell degree at any time of year is a significant accomplishment. Looking back, it is remarkable how much these students have achieved during their time at Cornell. The only way to gain a Cornell degree is to earn it through sustained effort over a protracted period and by demonstrating a very high level of proficiency. There are no honorary degrees at Cornell, and that makes us all the prouder of what the students have accomplished.
Many of the students here this morning are graduating in less than four years, having taken heavy course loads and perhaps some summer classes to put themselves on the fast track. Some have taken a bit longer to complete their degree requirements, because of a double major, or because they changed academic programs or transferred here from somewhere else, or because they spent some time away from campus to travel or work. About 25 of the students are earning master’s degrees, and eight are earning Ph.D.’s.
So what does it mean to be a Cornell graduate? It means that you are graduating from one of the world’s great universities, and you will appreciate the significance of that more and more as time goes on. On the purely practical side, you’ll discover that, even in a tight economy, many companies favor graduates of Cornell and other first-rank institutions over candidates with lesser-known degrees. You’ll also discover that being a Cornellian puts you in touch with other Cornellians across the nation and around the world. These are people who can keep you connected to the campus, help you make business and professional contacts, and give you a sense of community no matter where you are.
Even more important, though, you’ll discover that Cornell will continue to shape the way you engage the world. Most of you, if you entered Cornell at the start of a fall semester, began your association with the university by reading a good book. Some of you were part of the very first new student reading project, which featured Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel. You jumped in with gusto to discuss Diamond’s thesis: that differences in rates of human development around the globe are tied to differences in geography and environment much more than to inherent biological differences among human groups. Most of you came to Cornell the year that we read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Published in 1818, Frankenstein raises fundamental issues about the use and misuse of science — issues that are coming to the fore again in current debates about cloning and genetically engineered organisms. Some of you may have read and discussed some of the subsequent new student reading books: Sophocles’ Antigone, Kafka’s The Trial, and this year’s selection, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.
All these works raise issues of significance to contemporary society that can be explored from the perspective of the many different disciplines found at Cornell. They also pose ethical and moral dilemmas that merit introspection and broad discussion. Issues like racism and cultural dominance, the use and misuse of science, duty to family, the state, or a higher law come up again and again in great literature and in our daily lives. Through the new student reading project and throughout your Cornell careers, I hope that we have challenged you to examine the ethical and moral dimensions of complicated societal issues as well as the purely intellectual ones.
Groucho Marx used to say, “Those are my principles. If you don’t like them…well, I have others.”1 But real life is not quite so simple. From the use of torture as an intelligence gathering technique… to government surveillance of American citizens…to the intrusion of religious ideas into science curriculums…to all those back episodes of the Simpsons that you downloaded onto your computer with BitTorrent or LimeWire, the real world poses ethical dilemmas that we must confront every day.
Cornell is particularly well suited to stimulating serious thinking about ethical issues for two reasons: first, because of the diversity of backgrounds and viewpoints embraced by our campus, and second, because Cornell combines world-class programs in scientific, technical and professional fields with rigorous programs in the traditional liberal arts. In the mid-19th century, Ezra Cornell hoped to found a university “where any person can find instruction in any study.” That has proven to be a potent combination for nurturing the future leaders of the 21st century world.
You will get a sense of Cornell’s diversity later in this ceremony when we recognize the January graduates by name. Cornell students come from virtually every state in the nation and from more than 125 other countries. They bring to campus a wealth of backgrounds and perspectives, and they make the campus a microcosm of the larger world.
Ezra Cornell’s ideal of “any person” remains alive and well here – as does his commitment to “any study.” In fact, one of Cornell’s greatest strengths today is its ability to combine perspectives from multiple disciplines into the academic experiences of its students. Our Department of Science and Technology Studies, for example, is recognized around the world as one of the most important sites for studying how science and technology interweave with society. The department recognizes that “every social problem in the modern world involves science and technology, either as a cause or cure.”2 The department helps students and the wider society understand the ways in which science and technology shape our world and the ways that science and technology are shaped by history, politics and culture.
Within individual colleges, the teaching of ethics also holds a prominent place. Earlier this month, for example, students in the College of Engineering staged an original play to explore issues of diversity, ethics and common sense that are taught in a somewhat more conventional way in the freshman course Engineering 150. A combination of reality TV and “Saturday Night Live,” the play addressed, in a humorous and engaging way, the kinds of issues that anyone working in a corporate environment might one day confront, from issues of race, gender, economic status and religion, to how science and technology interact with the larger society.
It may be too much to claim that exposure to ethics in courses and other venues at Cornell will make you eschew LimeWire and BitTorrent in favor of iTunes® and Netflix®. But perhaps it has at least made you aware that there are ethical, legal and economic issues associated with intellectual property that merit your awareness and concern.
I hope that the foundation in ethical thinking you received at Cornell will prompt you, in the years ahead, to continue to ask difficult questions and to distrust simplistic answers. I hope you will continue to seek out information from different sources and disparate disciplines to formulate original solutions just as you’ve done at Cornell. I hope you will continue to enjoy the stimulation and the sheer fun of playing with ideas, and that you’ll retain a strong moral compass to guide you through issues and situations that none of us can yet anticipate.
Constantine Cavafy, in his poem Ithaka, captured something of our hopes for you as you move to the next phase in your lives.
As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
angry Poseidon-don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find the things like that on your way
as long as you keep thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
wild Poseidon-you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope your road is a long one.…
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.3
January graduates, Ithaca and Cornell gave you the marvelous journey. And now it is up to you. We will be watching your progress with pride and with hope.