2019 Winter Commencement Address

by President Martha E. Pollack

As prepared for presentation
December 21, 2019
Ithaca, New York

Thank you, Provost Kotlikoff. Good morning families, good morning friends, and good morning graduates! Congratulations!

Before I say another word, I want to ask our graduates to stand up. Could you all please stand up?

And now I want all of you to turn around, find your friends and your families and whoever else is here to support you, and wave and say thank you! One more reason to love December graduation—our graduates can actually see the people they’re waving and yelling at.

December graduation really is one of my favorite events of the year. And there are a few reasons for that. First, as Cornell graduations go, it’s small—only about 400 graduates as opposed to the 5500 or so we have in May. Second, it’s indoors. We don’t need to worry about umbrellas, sunscreen, or shades; the Commencement Office doesn’t need a severe weather plan; and I don’t have to wonder if my speech will get wet. Best of all, though, I can see all of you, and when it’s time to confer degrees, I can shake every hand.

If we did that at May Commencement: with 5500 graduates, at the rate of 6 seconds per handshake, we’d be conferring degrees for a little over nine hours. And just imagine what would happen if we tried to actually hand out diplomas—and got the envelopes in the boxes out of order by just one name.

I’ve been president at Cornell for two and a half years now, and this is my sixth Commencement—and that means my sixth commencement speech. Before I gave the first one, I took a totally unscientific poll of my new colleagues and discovered a truth that probably shouldn’t have been too surprising: almost no one remembered anything their own commencement speakers had said.

While this was reassuring at first, after a while, I started to see it as a challenge. After all, the entire point of ending a university education involving roughly 1,680 lectures with lecture number 1,681 is that there should be some new piece of knowledge shared. If nobody remembers it, what’s the point? So, like any good academic, I did my research into what made a speech resonate with its listeners.

A few years ago, Admiral William H. McRaven of the University of Texas system set the bar impossibly high for the rest of us with a speech on “If you want to change the world, start by making your bed.” That speech is closing in on 10 million YouTube views, and I can only wonder how many neatly made beds. (If I had to guess—probably fewer beds than YouTube views.)

Twenty-four years ago, the late New York Times columnist Russell Baker got up in front of a class of Connecticut College graduates and gave them one word of advice about going out into the world: “Don’t.” The graduates all laughed, but I’m sure the Connecticut College president cringed. We presidents like our graduates to graduate.

The most memorable speeches, I quickly realized, chose the simplest messages. Make your bed. Wear sunscreen. Never give in. It’s a useful tool for building a speech: you can use one imperative to say so many things. A few months ago, at new student convocation, I told our entering class to make it a point to talk with one another and work to build new friendships. I told them to embrace difference and be open to new experiences. I don’t know if they remember any of that, but I know they remember how I told them to do it: by taking off their headphones. (If you’re wondering how I know—it’s because at least once a week this semester, I’d pass someone on campus who would wave to get my attention, point to their ears and say “Look! No headphones!”)

But the uncomfortable truth of this world of ours is that there isn’t much pithy advice that really is applicable to everyone and every situation. Make your bed? Plenty of people have changed the world without doing it once. Wear sunscreen? The research on that isn’t as clear as it used to be. Never give in? With all due respect to Mr. Churchill, sometimes the best thing we can do in life is admit we were wrong, learn from it, and move on. I stand by “take off your headphones” as good advice, but there’s a time and a place for most things, and sometimes, you’ve got a prelim in the morning, you need everyone to leave you alone, and headphones are the way forward. (Although none of you have that specific excuse anymore).

Whatever each of you studied at Cornell, I hope you came away with the understanding that the world we live in is complex. Our experiences are unique, our paths will diverge, and one person’s answer is another’s question. So it’s not easy to pick one piece of advice that will apply to all of you, that will carry forward what you learned at Cornell, and that you might even remember once you walk out those doors.

But if there is one word—one single imperative for all of you, as you leave Cornell for whatever lies ahead—it’s the same word that your first-grade teacher probably used, and that you probably saw on a poster on the wall of the first library you ever visited.

One word: Read.

Read books. Read fiction. Read history. Read long-form journalism, and poetry, and biographies.

Don’t just read the news, or academic journals, or law briefs, or research papers. Definitely don’t just read your Twitter and Instagram feeds.

Read what you can lose yourself in. Read what you love. Read what makes you happy—and read what makes you feel. Read, to continue to learn about your world—and read, to enter a world that belongs to someone else.

Books, as Stephen King once put it, are a uniquely portable magic: an act of telepathy across distance and time. They’re a way to connect me, and here, and now, to anyone, and anywhere, and anytime. They’re a way to look right inside the mind and soul of people you could never meet—even people who never existed at all. And they’re a way—maybe the only way—to look out at the world from behind someone else’s eyes. To see it as it’s seen by someone who is not like you.

I hope that all of you, in your time at Cornell, have learned to do just that—to see things from a different point of view. Whether you were here for two years, or four, or more than that—you didn’t just acquire knowledge; you learned how to learn. You didn’t just make friends; you became one. You didn’t just meet people who were different—you learned what difference meant. You’ve lived in a community of diversity and curiosity, of experiment and exploration. You’ve learned to value not just knowledge, but the many winding paths we take to find it. And I hope you all developed, in your time at Cornell, the one skill that is more essential in this world than it has ever been before: how to learn with, and from, any person and any study.

What I’m asking you to do, when I ask you to read—is to carry that Cornell ethos of seeking truth and valuing knowledge, of embracing diversity and bridging difference, out with you—tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that.

So—read.

Read to understand what is in the world that you can’t see, can’t touch, can’t experience on your own. If you do that—the Cornell education you began here will never truly end.

And when you return your gown, pack up your apartment, eat your last Cornell ice cream, and move on to whatever lies ahead—wherever you go, remember what you learned here in Ithaca. And remember to bring a book.

Congratulations to all of you. Cornell will always be part of you, just as you will always be a part of Cornell.