Speeches & Writings

149th Cornell University Commencement Address

by Martha E. Pollack, President

As prepared for delivery
May 28, 2017
Ithaca, New York


Good morning and congratulations! Class of 2017 and candidates for advanced degrees, we are so very proud of each and every one of you!

Thank you all for being here. Special thanks to the Cornell Board of Trustees, and to Vice President Joe Biden, whose address yesterday set a new standard for the Senior Class Convocation. When the Trustees hired me, they neglected to tell me that my first major address as president would come on the heels of one by Joe Biden! Talk about a hard act to follow. . .

But here we are, and I guess it won’t do for me to simply reference Vice President Biden and assert “What he said” . . .

So let’s start and let’s start with something very important: acknowledging the many family and friends of today’s graduates, those here in Schoellkopf Stadium as well as those watching the livestream. Graduates, I know you’ll agree that without their love and support, you wouldn’t be here today, and that even though you thanked them yesterday, it’s worth doing so again today. So if you know where your family and friends are sitting, please stand and wave at them. If you don’t know, just wave!

On a serious note, I ask that we take a moment to remember those no longer with us, whose commencement this would have been. We honor those we lost from the graduating class each year by leaving an empty chair on the field. Their families and friends are in our thoughts today.

Since I started as president here only six weeks ago, I have had just a few opportunities to get to know the graduates. But it has been a real pleasure to meet some of you individually, for example at your Senior Class Reception, where I discovered that you like your music to be very loud, at meetings of the Student Assembly and with student leaders, and of course at yesterday’s Ice Cream Social on the Arts Quad. And you being the Instagram generation, we’ve posed—in these and other encounters—for a lot of selfies.

In fact, let’s get that out of the way: we on the platform will all smile while you take a selfie with us in the background right now. . . . And now, I want a selfie with all of you.

This is a moment of transition for you, graduates. Big transitions are important: it’s why we mark them with celebrations like the one we are participating in now. They’re times for reflection…for looking backwards at what you’ve experienced and learned, and looking forward, toward what you’ll do next, to the next adventure.

Earlier this year, as he faced a different life transition—retirement—Daniel Fried took the opportunity to share his reflections with his staff. Now, I suspect that most of you have no idea who Daniel Fried is, so let me tell you. Fried is a career diplomat, who served in the federal government for 40 years, under six presidents—Republicans and Democrats—starting in 1977. He worked mainly in Eastern Europe—Russia, Serbia, Poland—and in Washington, D.C. He was an embassy political officer, an ambassador, a political counselor, a special envoy and more. And he is a Cornell alumnus, Class of 1974.

As you can imagine, with a career like that, Daniel Fried experienced many events that must have seemed quite improbable when he began in 1977: things like the victory of the Polish Solidarity movement, the fall of the Berlin wall, and the breakup of the Soviet Union.

As he reflected on such events in his retirement speech, Ambassador Fried said this: “I learned never to underestimate the possibility of change, that values have power, and that time and patience can pay off, especially if you are serious about your objectives.”

Yesterday, Vice President Biden also counseled you not to underestimate the possibility of change—to recognize that while you are graduating into a world with significant challenges, so too have previous generations of students, who have frequently met those challenges head on and made changes the world needed to be a better place. In fact, said Vice President Biden, you, the class of 2017, have an incredibly strong basis on which to make positive change.

So where do you start? Listen again to your fellow Cornellian, Ambassador Fried: Recognize, he said, that values have power. Thus, if you want to create meaningful change, a good place to start is by clarifying your own values.

Cornell, like all strong institutions, has a set of core principles that inform the values it holds dear. I suspect that these principles played a role in your decision to come here—they were certainly a large part of what brought me to Ithaca. And they formed an important backdrop for your experiences as a student. As you leave this university, it is worth thinking about Cornell’s principles and values, considering what role they’ve played in your education, and then making a conscious decision about whether you will carry them with you, making them the foundation of the change you enact in the world.

A fundamental Cornell principle is its commitment to discovery—that is, advancing, preserving, and transmitting knowledge and culture. In a great university like this, there is a tight connection between two types of discovery: the discovery that occurs in the learning process, when you “discover” something new to you, and the discovery that occurs in research, scholarship, and creative endeavor, when you discover something new to the world.

For more than 150 years, Cornell has excelled at both types of discovery, with faculty who reflect the sentiment of Andrew Dickson White, Cornell’s first president, when he wrote that “the power of discovering truth and the power of imparting it are almost invariably found together.”

Take, for example, Theodore Lowi, the John L. Senior Professor of American Institutions Emeritus, who passed away this spring. Professor Lowi was one of the “giants” in political science (with a specialty in American politics). He taught at Cornell for more than 35 years, mesmerizing generations of Cornell students with his deep knowledge, sharp wit, and southern drawl. As important as Professor Lowi’s scholarship is—he was even named the “nation’s most influential political scientist” by the American Political Science Association at one point—one of his most enduring legacies is an education initiative, the Cornell-in-Washington Program, which Lowi helped to create with President Emeritus Frank Rhodes.  Professor Lowi exemplified the interconnection between the two types of discovery that are cherished here at Cornell. I’m told, by the way, that he also cherished something else that Cornell values: as a high school student, he worked part time scooping ice cream at a dairy in his home town in Alabama, becoming a lifelong aficionado, with a particular penchant for vanilla with chocolate sauce.

As a university committed to discovery and the search for truth, we also have a commitment to freedom of speech and expression.  As the late President Elizabeth Garrett put it, “[A] university is about the fullest and freest expression of ideas and arguments. There isn’t any idea that ought not to be tested and questioned. Because that’s how we get closer to the truth. We’re about reason, rationality, debate. . . if you disagree with someone, the answer isn’t to shut them down.”

A commitment to free expression can be a challenging principle to uphold, as doing so means that you must be willing to allow to be said things that you find offensive, and you must be prepared, when necessary, to stand up and refute such messages, and to explicitly and vigorously support those whose dignity may have been compromised by them. But it is through that vigorous defense, not through enforced silence, that you move forward.

Beyond that, you must ensure that all voices have a chance to be heard, paying particular attention to those whose voices historically have been ignored, ensuring that they are not left out of the conversation. You must value diversity and you must commit to egalitarianism.

And indeed, since its founding, Cornell has had a deep commitment to that most American of principles, which Vice President Biden also called out yesterday: that all people are created equal.

Let me quote again from Cornell’s first president, Andrew Dickson White (who, I can’t help but mention, was the first of six presidents to date to come from the University of Michigan). Writing to a potential benefactor a few years before the university was formed, White explained his intention “to secure a place where the most highly prized instruction may be afforded to all—regardless of sex or color.”  What a radical idea in the 1860s.

Despite good intentions, we haven’t always gotten it right. It’s clear, for example, that it has been easier to achieve compositional diversity at Cornell than to create a fully inclusive environment. But a commitment to egalitarianism has been there from our beginning, and it remains a core value for Cornell, one that is inextricably linked with the commitment to discovery and the commitment to free speech.

Let me mention just one other Cornell value that has almost certainly shaped your time here: respect for the natural environment. I don’t think many people can spend time on the Ithaca campus without being moved by this beautiful land kept faithfully for so many generations by the Cayuga people, upon whose ancestral home this campus sits.

Sapsucker Woods, the Cornell Botanic Gardens, and our spectacular gorges have been part of your Cornell experience, as they have been for generations of Cornellians and for all who have made these lands their home.

The Haudenosaunee, the confederacy that includes the Cayuga people, have an ancient set of principles—the Honorable Harvest—that requires the enjoyment of nature’s bounty in a sustainable way. This same principle is also important to Cornell.

These four principles—commitment to discovery and the search for truth, to freedom of speech, to diversity and egalitarianism, and to respect for the natural environment—are among the things this university cherishes most. There is more of course, including a deep sense of community, and of cooperation and personal respect.

What I am asking you to do is to think carefully about the values that have been central to your experience over the past four years—possibly the most transformational years you will ever experience. Perhaps you will choose to carry them all forward with you; perhaps you will choose only some; almost certainly you will adopt others. But understand what your own values are, because “values have power,” and you can only harness that power if you’re clear about your values.

And don’t forgot the final piece of advice from Ambassador Fried to his colleagues in the State Department: “Time and patience can pay off, especially if you’re serious about your objectives.”

Graduates, as you work towards real change, you need to be patient—patient with the pace of that change, and patient with yourself. Patience doesn’t mean you don’t pursue change vigorously. It means that you don’t lose sight of your goal and that you understand it may take time to achieve it. Remember that most meaningful activities are marathons, not sprints: they take sustained effort. But never doubt your ability to influence the world for the better. That is what Cornellians have done, in ways large and small, since this university’s founding.

And, finally: find joy in what you do. Perhaps when you were a child, someone read you books about Winnie the Pooh. Pooh is one of my favorite characters from literature, and, in part, it is because of this conversation that he has with his friend Piglet:

“‘What day is it?’ [asks Pooh]

‘It’s today’, squeaked Piglet.

‘My favorite day,’ said Pooh.”

Graduates, I hope you take the knowledge you’ve gained, the habits of mind you’ve developed, and the values you’ve acquired while at Cornell, and use them to live a life in which—because you are making a difference—nearly every day is your favorite day.

And one more thing: I hope you’ll come back to campus as often as you can…to reconnect, to re-center, to re-energize…and of course to eat ice cream.

Class of 2017 and candidates for advanced degrees: Cornell will always be a part of you, and you will always be a part of Cornell. Congratulations to you all!