Speeches & Writings

150th Cornell University Commencement Address

by Martha E. Pollack, President

As prepared for delivery
May 27, 2018
Ithaca, New York

Good morning everyone, and welcome to Cornell’s 150th Commencement!

Commencement is always a special day for a university, but this is a particularly special one, because it’s Cornell’s sesquicentennial commencement: it’s the 150th time we’ve celebrated a graduating class. So graduates, today you are not only making your own history, you’re also making history for Cornell!

I’ve spoken at literally dozens of commencement ceremonies over the years, and I always wake up on commencement morning profoundly happy, and with a deep sense of excitement. After all, it’s my last opportunity to offer advice to the students before they officially become alumni.

I realize, though, that not everyone may be as excited about the prospect of a commencement speech as I am. Last month I was walking through the lobby of the Statler Hotel on my way to give remarks at the Senior Gala—a formal dance organized by members of the graduating class. I passed one of our students, who had his back to me, and as I did, I heard him clearly say to the two friends he was with, “Let’s go get a drink. I’d rather do that than listen to President Pollack give a (and here I’m paraphrasing) gosh-darn speech.” His friends were facing me, and they just cracked up. He then turned around, saw me, and—well, it was a priceless moment!

I hope you’re not feeling that way this morning, but just in case, I will try to be brief, and will limit myself to just one piece of advice.

But first, let me congratulate you. Class of 2018 and candidates for advanced degrees: you deserve to be proud of yourselves. Cornell is known to be a university where students work hard—very hard—and we’re not ashamed of that. To get to this day, you’ve not only developed the habits of mind of an educated person—you not only have learned to think critically, to communicate clearly, to reason both qualitatively and quantitatively, and to appreciate the arts. You’ve also learned, I trust, to reach out across difference and listen to and synthesize the perspectives of those who bring different backgrounds and ideas to the table. You have learned to persist, to work hard, and you’ve learned the joy that comes with the accomplishments your hard work brings. All of that will serve you well for a lifetime.

You would not have gotten here, though, without the love, support, and encouragement of your family and friends, both those gathered here in Schoellkopf Stadium, and those celebrating with you from afar, watching the livestream today. It is so important to acknowledge them and thank them. So, if you know where your family and friends are sitting, please stand and wave to them, and if you don’t, that’s ok, just stand and wave.

On a serious note, let us all 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 by leaving an empty chair on the field. Their families and friends are in our thoughts today.

Now, on to that piece of advice.

It has to do with heroes and with heroism. We live in tumultuous times, and in such times, it is very helpful to have some heroes. I’m not thinking of Iron Man and his friends in the latest Avengers movie, but of something more personal: real people who have stood fast and taken difficult actions in the face of enormous challenges.

My office here at Cornell is decorated with many things. There are three large oil paintings, done by artists from China and from the United States in the mid-20th century, loaned to me by the Johnson Museum. There is a 3D replica of the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft, built and given to me by the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science and the Department of Astronomy, memorializing Cornell’s participation in this spacecraft’s amazing journey. There is a clock that I treasure, which was given to me by the faculty of a school where I was a dean, and there’s a Korean painting that some Cornell alumni gave me when I visited Seoul.

But what I perhaps value the most is a large photo I have of Nelson Mandela, taken and given to me by the great photojournalist David Turnley. You probably know the photo: Mandela is in his 70s wearing a white button-down shirt, standing in the prison cell he had once occupied at Robben Island, his arm extended to the barred window, a pensive expression on his face as he gazes out of it.

I often ask myself what he was thinking about as that photo was taken. Was he thinking about the 27 years he spent in prison for actions he had taken to rid his nation of apartheid? Was he thinking about all that he’d accomplished since then? Or perhaps, was he thinking about what he hadn’t accomplished—about all the work that remained for South Africa to become the kind of society he envisioned?

I keep that photograph on my wall, because Nelson Mandela is one of my heroes. He’s a hero to me because of his beliefs and because of his actions. He stood for equality and for the essential dignity of all human beings, and he took courageous steps to move his nation toward one that reflected those principles.

Importantly, he also believed in forgiveness and reconciliation as essential to progress. It has always seemed to me remarkable that, after he was released from prison and became president of South Africa, he invited his white jailer to his inauguration ceremony. He did that because he understood that as a leader, he needed to demonstrate clearly the level of grace his country needed to exhibit in order to move forward.

Nelson Mandela is also a hero to me personally because of his deep respect for and understanding of the value of education. As he once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.”

Now Mandela may be a hero, but he was not a superhero. He certainly made mistakes, in both his professional and personal life, ranging from his approach to the AIDS crisis in South Africa to his interactions with his wife. I recognize that, but he remains a hero to me: made of flesh and blood, and thus imperfect, unlike superheroes who are mere cartoon characters.

One more thing about Mandela, which is obvious, but bears noting: in so many ways he was not “like” me. He was not the same sex, or nationality, or race, or religion. To my mind, it’s important to have heroes who are “like” us, but there’s nothing wrong with also having heroes who are quite different.

I have other heroes, of course. The author Louise Erdrich, for example. Erdrich, when she was young, seemed to have everything: a glamorous life, a high profile and apparently very close marriage to her sometimes co-author Michael Dorris, a bevy of children, and enormous talent that showed itself in her award-winning novels. And then, the unthinkable happened: while she and Dorris were estranged, he committed suicide amidst rumors of criminal child sexual abuse. Erdrich could have collapsed in on herself, but she didn’t, nor did she publicly display anger. Indeed, she pled for “respect and dignity” for Dorris after his death, and she went on, writing many additional outstanding novels and demonstrating a different kind of heroism, a remarkable resilience in the face of personal tragedy, and a commitment to continuing to impact the world through the creation of mesmerizing works of literature.

And then there’s a student I’ll call Frank, to protect his identity. I first met Frank when he was a sophomore in a discrete math course I was teaching many years ago. Frank couldn’t seem to sit still, and he often shouted out comments at inappropriate moments. You see, Frank struggled with Autism Spectrum Disorder. But Frank was smart and he was determined, and when he enrolled in my artificial intelligence course as a senior two years later, it was clear that he’d worked extremely hard to position himself to be an effective part of collaborative teams, something that would be important in his planned career in software engineering. Frank went on to get a master’s degree in information science, and when he crossed the stage and gave me a hug, his mother, in the audience, was in tears. He got a good job locally, and then, a few years after graduation, came to my office to tell me that he’d found another job, and was moving across the country to California to take it. This was a huge and brave step toward independence by a young man who had so far always lived at home with his parents. Frank is a hero to me for his refusal to be held to limits, and for his willingness to act courageously in taking steps that would enable him to achieve his goals.

Three very different people, but all, to me, heroes. And why does that matter? Why am I talking with you about heroes?

First, because heroes can provide you with hope. In those moments when it feels like the world is filled with people who are behaving badly, calling to mind your heroes can remind you that there are also people who demonstrate what it means to live as one’s best self, and who demonstrate that doing so really matters.

And, second, having heroes can provide a source of courage. You can remind yourself of what your heroes have been able to do, and use that recollection as way to bolster yourself. Surely, you tell yourself, if he (or she or ze) has done X, then I can do Y. I turn to that photo of Mandela on my wall, and think, “If he could withstand 27 years of imprisonment in order to improve conditions for the minorities in South Africa, then for sure I can put up with whatever is blowing my way as I try to do what’s best for Cornell.”

So, find yourself some heroes. They can be people you know or people you admire from afar. They can be similar to you in some respects, and different in others. And when you are faced with challenges, use the hope and courage that your heroes inspire in you to be your best self. Remember that your heroes are people, not superheroes, and you, like them, can do things you’d perhaps not have thought possible.

As is so often true, the deceptively simple poetry of Emily Dickinson says this so well:

We never know how high we are
Till we are asked to rise
And then if we are true to plan
Our statures touch the skies —

The Heroism we recite
Would be a normal thing
Did not ourselves the Cubits warp
For fear to be a King

Don’t fear. Find yourself heroes, and be a hero. Your Cornell education has provided the foundation on which to do this.

Finally, to the student at the Statler who wanted to get that drink. I don’t know your name, but I expect that you’re here today, and so—quite seriously, I want to thank you. After all, you gave me the hook to start my commencement comments, so I’d say we’re even! Please find me after the ceremonies, and we’ll take a selfie together, and please come back for your reunion in 5 years, and we can do it again.

In fact, I very much want all of you to come back and visit…frequently. Cornell will always be a part of you, and you will always be a part of Cornell.

Members of Cornell’s 150th graduating class: Congratulations to you all!