Speeches & Writings

Recognition of December 2021 Graduates

by Martha E. Pollack, President

As prepared for delivery
Saturday, December 18, 2021


It’s hard to believe that we’re once again having to do a commencement remotely, but this virus has proven not to care about what we want.

I was so looking forward to your commencement: I always love December commencement, which is smaller, but no less joyous than our May commencement ceremony.

Had things gone as planned, I would have shared with you some thoughts that arise from some of my favorite quotations. Why don’t I do that anyway? I’d like to share with you, very briefly, three lessons, based on three of those quotes.

I’ll start with one by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Of all the things he had on his mind when he wrote his essay on self-reliance, a pandemic 180 years later certainly was not on the list. But if I had to come up with a motto for living in these pandemic times, one of the top contenders would be: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

The world is not static, and neither are we; and as the world around us changes—whether rapidly or slowly—so does what we know. As the pandemic has evolved, so has our understanding of it. The best knowledge we had yesterday isn’t the same as the best knowledge we have today. And as Cornellians, who strive for discernment and truth, and who respect science, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

So as your knowledge moves forward—as you move knowledge forward in the years ahead—make sure that your opinions and your ideas keep pace with what you know. Because the ability to adapt to new information is what lets us respond in the best possible ways—whether it’s how we approach a problem or a relationship, or how we live in a pandemic.

The second quote is a paraphrase of a line from Voltaire, and it’s one that I find myself repeating at least once a week, usually to my leadership team: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” The world is complex and messy, and if we wait for the perfect solution, we risk winding up with no solution at all. So don’t be afraid to be incremental. Know where you’re willing to compromise, and where you’re not. Then make the best choices you can with the resources you have.

Those of you who are finishing your doctorates——you all know the corollary to this dictum.

There are two kinds of dissertation: perfect ones and finished ones.

Now it’s time for the third quote. But this quote isn’t really a quote at all. It’s just two words that have been said often enough that no one person has the right to claim them. Which is a good thing, because they might be the most important two words there are: “Be kind.”

They’re words I say again and again and again to myself and to others, inside my head and out loud. Because kindness matters, and it matters a lot.

I won’t belabor the reasons it matters; I’ll simply say that the only way any of us have gotten through the last 21 months—and the only way we’ll keep going on—is by expressing grace, and kindness to one another.

Together, we’ve spent much of the last two years adjusting to new realities, and changes of plan, the most recent change being this ceremony online. And yet today, we celebrate the fact that even with those changes you’ve completed your degrees and are setting sail as new Cornell alumni.

So yet again, let me congratulate you. And remember Cornell will always be a part of you, just as you will always be a part of Cornell. Congratulations to each and every one of you.