Speeches & Writings

Remarks at the Fall 2021 New Student Convocation

by Martha E. Pollack, President

As prepared for delivery
Wednesday, August 25, 2021
Ithaca, New York

Good afternoon, everyone!

We call this event New Student Convocation, but this year, not only do we have new freshmen and transfer students here with us, but we’ve also invited our returning sophomores, who didn’t have the opportunity to participate in this event in person last year.

Let’s hear it, how many freshmen do we have in the stands?

And how many returning and transfer students?

Welcome to all of you! It is great to have you here on campus, here in person, and here together in beautiful, sunny—maybe a little bit too sunny—Ithaca.

When I checked the weather this morning and saw it was going to be 90 degrees, with a “real feel” of 98, all I could think was, boy am I glad today is New Student Convocation and not Commencement: so you’re not all in black caps and big black gowns!

At last year’s New Student Convocation, the weather didn’t matter, because the event was held virtually. I had taped my remarks, here in Schoellkopf Field—it was just me, the camera operator, and rows of very empty bleachers. It is so much nicer being here with all of you!

When I was thinking about what to say to you today, I thought back to what I had said the last time I addressed new Cornellians in person at a New Student Convocation, in August of 2019: two years and a lifetime ago. And thanks to YouTube, ten seconds after I thought about it, there my 2019 self was on my screen, giving my 2021 self a dispatch from a pre-pandemic Cornell.

It was a cloudy day—or as we like to call it here in Ithaca, “partly sunny.” I was standing right where I’m standing right now, looking up at a few thousand new Cornellians. And like any university president welcoming new students, I was there not just to welcome them—but also to offer them some advice. But I knew that new Cornellians have a lot on their minds—you’ve got dorm rooms to organize, parents to say goodbye to, and a really big campus to start finding your way around—so I didn’t want to make it too complicated. I wanted whatever I said to be clear, concise, and easy to remember. And I wanted the advice I gave to be just as relevant on the day our new students graduated as it was on the day they arrived.

So I looked for a good, memorable metaphor, and I found one that fit the bill. It was short—only four words. It seemed like the perfect way to tell our new students to take full advantage of this diverse and remarkable academic community; to listen to new ideas, seek out new experiences, and build friendships and relationships with people different from themselves. An easy-to-remember way to tell them not to close themselves off from the voices around them, but to listen to them, engage with them, and learn from them.

That perfect metaphor—the four words that seemed, at the time, so apt and so ageless—were “Take off your headphones.”

It was apt, and it was memorable: for the rest of the semester, at least once a week, I’d be walking across campus and someone walking in the other direction would smile at me, point at their ears and say, “Look! No headphones!”

Ageless it was not. Because as we all know, seven months later the pandemic hit. We moved to virtual instruction; and pretty much all of us were experiencing Cornell primarily through our headphones—or at least our webcam speakers.

I still stand by “take off your headphones,” as good advice—whenever you’re not on a Zoom. And I still really like it as a metaphor for opening your mind to the people and experiences around you. But a lot has changed between August 2019 and August 2021, and all of us have learned a lot along the way. So today, I want to share with you not one, but two pieces of advice, based on our experiences here at Cornell over these past two years.

Two pieces of advice that go right to the heart of who we are at Cornell; how we’ve kept our community together and moving forward during this extraordinary era; and what I want all of you to remember from today—not just through your first few days here on campus, but throughout your years at Cornell and beyond.

The first piece of advice—the first two words:

Respect knowledge.

Cornell University is, first and foremost, an academic institution. Our mission is to discover, preserve, and disseminate knowledge; to educate the next generation of global citizens; and to promote a broad culture of inquiry throughout and beyond the Cornell community. And over the course of this pandemic, we’ve found these goals to be intertwined in ways we had never experienced before. Knowledge now grows and evolves and changes daily—sometimes hourly. We’ve relied on the knowledge and expertise within and beyond our community to operate our university safely, and we’ve committed as well to contributing to that knowledge. We’ve found new ways to teach and to learn; and ways to reimagine, when we needed to, the experiences of a residential university.

We’ve relied on science to advance our knowledge. Science is an approach to knowledge that says, knowledge is not static. It grows as we seek it, evolves as we share it, and develops as we build it—because in science, knowledge is based on evidence. And as an institution committed to science and to truth, we embrace the idea that as our evidence changes, so does what we know.

That commitment—to respect knowledge, respect science, and base our decisions on evidence—has been key to our ability to manage the pandemic as it’s unfolded. It means that we make and change our plans, not on the basis of what seems intuitive, or what was true last month, but on the best data we have now. When we chose to reopen our university last year, in a pandemic, we chose to be guided by science—not despite the fact that the science is always changing, but because of it.

In a world without a map, knowledge and science hand us a compass. They give us the ability to discern data from disinformation; to evaluate evidence; to choose a direction based on that evidence; and to change direction as that evidence evolves. When we respect knowledge and science—when we use that compass well—we have the tools to plot the best possible course of action.

And that brings me to my second piece of advice: the second two words. They’re short, and simple, and if you only remember two words of everything I’m saying today, remember these two:

Be kind.

Because of everything we’ve learned throughout this pandemic, perhaps the most important lesson is that respecting knowledge and science is necessary, but it’s not enough. We also need to respect each other.

One person who’s wearing a mask, who’s vaccinated, who’s committed to staying home when they’re feeling under the weather, who does everything the science indicates—that one person still won’t be safe, unless the people around them care that they’re safe—care enough to wear their masks, and vaccinate, and stay home too.

Knowledge gives us a compass. But kindness is what gets us down the road. To quote an African proverb one of my mentors was fond of sharing: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”

In this volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world, there actually is no such thing as going it alone. As we work together to create and share the science and the knowledge that we will all need in the years to come—to overcome this pandemic and those that will follow; to slow the changes to our climate and build more resilient societies; to combat the enormous issues of inequality, both nationally and globally; and to create the art, music, and literature that help us connect with each other—we will need both the compass of our minds, and the compass of our souls.

Both of them are essential to our planet and our future. Both of them are essential to your educations, and your lives, as Cornellians.

So as you start your semester, and move forward toward your degrees, I’m going to ask you to chart your course with knowledge, and with kindness. Measure your progress both with the skills you build and the competence you gain—and with the connections and the respect and the kindness shared between yourself and your fellow travelers.

I am so glad to have you all as Cornellians, and I wish you success in all your journeys. Welcome to you all.