Speeches & Writings

December Recognition Ceremony for Fall 2022 Graduates

by Martha E. Pollack, President

As prepared for delivery
December 18, 2022

Thank you, Provost Kotlikoff.

Good morning families, good morning friends, and good morning graduates!


Before I say another word, I want to ask our graduates to 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 of the nicest things about December graduation is that, unlike May Commencement in Schoellkopf, our graduates can see the people they’re waving and yelling at. And no matter what the weather’s like outside, it’s always dry inside Barton.

This is our first in-person December commencement since 2019, and I am so excited to be here with all of you. I have a warm spot in my heart for all commencements, which celebrate the terrific accomplishments of our students, and which are always filled with so much joy. But a December commencement is its own kind of terrific—and not just because we know we won’t get wet. It’s a super happy party on a quiet campus, a day that’s extra bright no matter what time it’s going to get dark outside. Whether you’re graduating early or took some extra time, transferred to Cornell or within it, encountered challenges and overcame them, or came to Cornell as a nontraditional student, every one of you traveled your own path as you earned your degrees.

In a world where the ability to adapt and move forward is more important than ever before — you are all living proof of just how many different, and successful paths there are to a Cornell education. And today, we celebrate you all.

The 700 graduates in Barton Hall today are just some of the 1,575 Cornellians who have completed their degrees since May, across the range of knowledge and creativity, learning and discovery, at Cornell. While your experiences have taken turns you never imagined when you submitted your applications, each and every one of you has succeeded in attaining what you came here for: not just a Cornell degree, but a Cornell education.

It's an occupational hazard of being a university president that we spend a lot of our time thinking about education: what it should look like, what its goals should be, and how to make it better, more effective, and—yes—more joyful. Because learning, exploration, and discovery should be joyful. They’re things all of us are hardwired to do, from the moment we’re born.

A few months ago, I was on a Zoom with my daughter. She’s also an academic, and we were having one of those conversations that academics seem to have whenever there are two in a room, whether it’s a Zoom room or a room IRL—a conversation about research funding, or the relative merits of journals and conference, or free speech on campus. At some point in this very serious conversation between two adults with PhDs there appeared my grandson, who was at the time about a year and a half old. He had just made an exciting discovery of his own:

The remote control.

All babies are scientists, and as we talked, my grandson started to investigate. It was the remote control for the ceiling light, which, he quickly learned, didn’t just turn the light on and off, but, even more exciting, made it dimmer and brighter.

As my daughter and I continued our very academic conversation about opportunities and challenges in higher education, the lights started going on and off, and getting dimmer and brighter, as he worked out each of the controls, getting more and more excited with each new finding. As we were starting in on the question of academic versus industry career paths, he started to dance around the living room holding the remote control over his head, and shrieking “light, light, light!” at the top of his small but very powerful lungs.

While it might have ended our conversation, it also illustrated it:

With the starting point of every educational journey—the joy of discovery.

At its most fundamental, the purpose of an education—and its core challenge—is taking that joy of discovery, that enthusiasm for learning that we’re all born with, and finding ways to channel it, feed it, and make it last a lifetime—so that it can, in turn, feed our lives, in ways that will make them more joyful, more meaningful, and more worthwhile. Education isn’t primarily about teaching facts: indeed, today you can pretty quickly Google most facts, or just ask Siri. Good education is about developing in students skills, and values, and priorities, and habits of mind—the ones that will keep those students learning and growing, not just until they’re ready for careers, but every day of their lives.

Isaac Asimov once wrote that the most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” but, “That’s funny.”

“That’s funny,” reflects something very basic—the realization that something in the world around us is different from what we expected, and we want to know why. A good education isn’t one that hands us the answers to all of our questions. It’s one that provides the tools and, just as important, nurtures the desire, to ask, and answer, our own questions about the world. To identify and evaluate problems, to explore and develop potential solutions. To work with and learn from others, even, and especially, when they’re different from ourselves. To appreciate the beauty and wonder in the world around us, and find joy in exploring it—whether through art, or literature, or music, or science—or any of the disciplines you’re receiving your degrees in today.

For all of you, for however long you’ve been here, Cornell has been a place for discovery. Of personal discovery, through your classwork and your studies, and everything you did and learned outside the classroom. And, for many of you, including everyone receiving a Ph.D., it’s also been a place of human discovery, as you’ve added to the body of human knowledge through your research. You’ve all learned intellectual humility, and the importance of other perspectives; and you’ve also learned to appreciate how much you don’t know. That category of knowledge is, and always will be, infinitely large, and infinitely expanding. And that, in itself, is something infinitely exciting.

Which is why world-class research universities, like Cornell, are just that: research universities. There are stand-alone research institutes, including very fine ones; and very fine institutions that focus almost exclusively on teaching. But the very best universities in the world, like ours, are focused both on teaching, and on research. And I believe it’s because both teaching and research have the same central focus of discovery. Our faculty push the boundaries of human knowledge ever outward through their research, as they help our students expand the boundaries of their own knowledge. Faculty are people who have chosen to spend their lives in the joy of discovery, and to share that joy with the generations that follow.

Or, as Cornellian Bill Nye—better known as Bill Nye the Science Guy—put it, “The essence of a Cornell education is learning to feel the joy of discovery.” And keeping that joy of discovery alive, keeping it a focus of your life, will enrich it and deepen your lives, whatever lies ahead.

Every one of you has just spent the last few years of your lives earning the degrees we’re celebrating today. And you know—we all know—that not every moment spent seeking discovery is going to be a moment of joy. It’s hard work, difficult work, challenging work, and it’s not always easy to keep that joy and excitement alive. There are setbacks and difficulties, complex problems to solve or live alongside, situations that aren’t always clear or well defined. The remote control and the flashing lights give way to the lab experiments that fail, or the paper that just doesn’t seem to come together. The tasks become more complicated, the effort becomes greater—but so does the reward.

If you want to keep experiencing the joy of discovery, throughout your lives, you have to be open to it. You have to maintain a level of intellectual humility, recognizing that there’s always—always—more to learn, and recognizing that so often, what you know or think you know, may in fact not be correct or not be totally correct, or perhaps is subject to different interpretations. That’s one (but just one) of the reasons that we so emphasize interactions across difference here. In Bayesian terms, learn to question your priors: don’t assume that the assumptions you bring to each interaction are correct. Stay open to the idea that there’s always more to learn. When the next remote control doesn’t seem to turn the ceiling light on, don’t assume that it’s broken: it may that it controls the fan, or the air conditioning, or the television instead. If you throw it away—you’re throwing away all of those experiences you haven’t yet discovered.

As we celebrate your Cornell degrees, my wish, for each of you, is that the Cornell education you came here for will never truly end; and that you will carry the joy of discovery with you, wherever you go.

And now, graduates of the Class of 2023: upon the recommendation of the faculty of your respective colleges, and by the authority vested in me by the Trustees of Cornell University, I hereby confer upon each of you the degrees appropriate to your fields of study with all the rights, privileges, honors, and responsibilities pertaining thereto.

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

Congratulations to you all.