Speeches & Writings

2022 New Student Convocation Address

by Martha E. Pollack, President

August 21, 2022


Good morning everyone, and welcome to Cornell!

Whether you’re a new first-year student or a transfer, wherever you’re from, whatever your goals or your background — from today, all of you are Cornellians.

Before I say any more — you’re probably wondering why I’m not there in person with you: after all, we all thought we were finally done with things like Zoom convocations. It’s a pretty boring explanation: I had knee replacement surgery a few weeks ago, and it’s still a little challenging to do things like walk across the stadium field or sit in a chair for an hour. But don’t worry, I’ll be back on campus in just a couple more weeks, and I hope you’ll say hi to me when our paths cross.

For now, in between physical therapy and getting ready for the new semester, I’ve been thinking about what I could say today that would help you to make the most of your time here.

And the most important thing I want you to know is that every one of you beginning your Cornell education belongs here. And I do mean everyone.

Our admissions office is the best in the business, and if you’re here, it’s because they saw in you the potential to make a real contribution to our community and the world. You’re also here because you are ambitious, and inquisitive, and able to take advantage of what Cornell has to offer: a world-class education that will enable you to go just about anywhere from here. I can’t say it strongly enough: you are a Cornellian, and you deserve to be one!

The class of 2026 is one of the most extraordinary and diverse classes ever to come to Cornell, with more than 4,000 students representing every U.S. state and 85 countries. (Most years, I have to say, “every state except…” but this year we got all 50.) You are artists and scientists, musicians and athletes, writers and activists. And many of you are still figuring out your identity: that’s just fine. Today, each of you is also part of this university, with its tradition, now 157 years old, of being an institution for any person, and any study; creating, and sharing, knowledge with a public purpose.

Some of you have specific goals: goals that may well evolve and change in the years ahead. Some of you don’t yet know what you want to do, and that’s okay too — college is a time for exploring. But whether you’re interested in art or astrophysics, literature or labor relations, economics or engineering, you’re also here for the experience of a university education: an experience that will equip you with the knowledge, the skills, and the habits of mind for successful and meaningful lives.

So what I’d like to do today, is give you the best advice I can, as concisely as I can, about how to make the most of your time here: three very specific practices I want each of you to cultivate in the years ahead, to ensure that when you leave here, you won’t just leave with a Cornell degree. You’ll also leave with a Cornell education.

The first thing I want you to do, is engage across difference. What does that mean? Part of Cornell’s mission is educating new generations of global citizens: people who are at home in the world, who have the capacity to approach new people, situations, and experiences with confidence. And Cornell is full of opportunities for each of you, whatever your own background, to live and learn with and influence people who, in whatever ways, are not like you. By taking advantage of those opportunities, you’ll become more at home in a diverse world. When you encounter someone with whom you disagree, you’ll be better able to understand where they’re coming from and why they think they way they do. And you’ll be better able to communicate and collaborate effectively, in all kinds of situations throughout your lives.

Learning to communicate across difference is absolutely essential for all of us, especially in a world that is more complex and more volatile than ever before. If you can’t talk to people who are unlike you, if you aren’t aware that other people perceive the world differently, if you’re not able to see things from someone else’s point of view — you can’t work together, and you can’t move forward. Solutions that only work for you and for people who are just like you are almost never going to be solutions to the big, messy problems our world faces.

The second, is to develop an appreciation of the importance of free speech. You’re going to encounter a lot of new ideas here. Some of them will fascinate and inspire you. Some you’re going to disagree with. And some, you might really hate.

What I want you to do — and it isn’t always going to be easy — is listen to as many of them as you can. Don’t avoid people whose viewpoints you think are wrong. Don’t try to shout them down. Hear them out. Ask them questions. Put in the effort to understand their point of view.

Importantly, that doesn’t mean you should agree with everything the people around you tell you. What it does mean, is that in most cases, you should take the time to listen. Expose yourself to differing opinions, try to see things from other perspectives, and ultimately, work to come to your own informed conclusions. Yes, you may sometimes encounter speech that is so venomous that it’s not deserving of your time and attention, but hopefully those instances will be rare — and I’ll say a little about that in a moment.

The third and last thing on my list is responsible participation in civil discourse. This is a hard one, that we all need to wrestle with. As I’ve already noted, the world — and even Cornell — is full of different people and different ideas. Some of those ideas you’re going to disagree with, and some of them are just flat-out offensive, or harmful, or false. You can appreciate the importance of free speech and still recognize that some speech causes harm, and even that that harm, unfortunately, is worse for some groups than for others.

But freedom of expression means that, apart from some very narrow exceptions, none of us gets to tell anyone else, “This is what you’re allowed to say, and this is what you’re not.” It might sometimes seem obvious that some kinds of expression are beyond the pale, will do harm, and shouldn’t be allowed. But history has taught us that when you allow decision-makers to determine what speech is allowed and what is suppressed, you don’t necessarily end up with a fairer and more just society: in fact, often what you see is that the suppression of speech harms those who hold the least power.

Free speech is under attack in our country, from across the political spectrum. But free speech, as difficult and as challenging as it is, is not only the bedrock of higher education. It’s also the bedrock of democracy and a free society. Chipping away at that bedrock — even for what we think are good reasons, like protecting others — diminishes our capacity as a learning community to do our work, and it puts our democracy at risk.

Because if we ever accept that someone, anyone, has the right to tell us what we’re allowed to say — we’ll also be giving them the right to control what we’re allowed to hear and to know.

So what’s the answer? It’s exercising our own right to expression, responsibly and thoughtfully. It’s paying attention to what we say, with an eye toward being civil and respectful to others. And equally important, it’s speaking out, clearly and unambiguously, when we encounter speech that is directly at odds with our values: speaking out for democracy, for equity, and for truth.

We are living in very challenging times, and that’s not something we can or should sugarcoat or look away from. At Cornell, we do the opposite: we explore those challenges, and engage with them.

A Cornell education will enable you to be an active player in the world — to have an impact. Instead of relying on others to solve problems, or feeling like there’s nothing you can do about issues like income inequality, or public health, or climate change, or racial injustice — you’ll gain the agency to work toward solutions, in ways you might not be able to imagine right now.

Getting there will take hard work. If a Cornell education were easy, it wouldn’t be the achievement it is. There will be times when you’ll struggle, times you’ll be discouraged, and yes, times when you may fail. When those things happen — when, not if — I want you to remember what I said at the beginning: you belong here.

In Cornell’s classrooms and libraries and labs, by yourself and with your fellow Cornellians, you’ll explore disciplines, build skills, and find what fascinates and delights you — and you’ll also figure out what isn’t for you. And over time, through all of your experiences here, you’ll develop a deeper understanding of your field of study, and of the world around you. You’ll acquire the knowledge and the expertise to move confidently in the world, to tackle complex challenges, and to use your voice and your Cornell education to make a difference in ways that matter.

I’m so glad to have you here, as fellow Cornellians. Welcome to you all.