Presidential Archives

2006 Commencement Address

Interim President Hunter R. Rawlings III

As prepared for presentation
May 28, 2006
Schoellkopf Stadium

Chairman Meinig, members of the Board of Trustees, members of the faculty and staff, families and friends of the graduates, and most of all, members of the Class of 2006 and candidates for advanced degrees: Today marks the 138th time Cornell has come together to confer degrees upon its graduates. And it is a special pleasure for me to be here in Schoellkopf Stadium to congratulate you on your graduation.

I welcomed you to Cornell in August 2002, and I had the pleasure of teaching many of you in my field of classics during your sophomore and junior years. This year I have returned to seeing students primarily at rallies and protests and in monthly meetings with the Daily Sun: not exactly as much fun as teaching ancient history! Because I have had two years in each mode with the Class of ’06 – as your professor and as your president — I think I know your full personality: My conclusion is that you did the wrong freshman reading assignment.  You were supposed to read Frankenstein but I think some of you read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

On a more serious note, I’ve seen you excel in the classroom, in the laboratory, in public service activities, and in athletic contests. Among you are winners of Truman, Goldwater, Udall and Beinecke Scholarships. Your research and scholarly accomplishments range from a study of aggression in preschool children, to the design of an experimental apparatus for finding a newly discovered state of matter called “supersolid helium 4,” to a cross-cultural study of privacy in the workplace.

You reached out to victims of Hurricane Katrina, including the students from Tulane who were with us last fall, and the 2006 Class Council was one of the sponsors of the Big Red Relief Concert, which brought together some of Cornell’s best student performance groups last month to raise funds for children around the world who have been affected by war.

And I am proud to report that this year, Cornell won nine Ivy athletic titles, the most ever in our illustrious history in the Ivy League. The Class of ’06 deserves a lot of credit for that success, and, I might add, during your four years here, Cornell has earned a record 31 Ivy titles.

Andrew D. White, Cornell’s first president, told Cornell’s first entering class in 1868, “You are not here to be made. You are here to make yourselves.” Today’s graduates have taken on President White’s challenge and responded exceptionally well. They are intellectually curious and engaging. They take the initiative in seeking out professors who will stretch them academically – and they take an active role in their own education. In fact, one of the reasons that I am so looking forward to moving back to the faculty next fall is because Cornell students are such a distinct pleasure to teach.

The bond between faculty and students at Cornell is an essential one. It will stay with you from this day forward, and it will shape the way you engage the world.

On April 25th of this year, Cornell held one of the most moving and meaningful events in its long history, an event that was a profound celebration of the teacher-student bond. Professor Walter Lafeber, the Andrew H. and James S. Tisch Distinguished University Professor, who is retiring this year after 46 years in our History Department, delivered what was billed as his “last public lecture” in New York City. Nearly 3,000 students and alumni filled the Beacon Theatre on Broadway to hear a great teacher and scholar talk about American diplomatic history. As always, Professor Lafeber spoke without notes, but in full paragraphs, and he gave a learned and highly informative disquisition on Woodrow Wilson’s failed attempt to draw up a new world order following World War I. The parallels between American policy then and now in the Middle East were not lost on Walt’s huge audience.

But what made those Cornellians listen with such rapt attention to every word of that speech was their knowledge that they were listening to a master teacher in full control of his subject, an intellectual who grasped not only the facts of history, but also their meaning for every one of us. The Cornell audience in the Beacon Theater that April evening experienced the rarest of human emotions: intellectual passion, a group catharsis of the first order. This was not reality TV or a rock concert. It was a lecture on diplomatic history that was totally inspiriting. This was a reality classroom, a chance to learn something important for a change, not the sorry substitutes for education we see and hear around us every day in this overly informational age.

It was also an occasion to honor a practitioner of the teaching arts, to show appreciation for the intellectual and ethical contributions of a university professor. All members of that audience believed they were there to say thank you for 46 years of academic work at Cornell. We Americans typically glorify our athletes, our Hollywood celebrities, our public figures in business and politics. Here was an opportunity to recognize a former professor, someone whom our alumni came to respect more with each passing year. It was not only Professor Lafeber who performed an ethical act that evening; so did his audience, by paying proper homage to a teacher they admired.

One of the hallmarks of Walter Lafeber’s career at Cornell is the close ties he has maintained with former students long after graduation.  Many of them have been prominent officers at the State Department and elsewhere in our national life. They include a former U.S. Congressman; two National Security Advisors; a former ambassador to Turkey, who is now undersecretary of defense; and many others whose careers have taken them in other directions, but who still keep in touch with Walter Lafeber.

In this age of connectivity – when bloggers can hold forth on all sorts of subjects and when all knowledge seems accessible with a Google search — the idea that students and professors can benefit from close acquaintance seems almost quaint — yet it remains a key to high quality in education. For all its emphasis on state-of-the-art research and scholarship, Cornell places a very high value on teaching – teaching for graduate and professional students and for undergraduates alike.

Andrew Dickson White believed that professors should be great scholars and great teachers.  “[T]he power of discovering truth and the power of imparting it are almost invariably found together,” he wrote.

I hope that you have had the opportunity to know several such professors during your time at Cornell.

President White’s ambition is realized today not only in our resident faculty, but also in the A. D. White Professors-at-Large Program, which during your time here has brought many eminent scholars and creative thinkers to Cornell.  Some of you worked with sculptor Andy Goldsworthy on his “Garden of Stones” exhibit, which honors victims of the Holocaust, and which now includes an installation at the Cornell Plantations. Some of you learned about the workings of the human brain from physician and writer Oliver Sacks, who was one of many distinguished guests at the Alice Cook House during its inaugural year.

One of my favorite A. D. White Professors – and I suspect one of yours too – has been John Cleese. Professor Cleese is known the world over for his Monty Python TV series, for movies like A Fish Called Wanda – and for his ability to convey serious ideas in philosophy, science, religion, and politics in a humorous and engaging way. He has given large public lectures and worked with students in small groups – being by turns provocative, engaging and hilarious. I’m not sure that everyone has yet recovered from his seriously funny talk in Barton Hall in October 2004 — in which he discussed the purpose of religion using clips from The Life of Brian.

We have been fortunate to have John Cleese as an A. D. White Professor for 8 years – two years longer than the normal term. He has been so popular that we’ve now made him Provost’s Visiting Professor in response to requests from students and faculty, so he will be back again by popular demand.

Today, to a far greater extent than Andrew D. White could have hoped, Cornell’s faculty – visiting and especially resident — make a Cornell education the distinctive and life-changing experience it is for so many students.

Ken McClane, the W. E. B. Dubois Professor of Literature at Cornell, is a poet, an essayist, and teacher in Cornell’s Creative Writing Program who knows about the power of the faculty-student connection from both sides. He is a graduate of the program in which he now teaches. A few years ago, in an essay entitled, “Baxter’s Program: Creative Writing at Cornell,” Professor McClane described what it was like as a student sitting in Baxter Hathaway’s class in Goldwin Smith Hall.

Though it was …years ago,” he wrote, “I still remember Professor Baxter Hathaway—thin and white-haired—telling me, ‘McClane, you’re really not all that bad’ when I most needed to hear it…. From Baxter, any statement beyond censure was approbation. For Baxter didn’t mince words…he kept his standards unwaveringly. And yet, like all the remarkable teachers that would join his writing program – [from] Archie Ammons [to] Stephanie Vaughn — he loved writers and writing…. If we were to write, we were to write well. And Baxter would remain at the gate, pushing, elevating, tempering….”

Now, as a teacher, Ken McClane attempts to explain what he and his fellow writers on the faculty are about:

Although no one can teach someone to become a William Faulkner, a James Baldwin, or an Emily Dickinson, one can suggest an attitude toward writing, experience, and self that is sustaining and provident.  Each of us has something essential to relate, however tentative…. It means something to be born in Georgia or India, something to have grown up in the hills of North Carolina or the streets of Harlem, something indissolubly wondrous and crucial.

Professor McClane knows that not all his students – even the most promising ones – will choose careers as writers, but he knows that their experience here will not be lost. “If experience is any indication,” he wrote, “my students will run mightily at life.  They will do out in the world what they did here: they will think well, argue well, and live responsibly….”

We’ve made opportunities to interact with great teachers more frequent in recent years as part of the residential housing initiative. On North Campus, where most of you lived during your freshman year, faculty members are a ready presence – for mentoring, advising, social activities, and dinner discussions.

On West Campus, the connection between residents and the academic life of the campus is even more evident. In a gesture that emphasizes the value of great teaching, each of the new residential houses we are building on West Campus will carry the name, not of a donor, but of a distinguished teacher from Cornell’s history.

The Alice Cook House on West Campus, for example, honors the late Alice Cook, a professor of ILR who devoted her life to improving the prospects of working women, and men, around the world and who was beloved at Cornell as a devoted and demanding teacher. Alice came to Cornell in 1952 to direct a foundation-funded project in ILR Extension on “Integrating Unions and Community.” She previously had been a social worker, YMCA secretary, labor educator, and advisor to Germany on reconstructing its labor unions after World War II. She carried out important research on women and trade unions around the world, including well after retirement.

On campus she was a co-founder of Cornell’s Women’s Studies Program and the Advisory Committee on the Status of Women, and she served as Cornell’s first University Ombudsman, appointed by President Dale Corson. She remained in Ithaca and connected to Cornell until her death in 1998 – carrying out research, advocating for the rights of working women, and serving as a model and mentor for generations of Cornell students.

Carl Becker House is named after the Cornell history professor who is still revered on campus for his eloquent statement of Cornell’s belief in “freedom with responsibility.” Carl Becker taught American and European history at Cornell from 1917 until 1941, and continued as the university’s historian until his death in 1945. He combined his vast knowledge of history with a writing style known for its force, grace, and originality of interpretation.

Carl Becker’s contribution to Cornell was equally far-reaching:  with uncommon wit and wisdom, he identified and defined the character of Cornell. More than any other professor, Carl Becker caught the spirit of Cornell: in particular, its iconoclastic, irreverent nature. In his essay, “The Cornell Tradition: Freedom and Responsibility,” Becker tells a story about a famous professor of history, “passionate defender of majority rule, who, foreseeing that he would be outvoted in the faculty on the question of the location of Risley Hall, declared that he felt so strongly on the subject that he thought he ought to have two votes.” And he writes about the professor of agriculture who reluctantly agreed to serve as dean on the condition that he be relieved of that “irksome task” by a specific date – and who, on the agreed-upon date, with no successor in place, simply cleared out his desk in the dean’s office and left.

Becker helps us grasp the essential quality of Cornell: its passionate, independent spirit.

[T]he essential quality of a great university derives from the corporate activities of. . . a community of otherwise-thinking men [and women,]” he wrote. “By virtue of divergence as well as of community of interests, by the sharp impress of their minds and temperaments and eccentricities upon each other and upon their pupils, there is created a continuing tradition of ideas and attitudes and habitual responses that has a life of its own. It is this continuing tradition that gives to a university its corporate character or personality, that intangible but living and dynamic influence which is the richest and most durable gift any university can confer upon those who come to it for instruction and guidance.

The third West Campus house, now under construction, will be named in honor of the late Hans Bethe, Nobel Prize-winning physicist and advisor to U.S. Presidents on arms control, who was part of the Cornell community for 70 years.

Hans Bethe was one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century and the most distinguished professor ever to serve on the faculty of Cornell University. With his encompassing mind, he controlled the entire field of physics in his head.

Hans Bethe was also a gifted teacher and an engaged university citizen. He was known for his ability to find just the right problems for his students to work on – not too difficult but not too easy for each individual’s level of skill. He also took seriously his responsibility for ensuring the long-term strength of the university. During the McCarthy era, for example, he was zealous in his defense of colleagues being targeted for alleged “Communist” leanings, and, in the aftermath of the Straight takeover, he helped bring stability back to Cornell.

Not least, Hans Bethe was a man of principle and integrity, whose work had an impact not only on science, but also on society at the highest level. As head of the theoretical physics division for the Manhattan project, he was a key figure in the development of the atom bomb. He never regretted his decision to participate, believing that more lives would have been lost if the U.S. had continued its campaign of fire-bombing Japanese cities. Yet after the war, he became a passionate advocate for civilian control of nuclear energy and international restraint. As a member of the President’s Science Advisory Committee during the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations, he worked for a nuclear test ban, which culminated, after several years of effort, in the signing of a treaty banning atmospheric tests.

Great teaching by great researchers and scholars is at the heart of a Cornell education. Every teacher harbors the hope that he or she will have made a difference in the lives of students. Looking back on your Cornell experience 10, 20, 30 or more years from now, I hope there will be Cornell professors — perhaps some you do not yet fully appreciate – who will have planted a seed and given you insights and intellectual curiosity that will shape your professional and personal lives; professors who will have inspired you, through their integrity and fervent advocacy for the public good, to take on the responsibilities of professional service and engaged citizenship.

I urge you to stay in touch with our faculty after you graduate. Nowadays, you don’t even have to write a letter or hunt around for a stamp– just send an e-mail. Your professors will appreciate hearing from you.

Archie Ammons, who passed away the year before most of you arrived at Cornell, is yet another example of a professor who passionately embraced a wider public role. As a poet, Archie had a gift for capturing insight in spare language, and he was a great commentator on the expansiveness of American culture and the subtleties of human nature. He wrote several lengthy works of poetry, but some of his best poems are the really short ones. As we acknowledge your achievements and celebrate your “commencement,” Archie Ammons’ poem, “Salute,” seems an especially good way to send you off:

May happiness
pursue you,
catch you
often, and,
should it
lose you,
be waiting
ahead, making
a clearing
for you.

Congratulations and Godspeed.