Presidential Archives

141st Cornell University Commencement Address

by David J. Skorton, President

As prepared for delivery
Sunday, May 24, 2009

Members of the Cornell Class of 2009 and candidates for advanced degrees, families and friends of the graduates, faculty, staff, senior university leadership, members of the Board of Trustees: Welcome to Cornell University’s 141st Commencement Ceremony.

Today is a day to celebrate the achievement of the graduates and also a day to remember those who laid the foundation for their success. So first let me recognize and thank the faculty, staff, trustees, and most especially parents and families of the graduates. The earning of a Cornell degree is a significant achievement in the life of any student—and a major milestone for family and friends. As the parent of a recent college graduate, I understand the pride that parents and other family members take in the accomplishments of their graduates, and I also have an appreciation of the challenges you’ve faced along the way.

Graduates, please join me in giving a round of applause to those who made it possible for you to be here today!

Each of today’s graduates has a unique story of goals met and challenges overcome on the way to earning a Cornell degree. And so many of those graduating today have also dedicated their efforts toward public service. I want to recognize the 32 new Cornell graduates who have been accepted for service in the Peace Corps; those who have made commitments to serve with Teach for America (41 graduates), AmeriCorps (over 390 graduates), and other national and international service organizations; and the 18 ROTC cadets who were commissioned yesterday, and who will be going on to serve our nation in the armed forces—5 in the Army, 3 in the Navy, 3 in the Marines, and 7 in the Air Force. We are sorry that our men’s lacrosse team seniors could not be with us today; they are with their teammates in Foxborough, Massachusetts, preparing for tomorrow’s national championship game against Syracuse. Their victory yesterday against #1 Virginia earned them this honor for the first time in 21 years…somehow I think they would rather there than here.

Applying their talents and skills to make a difference in the world comes naturally to Cornellians, and today’s graduates are extending that commitment as they move on to life’s next stage.

In the current economic climate, we all appreciate the challenges facing the graduates. “Back in the day,” when your grandparents and even some of your parents were starting out, there was a standard career path for many professionals: Join a good company, progress through the ranks, and retire from that same company 40 years later with a gold watch and a secure pension. But things are different in this time of recession. Nationally this year, less than 20 percent of graduating college seniors who applied for a job actually have one, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers—a decrease of more than 30 percent from two years ago, when more than half of those who applied for a job had one in hand by the time of graduation. ( And today’s new graduates can expect to have many different jobs—and even several different careers—over the course of their working lives.

Cornellians have advantages in finding employment. Yet I realize from talking with current Cornell seniors that you too face a more uncertain future than you expected even last fall. Some are going on to graduate or professional school, but many are still looking for their next opportunity. I am confident that you will find those opportunities—or create them for yourselves.

Langston Hughes, novelist, playwright, and poet of the Harlem Renaissance, lived through two world wars, the Great Depression, and decades of racial segregation, yet retained an optimistic outlook. “I have discovered in life,” he once said, “that there are ways of getting almost anywhere you want to go, if you really want to go.”

That is true for each of today’s graduates—no matter what degree you are receiving, no matter what career you intend to pursue. I have no doubt that virtually all of today’s graduates will find satisfying jobs—and that many of you will do it by a road that will be distinctively your own.

Svante Myrick, for example, who is graduating from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, has been involved in the Cornell Public Service Center’s Raising Educational Attainment Challenge (REACH) program for 8 semesters. This student—run initiative serves local children through tutoring and mentoring and reaches young people at over 25 sites in our area—including nursery schools, community centers, and juvenile detention facilities. Svante credits REACH with inspiring him to attempt new endeavors—serving, for example, as the youngest member of the Ithaca City Common Council. And, as he completes his degree, he has shifted his focus from a career in broadcasting to one in educational policy.

As he wrote in a blog post, “Learning about the problems of the achievement gap while simultaneously seeing firsthand the stories and lives of those directly affected by inequities in our system lit a fire in me. I am now motivated to work actively towards a solution.”

Similarly Jessica Prue, an undergraduate business major earning her degree today, studied international and sustainable development in South America as a Cornell junior, visiting artisans, farms and other small sustainable businesses. Back on campus, she pulled together other students to form the Social Business Consulting Group in order to help one of those South American businesses—a women’s collective in Paraguay—find new international markets for its products. The Social Business Consulting Group is a now a project partner of the Center for Transformative Action, a Cornell affiliate that serves as an incubator for social enterprises, and last semester it had projects in Haiti, India, Ecuador and Cameroon. In recognition of her efforts, Jessi received the Meinig Family Cornell National Scholars Excellence in Leadership Award in ceremonies on Friday, and in the fall she will begin work with a foundation that connects social entrepreneurs with top—tier corporate law firms willing to provide legal assistance on a pro bono basis.

Regardless of your major or field of study, all of you graduating today have so much to offer as a result of your Cornell education. The experiences, skills, and ways of looking at the world that you’ve gained here will open new possibilities for personal growth and professional challenge throughout your lives. And much of that advantage will be the result of the liberal arts component—formal and informal—of the education you’ve had at Cornell.

Liberal education is the cornerstone of a Cornell experience, and this is especially true in a time of national and personal economic uncertainty. I realize that some may object to championing the liberal arts on the basis of their utility, yet we do a disservice to these disciplines if we fail to acknowledge that they may provide the most useful and versatile education of all. Let me remind you of five habits of mind, skills, and ways of perceiving that you have gained at Cornell, beyond the excellent background in your chosen major, as the result of being part of a university that values science, technology, the professions and also the liberal arts.

First, you leave with the ability to think critically about a variety of subjects, including those outside your immediate sphere of expertise. Not everyone earning a degree today may be equally adept at numerical analysis or differential equations or the finer points of statistical analysis, but as Cornell graduates, you have gained knowledge that is both broad and deep, along with a respect for evidence and a familiarity with logical reasoning and analytical thinking. These skills will not only be useful in your careers, but will also help you understand complex issues facing our world and contribute, as informed citizens, to public policy debates and decisions. Whether the issue is global warming, or a swine flu pandemic, or strategies to alleviate poverty and promote sustainable development around the world, critical thinking is an essential skill that you’ll put to good use in your life after Cornell.

Second, you’ve gained the ability to express yourself—with clarity, precision, and a sense of style. Dwight Eisenhower once defined an intellectual as someone “who takes more words than necessary to tell more than he knows.” (Not unlike commencement speakers!) But, here at Cornell—the birthplace of Strunk and White’s famous “little book,” Elements of Style—you’ve learned to “omit needless words,” “use active voice,” and obey the other rules in what E.B. White described as “the vast tangle of English rhetoric” that he and his mentor, Will Strunk, attempted to “cut down to size” and “write on the head of a pin.”

From the New Student Reading Project—which, for many of you, centered around Chinua Achebe’s classic Things Fall Apart—to the freshman writing seminars and “writing in the disciplines” courses, to the steady stream of distinguished writers—including members of our own faculty and MFA graduates Junot Díaz, Melissa Bank, and Julie Schumacher, who talked about writing and read from their work on campus this year—effective writing has been part of your formal and informal education at Cornell. You’ve developed your own Elements of Style—especially when “twittering” or texting your friends—and your skills in communication will continue to serve you well.

Third, Cornell is a science and technology powerhouse, but part of why we are a major force in education and creativity is that we are also greatly accomplished in the arts and humanities. The breadth of your Cornell education has given you new ways to perceive, influence, and appreciate the world. At Cornell, we talk to each other—mathematicians and musicians, physicists and philosophers, engineers and experts in English literature, Hotelies and historians. We explore one another’s work, ideas, and experiences. We discover what intrigues others and how their minds work. The depth, richness, and diversity of our ideas inspire cross—fertilization and originality.

Many of you became acquainted with great and small works of art, music, literature, history, philosophy, classics, and other humanistic studies in formal courses; others by more eclectic means. But whether you were among the 2,600 people who packed Barton Hall for this spring’s Pao Bhangra dance exhibition; or performed with the Cornell Glee Club and Chorus in the remarkable production of Bernstein’s Mass at the Schwartz Center; or spent time in reflection among the artistic treasures of the Johnson Art Museum; or discovered your own, individualistic ways to explore or create literature, music and art—you leave with a deeper and richer intellectual experience as a result.

More than one corporate CEO will tell you that the best books on leadership are history books, and that there is no better way to tell whether a job candidate will fit into an organization than to ask what books he or she has read and enjoyed. But there are more personal reasons for embracing the arts and humanities: Your experiences with the arts and humanities will give you a more nuanced view of the world and expand the ways in which you can gain enjoyment from life.

Fourth, as a result of a liberal arts education, you leave grounded in ethics, which should be a cornerstone of every profession. Indeed, some would argue that a lack of an ethical foundation is at the root of many of the problems we face in our society—from the culture of greed behind many of our recent economic missteps, to profligate and unsustainable use of non—renewal natural resources, to the conundrums posed by our scientific capabilities in areas like genetically modified organisms, cloning, or the use of human embryonic stem cells for research.

Formal courses in ethics and philosophy can provide a framework for our thinking and actions in areas of modern life about which we may not all agree. But so can reading a great novel in which the characters struggle with issues of life and death, right and wrong, social responsibility and personal pleasure, and other universals of the human experience. Through both these means—integral to a liberal arts education—you have developed the ability to see values in the context of their encompassing cultures rather than as absolutes.

Fifth, in this global campus community, a microcosm of the world, you’ve gained new ways of perceiving and connecting as a result of sharing ideas and personal friendships with people from many cultures, backgrounds, and nations. Through the efforts of many individuals and groups on campus, we’ve made progress toward creating a community where all feel welcome and valued and where all can succeed and can contribute to the overall quality, character and vibrancy of the university. And we’ve grappled with the question—as we still do—of how, in the current time of great social upheaval, now compounded by a chilling economic climate, we are going to work together—when we have different backgrounds and different aspirations—in ways that are effective, orderly, transparent, consultative, and from which we can all move to a better place. At a time of great international tension, cross—cultural understanding is more essential than ever.

Legal scholar and philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in describing the aims of a liberal arts education, has argued for the development of “the compassionate imagination, which can make other people’s lives more than distant abstractions.” “…only an education that reveals our common human strivings and our common human vulnerabilities, challenging us to see the distant truly,” she continues, “can lead us into a world of peace and global cooperation.” [“Liberal Education & Global Community,” Liberal Education, Winter 2004] Your Cornell years have given you a strong foundation on which to continue to develop your compassionate imagination—and to use your energy to make a difference in the world.

These are tough times, and the future is uncertain. But one thing is clear: Building a path to a better tomorrow for ourselves, our children, and the world will require advanced skills, deep knowledge, strong ethics, and the more expansive and broadly applicable habits of mind developed through education in the liberal arts.

As you leave Cornell and move to the next stage, I urge you not to dwell too much on the uncertainties of your own future, but, instead, to realize that the world stands in desperate need of your skills and talents. You have graduated from one of the world’s best research universities. You are smart, knowledgeable, creative. During your time on campus, you’ve impressed us with your intelligence and also with your energy, your sense of purpose, your commitment to service. The world needs what you have to offer now more than ever.

One of our graduating seniors in civil and environmental engineering, Zaheer Tajani, reminded me that there is an inscription on the Eddy Street gate that served as the original entrance to the campus. You’ve probably walked past it a thousand times on trips from campus to Collegetown. It reads:

So enter
that daily thou mayest become
more learned and thoughtful.So depart
that daily thou mayest become
more useful to thy country and
to mankind.

I urge you to be creative and forceful in bringing your skills to bear on the problems we face, including the current economic dilemma, “to be more useful” to your country and to humankind. We need your creativity, your courage, your optimism, your clarity of purpose. We need you to volunteer in your communities, to serve on school boards, to participate in the political process. We need you to contribute to non—profit organizations. Most of all, we need you to put those hard—won skills and habits of mind to use not only in your professional lives, but in service to your community and to the world.

Members of the Class of 2009, candidates for advanced degrees—congratulations. And remember—we’re counting on you.