Presidential Archives

2012 New Student Convocation Address

by David J. Skorton, President

As prepared for presentation
August 18, 2012

Thank you, Michael, and welcome, everyone, to Cornell University. Whether you’re a member of the Class of 2016, a new transfer student, a graduate student or professional student, or a parent, a family member or friend of one of our new students, we welcome you to the university and to the start of what will be a transformative journey for all of us.

This is the last day of Ramadan. I hope the upcoming Eid celebration brings joy to all Muslims in the Cornell community.

The beginning of an academic year is always a time of excitement and optimism. As Adam, Alex and Michael—along with members of the Cornell Chorus and Glee Club—conveyed, Cornell is a strong, talented, positive, supportive community comprising people with wonderfully varying interests, perspectives and ideas.

I am glad that all of you are becoming part of the Cornell family, and I look forward to getting to know you better. Vice President Susan Murphy and I host student office hours in my office from time to time during the academic year. I meet regularly with student leaders from the Student Assembly, the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, Greek Councils and student trustees, and I try to keep in touch with students through the column I write for the Cornell Daily Sun about every other month and through regular meetings with the Sun’s editors. You also can email me at about concerns you’ve not been able to resolve through other means. And most important, when you see me around campus, please take a moment to say hello and introduce yourself.

Entering freshmen this year come from 47 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands; 9.5 percent are international students, representing 46 countries, and 37.3 percent self-identify as students of color. They were selected from among 37,808 applicants, making this the most selective class in Cornell’s 147-year history. Our 561 entering transfer students include 128 students of color and 31 international students. Welcome all!

Nearly 150 years ago, the university’s founder Ezra Cornell aspired to create a new kind of university where “any person can find instruction in any study.” I think Ezra would be impressed—and pleased—by how his vision has been fulfilled.

Not surprisingly, I have some advice to offer on top of what you’ve already received from the student experts. First, college should be a time to pursue intellectual passions and take intellectual risks. You have some 4,000 courses to choose from, plus opportunities to pursue research, scholarship and creative work. I hope you’ll make time each semester to take at least one course for the sheer joy of learning about a topic that interests you. Here’s one way to get started: Next Tuesday, check out the “Explore Series” workshops marked with exclamation points in your orientation guide. These are interactive sessions led by some of our great professors, based on the multidisciplinary University Courses they will be teaching this fall and next spring. They include, among others: the history of exploration on sea, land and space; the influence of social networks; and hip-hop—rhythm, words, and life. One of these courses just might open up a whole new area of intellectual interest, unleash a life-long passion for history, or music, or science or art, or otherwise enrich your life.

Second, get to know your professors—in and out of class. Cornell faculty members are world leaders in their fields or on their way to becoming such leaders. They also care deeply about teaching. Take advantage of their office hours. See if you can do research in their labs or studios. Ask questions during or after class. And get to know the faculty beyond the classroom. There are faculty-in-residence and faculty fellows on North Campus, house deans and professors and house fellows on West Campus. You may discover a shared interest in soccer or singing or black-and-white photography. My wife Robin Davisson, the Andrew Dickson White Professor of Molecular Physiology at the College of Veterinary Medicine (as well as a professor at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City), has several undergraduates working in her Ithaca lab and hosts a knitting group at Becker House, where she and I are both house fellows.

You’ll meet a faculty or staff member during your small group discussion of the New Student Reading Project book, The Life Before Us, on Monday, and you can follow up on that discussion to stay in touch. I really liked the book, by the way, and if you happen to be in my discussion group, we can compare notes on the literature and what we gained from it.

The Carol Tatkon Center on North Campus is also a good place to meet faculty members, as well as to get walk-in writing help, meet with a TA or a study group, or find a course review session.

My third piece of advice echoes Adam Giltin’s message to be an active member of Cornell and wider communities. In his inaugural address in 1868, Cornell’s first president, Andrew D. White, told the first Cornell students, “You are not here to be made; you are here to make yourselves.”

And Cornell students have been rising to that challenge ever since. Some of you came to Cornell a week early to volunteer in the community through the Pre-Orientation Service Trips—the POST program—and I hope that experience will inspire you to continue to volunteer. The Orientation Steering Committee and hundreds of volunteers and resident advisors are helping you acclimate to Cornell during the first few weeks of the semester. Students in the Ordinary People Theater Troupe explore what it means to be part of a many-faceted community during the Tapestry of Possibilities workshops that are part of Orientation. Each year I learn from and enjoy the troupe’s performances, and I know you will as well.

This year is the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act of 1862, which created land-grant universities like Cornell to develop and apply knowledge for the benefit of people in the individual states. As part of that tradition—and in addition to our formal outreach and extension activities—each year Cornell students provide some 400,000 hours of service through the Cornell Public Service Center, service learning courses, and the activities of the more than 1,000 recognized student organizations on campus. Yes, we have over 1,000 recognized student organizations! Amazing! I hope you’ll continue the custom of active participation as you put your own stamp on Cornell.

My fourth piece of advice is to hold yourselves to high standards of ethical conduct in everything you do. And if you see something wrong, tell someone. Don’t be a bystander.

One example is cheating. Tatkon Center is offering a session on cheating tomorrow—the psychology behind it, the ethical dilemmas, and temptations that students face. Sometimes students do not understand that their behavior is cheating. This is particularly true for plagiarism. Make sure you read The Essential Guide to Academic Integrity at Cornell, which you all should have received and which will help you abide by Cornell’s Code of Academic Integrity and also avoid plagiarism. If you have any doubts about whether certain behavior would constitute cheating, or if you have questions about requirements for a class, be sure to ask your professor.

Of course, we will hold you to high standards and expect you to behave ethically in all that you do. Behaving ethically will make you justly proud of the degree you will earn at Commencement, and the principles of ethical conduct you uphold here will continue to serve you well.

My final piece of advice is for the parents and families here this morning. As you no doubt know, college years mean substantial adjustments for the whole family. The fact that you have new students at Cornell means that you’ve done a very good job. Your children are bright, motivated, accomplished, and capable of doing well in college.

As a parent of a fairly recent college graduate myself, I can say that the next few years may be a bit tumultuous. Students explore. They try new things—from food to religion to politics. Sometimes they are spectacularly successful, and sometimes they make mistakes, as we all do.

Stay in touch with your sons and daughters. Text, email, call and Skype. Become Facebook friends. Come back to campus for First-Year Parents Weekend in October, if you can. Listen carefully, offer suggestions tactfully, give love and support unequivocally. And, in the great majority of cases, try hard—really, really hard—to give your sons and daughters the space, time and freedom to find ways to solve their problems for themselves. And in the vast majority of cases, they will, even if at first they may wander a bit, try out multiple paths, and change directions …and then change them again.

That said, if problems remain unresolved or if you sense that something is truly wrong, please let us know. The Family Guide contains a wealth of resources that you may find helpful while your student is here. But if you still haven’t been able to resolve an issue, you can always email me directly at and I will direct your message to someone who can help. Of course, try other approaches first, but file away that email –

So members of the Class of 2016, transfer students, graduate students and families: Welcome to the start of a great adventure. Welcome to 4,000 courses and 1,000 student organizations. Welcome to a close-knit community whose members—faculty, students, and staff—come from all over the world to learn and discover and create and act to lift the world’s burdens. Welcome to a place of high standards and personal responsibility. Welcome to endless possibilities. New students and families: Welcome to Cornell.

Now, I invite you to join us in singing the Cornell alma mater, the words of which are in your program.