Presidential Archives

146th Cornell University Commencement Address

by David J. Skorton, President

As prepared for delivery
Sunday, May 25, 2014

Cornell University
Ithaca, NY

Welcome to the 146th Commencement of Cornell University. Congratulations to all of our degree candidates…undergraduate, graduate and professional…and to the faculty, staff, other students, friends, family, mentors, and loved ones, here and back at home, who helped in so many ways.

I thank those who are providing music for today’s ceremony, including Professor Cynthia Johnston Turner, who is participating in her last Cornell commencement as director of the Cornell Winds. Cindi, we are sad to see you go but wish you great success in your new position as professor and director of bands in the Hodgson School of Music at the University of Georgia.

I especially recognize the families of the graduates. Graduates, your families, in all their distinctive and beautiful variations, have been there for you—sharing your tribulations and your triumphs and providing advice, encouragement and support. Let’s take a moment to thank them.

Let’s also take a moment to remember those whose commencement this would have been, as we do every year by keeping an empty chair in the front row to honor classmates lost during your time here and whose loved ones are in our thoughts today.

Our hearts also go out to the University of California—Santa Barbara community, in this time of shock and grief following the violence Friday evening.

Commencements are among the most powerful and forward–looking of our public rituals. Part ceremony, part celebration, commencements attest to the achievements of the graduates and to our optimism about their individual futures and our collective future. And, knowing so many of you, I have no doubt that our optimism is well placed.

Let me give just one example of why that optimism is indeed well placed. Attending yesterday’s PhD hooding ceremony and also today’s commencement is Mrs. Ilene Wells, the 102–year–old grandmother of Vernon Mitchell, who is receiving his PhD in history today and will be going on to a postdoctoral position at Princeton. Mrs. Wells’s own grandparents were slaves, and she has lived to see not only a black man elected President of the United States, but also to see her grandson earn an Ivy–League PhD. That is a testament to our progress as a society, and also to the power of family support and encouragement, which have been important to so many earning degrees today.

Another reason for our optimism comes from the profiles of 19 “incredibly impressive students” at Cornell by Business Insider this spring, including a dozen of you who are earning degrees with the Class of 2014. You have:

Not included in the Business Insider article, but equally notable are students who have made a real difference right here at Cornell. For example, Kai Keane ’14, an anthropology major who grew up in Ithaca, produced videos to promote sustainability, the Athlete Ally “You Can Play” campaign to assist LGBT athletes, the “Know the Power of Your Words” campaign, and Cornell’s bid for Cornell NYC Tech, our new graduate applied sciences campus in New York City. Ulysses Smith ’14, who is graduating with a dual degree in urban and regional studies and government, has been elected to the Student Assembly five years in a row and is now its president. His efforts have helped raise the profile and impact of student governance at Cornell. Emily Shearer ’14, one of our Marshall Scholars this year, is captain of the cross–country and track–and–field teams and an eight–semester member of Cornell’s 400 Club, which recognizes varsity athletes who maintain an average of 4.0 or better while playing their sports. Emily also serves on the Cornell Emergency Medical Services squad, is a study group leader and student adviser in biology, and conducts health policy research for Cornell’s student–run think tank, the Roosevelt Institute.

As Kai, Ulysses, and Emily, and those recognized by Business Insider, and many others graduating today demonstrate so well, you are already engaged in your communities, and your efforts are producing results. I have no doubt that the Class of 2014, as well as the graduate and professional degree candidates, are poised for further contributions across many different fields. Keep up the good work!

Each of you starts the next portion of your life’s journey with the tremendous benefit of a Cornell education. At Cornell, you’ve had the opportunity to learn and discover and create and contribute, with guidance and support from highly skilled staff members, and under the mentorship of professors who are not only leaders in their fields, but also care deeply about your success—and who will continue to have an impact on your prospects in your careers and in your lives. A recent survey of 30,000 college graduates nationwide found that “if graduates recalled having a professor who cared about them as a person, made them excited about learning, and encouraged them to pursue their dreams, their odds of being engaged at work more than doubled, as did their odds of thriving in all aspects of their well–being.” Your connections to Cornell faculty and staff members will bring personal and professional benefits for the rest of your lives, and I encourage you to stay in touch with the teachers, mentors, counselors, coaches, and others who have provided support and guidance during your time here.

All of us here today realize, though, that many in this country and around the world do not have the opportunities that will be available to you as graduates. This year marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. In his first State of the Union address in January 1964, Johnson noted: “Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope—some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity.”

On this commencement morning, as we celebrate your accomplishments and future prospects, let’s look together at how far we in the USA have come over the past five decades, what remains to be done, and, most important, what we can do as individuals and through our institutions to address poverty and inequality, and enhance opportunity, in this country and globally.

Most would agree that we have made some progress as a society in addressing poverty over the past 50 years. However, some 50 million people in the US are still living in poverty, according to government figures released last fall. Although the overall level of poverty–induced misery has decreased somewhat in this country, thanks, in part, to the programs that President Johnson created—including Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps, the Job Corps, the VISTA program, the federal work–study program, and other initiatives that we recognize still today—the gap between the rich and poor, in this country and elsewhere, has widened substantially.

In a new book, Chasing the American Dream, Thomas Hirschl, Cornell professor of development sociology, and his coauthors note: “The United States currently leads the developed world in the extent of its income inequality, the depth of its poverty…” with some 80 percent of the US population at risk of economic vulnerability at some point in their lifetimes. Surprisingly, though, when Hirschl and his colleagues interviewed people who were chasing the American Dream against long odds—from a homeless teenager studying for his high school diploma to a minor–league baseball player trying to make it to the next level—they found an unexpected degree of optimism. And they offer a way forward: “By investing in all of our people, we begin to create what is known as a virtuous cycle. By strengthening the human capital and skills of our population, we allow more individuals to reach their capabilities and potential.”

As you move to new communities in your lives after Cornell, I hope you’ll consider how you can contribute to that virtuous cycle—whether in your careers or as engaged citizens.
As an institution, Cornell has long believed in the American Dream. Since our founding we have aspired to offer a Cornell undergraduate education to people of talent and determination regardless of their background or economic circumstances. Cornell is the 8th most economically diverse national university in the country, based on the percentage of undergraduates receiving federal Pell Grants, according to this year’s US News & World Report. And our commitment to access continues to be reflected in our commitment to need–blind admissions and to need–based undergraduate financial aid.

From personal experience as a first–generation college student many years ago, I can tell you that I could not have made it through without opportunities to work on campus as well as need–based financial aid. I commend the Class of 2014 for making a Cornell education possible for future generations through your contributions to the Senior Class Gift Campaign in support of scholarships; your participation rate of more than 45 percent is the highest since 2010.

I hope that you’ll carry with you after Cornell a continuing commitment to build human capital so that more will have opportunities to pursue their dreams. As a society, we have a great need to invest in higher education, including in community colleges and four–year public colleges, which educate the vast majority of college students, and also to continue support for Pell Grants and other financial aid measures that make college possible for those who might otherwise be excluded. And if we are to address inequalities—and enable more people to realize their aspirations for a better life—immigration reform also should be part of the mix. In our roles as engaged citizens all of us can help to bring it about.

Higher education institutions also have roles to play in reducing poverty and inequality by contributing to economic development and the job opportunities it creates. Here in Ithaca and elsewhere, Cornell is contributing to economic development through creative partnerships with business and government, and academic–industry–government partnerships are gaining traction in many other parts of the world.

Graduates, some of you may well put your skills to use in ventures that stimulate innovation and develop human capital. Some of you have already taken your entrepreneurial ideas to the next level in eLab or the PopShop or through such competitions as “Big Ideas” and the “Johnson Shark Tank.” And virtually all of you will find your places in the knowledge economy, which relies on advanced skills and higher–order thinking of the kind you’ve developed and refined at Cornell. Many of you are headed for positions in the business world, or government or public service, including with the Peace Corps and Teach for America. Others will find academic or research posts, either now or after completing advanced degrees or postdoctoral positions. With your skills and talents across so many disciplines—from hotel administration to veterinary medicine to the social sciences, the humanities and the arts—and a commitment to wider engagement, which you’ve demonstrated during your time at Cornell, you can help build an economy that grows for everyone, help create a virtuous cycle, and turn despair into greater opportunity for all.

Class of 2014, candidates for advanced degrees: You’ve earned our congratulations and our good wishes. Hold fast to your dreams. Have confidence in your skills. Use your good fortune to help others. Become part of the virtuous cycle. With optimism, forward–thinking and empathy, you can create a meaningful, fulfilling future for yourselves—and also a better, more equal, prosperous and sustainable world. We are counting on you! Congratulations to you all.