Office of the President


140th Commencement Address

by David J. Skorton, President

As prepared for presentation
May 25, 2008

University.
A place of wonder.
A time of learning.
A space for growing.
University.
A way to future.
A realm for seeking.
A chance for courage.
University.
A path to reach back.
A call to action.
A place of wonder.
University.

 

Good morning and welcome to members of the Cornell University Board of Trustees, faculty, students, staff, families and friends of the graduates, senior university leadership and, most of all, members of the Cornell Class of 2008 and candidates for advanced degrees. This is a day to celebrate the achievement of our graduates, and a day to remember and thank those who laid the foundations for their accomplishments.

Among those whose contributions have helped bring us to this day was Cornell's good friend, benefactor, former chair of the Cornell Board of Trustees, Cornell parent and member of the class of 1957, Stephen H. Weiss, who passed away on April 16. Steve was the consummate Cornellian. He leaves a long and broad trail that reveals his deep attachment to all things Cornell, encompassing endowing the deanship of the Weill Cornell Medical College, professorships in the College of Arts and Sciences, the Weiss Presidential Fellowships, athletics programs and much more. We all admired his ceaseless drive to make Cornell a better place, his vivacious and infectious spirit, and his generosity that allows so many of us to strive to be our best. Please join me in a moment of silence in memory of Stephen H. Weiss.

Today's graduates carry Steve Weiss's legacy forward. It is hard to capture the uniqueness of such a large and diverse group of Cornellians— undergraduates, graduate and professional students—but here is a very small sampling of what you and your classmates have achieved:

  • The Cornell Ranger Robot, developed by a student team working with Professor Andy Ruina, theoretical and applied mechanics, set an unofficial world record on April 3 by walking non-stop for 45 laps—about 5.6 miles—around the Barton Hall running track.
  • The 83rd Hotel Ezra Cornell, organized and conducted by students from our School of Hotel Administration, balanced fine dining with professionally relevant education, focusing on debt and equity in the hospitality industry, and the credit crunch.
  • The Cornell Glee Club and Chorus, under the direction of Scott Tucker, went on tour in China—singing on the Great Wall and giving concerts in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.
  • Men's and women's athletic teams had impressive records—including eight Ivy League titles this year.
  • Congratulations to all who participated in these achievements!

Every graduate has a unique story and a unique path that brought her or him to Cornell. Susan Newman, who is graduating today from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, can claim two great-grandfathers who were Cornell graduates. In fact, members of her family have been at Cornell for 82 out of the past 100 years, including continuously for the past 53 years. That adds up to 61 Cornell degrees shared among 54 people. Susan, please stand so we can congratulate you and your family.

Whether you are from a long line of Cornellians or are the first in your family to earn a college degree, your parents, grandparents, spouses, partners, or other family members and friends who have filled this stadium this morning have played a large role in your success. Now I ask all of the graduates to join me in giving your loved ones a well-deserved round of applause.

I'd also like everyone to join me in a round of applause for the professional staff members and volunteers who have made this Commencement Weekend possible.

The achievements of this year's graduates are impressive indeed but unfortunately stand in sharp contrast to the state of our world. War continues in Iraq and elsewhere. There is continuing and increasing unrest elsewhere in the Middle East—including Gaza, the West Bank, Beirut, and other places. In parts of Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere life is challenging, sometimes dangerous and discouraging. In China and Myanmar, our neighbors are facing unthinkable sorrow and the challenge of rebuilding homes, cities and lives after the sudden and massive destruction they have suffered.

Within our own country and in the State of New York, we have challenges aplenty as well. The current recession casts a shadow on the job prospects for our graduates. The expenditures of a war-time economy have a substantial effect on our national economy. Continuing economic disparities and challenges, including in health care, continue to make life much more difficult for many—including some of our friends and neighbors who live in poverty within a few miles of our campus and elsewhere in Upstate New York. Our social safety net doesn't always keep us safe even on our campuses as in the terrible occurrences at Northern Illinois University and Virginia Tech.

Has Cornell—in this beautiful setting with its striking landscape, on land that was once part of the Cayuga Nation—prepared you for a life of social responsibility in view of the changes and challenges that lie ahead? A recent survey taken of undergraduates and faculty members, administrators, and student-affairs professionals on 23 campuses revealed that most of the students believe that developing personal and social responsibility should be a major focus of their college education. But many believed that their institutions were not doing enough to prepare civic-minded, morally grounded graduates.

Cornell was not one of the institutions in this survey, but the results should give us all pause. What is the responsibility of a university for direct action to improve the state of society beyond our campus? Certainly the core functions of the university are education, discovery and creativity and, especially at land-grant universities like Cornell, public service. It is these core missions, especially education and research, that brought our talented students here and that draw and keep the most distinguished faculty and talented staff on our campuses. These core missions of education, discovery, and creativity and the critical importance of a liberal education are no longer as recognized and respected as they should be and are less and less present in the national discussion.

As our society moves forward to seek solutions to the very difficult problems that we face, we cannot overemphasize the overarching importance of a broad undergraduate education.

At Cornell there has long been a respected place for disciplines that are theoretical as well as for those considered more "relevant" to societal concerns. Cornell's unconventional approach to education was a considered choice. A. D. White, Cornell's first president, noted in his "Report of the Committee on Organization," of October 21, 1866, that the new university was rooted in two convictions:

  • First... "There exists a necessity never fully met for thorough education in various special departments, and, among them the sciences and practice of agriculture, industrial mechanics, and kindred departments of thought and action."
  • And second, a conviction "that colleges of wider scope be founded… thus presenting a general course to meet that general want which existing colleges fail to satisfy."

Today I will argue that direct action continues to flow primarily from the university's core functions of education, discovery, and creativity, and that such action is a very appropriate and even necessary complement to the liberal arts and sciences that have such great value for their own sake.

We all appreciate the role of universities in educating students— including those earning degrees today. It has been possible to extend the university's role as an educator to students in other countries and, indeed, earlier this month Cornell awarded M.D. degrees to the first 15 graduates of the Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar, making Cornell the first American medical school to award its degree abroad.

At Cornell there is a strong commitment to research in the life, physical, and social sciences and to creativity and scholarship in the arts and humanities. Moreover as a major research institution and the land-grant university for the State of New York, we carry out not only basic research, but also "translational" research, that is, research that can be translated into innovations that advance the public good. For example, Cornell recently received a $26.8 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to mount a major collaborative research effort to combat stem rust in wheat, a disease which threatens 90% of the world's wheat varieties. The project, which will bring together 15 institutions around the world to work on the problem, aims to develop disease-resistant wheat varieties to protect the world's farmers and consumers from devastating crop loss and food insecurity.

Researchers in the social sciences are also conducting investigation that contributes insights we can use in our communities and in our daily lives. For example, researchers in the Institute for Women and Work in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations recently documented the companies headquartered in New York State that have the best track records in advancing women to the highest ranks. The study also documented that while women make up nearly half of the workers in New York State, they constitute less than 15% of the total board directors and executive officer positions in the 100 largest public companies headquartered here.

True to our land-grant mission, Cornell Cooperative Extension continues to bring knowledge to bear on the problems that New Yorkers—rural, urban and suburban—face in their daily lives, helping to educate the public about agriculture and food systems; children, youth and families; community and economic vitality; environment and natural resources; and nutrition and health. Here in Tompkins County, Cornell Cooperative Extension has been a leader in promoting local foods, which support local agriculture, save fuel in transportation, and help preserve open space.

I want to suggest this morning that all colleges and universities—and not just land-grant universities—have a role in serving the public good. Public funding supports much of the research carried out by universities. In return for our tax-exempt status and the public trust placed in us, I believe we have a responsibility to give back by bringing the fruits of our research to the public, side by side with pursuing knowledge for its own sake; and by cultivating in our students the social responsibility that will enable them to continue their efforts after they earn their degrees.

Cornell is a founding member of, and the host campus for, the New York Campus Compact, an association of 78 colleges and universities committed to "reaffirming and reinvigorating the public purposes of higher education." Some 95% of New York Campus Compact campuses, including Cornell, offer courses that incorporate service learning. At Cornell, students in Professors Gary Evans's and Paul Eshelman's courses in Human Ecology this year redesigned the dining area of Kendal at Ithaca, a local continuing care retirement community. They have explored the criminal justice system with Professor Mary Katzenstein and worked to combat hunger and homelessness with Therese O'Connor, senior lecturer in the Hotel School. They have learned how to carry out effective philanthropy, in the process making grants to help four local health and human services agencies with support from the Sunshine Lady Foundation.

Impressive numbers of Cornell students participate in an annual day of service—"Into the Streets"—that pairs Cornell students with agencies and organizations in the community, or spend spring break working on service-learning projects in New York State and elsewhere through the Cornell Public Service Center's Alternative Spring Break Program. In February Cornell was named to the President's Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll "with distinction" for its exemplary service-learning activities.

Our faculty and staff also model engaged citizenship through their own commitment to public service, helping shape the character of our students and alumni. Members of our staff, who do so much outreach, are regularly recognized for their contributions. Just this week, Vice President Mary Opperman received the Tompkins County Foundation Award for Excellence for her contributions to improving the quality of life in Tompkins County.

As Cornell's newest graduates, what can you do to continue to build on this foundation and legacy? You will be leaving Cornell at a pivotal time in our country: a Presidential election year in which no incumbent is running for office. You have already turned out in record numbers to vote in primaries and to participate in caucuses, and 2008 is set to become the third major election in a row with an increase in turnout among younger voters. Whether you are a Republican, a Democrat, or an independent, I urge you to inform yourselves about the issues and where each of the candidates stands on them and then to cast your vote in November.

In addition to participating in our electoral process—a critical privilege of citizenship in our country—your generation is developing and participating in new and innovative approaches to engagement. One of these new approaches, in which your generation will certainly supply needed leadership, is that of social entrepreneurship.
New York Times columnist Nick Kristof, who spoke on our campus just last month, wrote about social entrepreneurship in a January 2008 column. Following in the footsteps of the civil rights workers and antiwar protesters of the 1960s and technology entrepreneurs in the 1980s, who brought about major societal transformations, today's most remarkable young people, he noted, "are the social entrepreneurs—those who see a problem in society and roll up their sleeves to address it in new ways."

A social entrepreneur, according to the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, is "a pragmatic visionary who achieves a large-scale, systemic and significant social change through a new invention, a different approach, a rigorous application of known technologies or strategies, or a combination of these." Social entrepreneurship is "about applying practical, innovative and sustainable approaches that benefit society in general, with an emphasis on those who are marginalized and poor."

Some of you have already developed your skills in social entrepreneurship while at Cornell. For example, Jessica Houle '08, who grew up in Conger's Mobile Home Park in Freeville, NY—just a few miles from the Cornell campus— created a program to provide mentoring and recreational and leadership opportunities to teens in local mobile home parks. The project has already been recognized by a Robinson-Appel Humanitarian Award, and Jessica is this year's recipient of the Maribel Garcia Community Spirit Award offered through the Cornell Public Service Center.

To give another example, June Hu '08 has been a leader in the Translator-Interpreter Program (TIP), which provides volunteer translation and interpretation service to community agencies. She has been recognized with a Robinson-Appel Humanitarian Award on behalf of TIP.

A third example is "Cover Africa," an organization dedicated to malaria intervention in Africa by increasing awareness on campus and in the local community and by distributing bed nets (one of the most effective means of prevention) to those who need them most. Shoshana Aleinikoff '08, a Cover Africa board member, received the John F. Kennedy Memorial Award from the Cornell Class of 1964 for her work. Another member, Brian Kennedy '08, plans to expand the reach of Cover Africa by opening a new chapter at the London School of Economics, where he will be working on his master's in international relations next fall.

The tangible results of social entrepreneurship can be breathtaking and inspirational. Consider the work of Cornell alumnus Harris Rosen in Tangelo Park, Florida. Mr. Rosen, a 1961 alumnus of Cornell, heads the largest independent hotel company in Florida, employing over 3,000 people. In 1994 he created the Tangelo Park pilot program. Tangelo Park is a predominantly African American working class community in South Orange County. Mr. Rosen has agreed to provide a free college education within the Florida State system for any child in Tangelo Park who graduates from high school, and he has already put over 300 young people through college.

Cornell and its alumni have taken their responsibility for public service very seriously for nearly 150 years. We seek to apply knowledge and creativity for the public good and to lighten the burdens of the world. I hope a commitment to social responsibility and direct action will continue to flower and grow in each of you as you leave Cornell and make your way in the world.

Today I offer you—our newest graduates—this charge:

  • Remember what it is like to stretch yourselves intellectually—to take on something truly difficult and bring it to successful completion—and seek new opportunities to learn and grow throughout your lives.
  • Remember what it is like to be part of this unique community of education, discovery, creativity and service and seek to extend its commitment to the public good—no matter what professional course you have chosen to pursue or where in the world you will now make your home.
  • Lend your voice to call for public support of higher education and research as a way to contribute directly to a better future.
  • Return to visit us at Cornell as often as you can—and find other ways to keep in touch.
  • For those of you who are or will become parents, encourage your daughters and sons to pursue education to the highest level of their interests and abilities.
  • And whether you have children or not, remember that the quality of education, from pre-school through graduate or professional school, depends on all of us and is one the world's greatest assets.
  • Accept your responsibility as professionals and enjoy the success that awaits you, but remain humble and grateful to those who helped you along the way.
  • Remember that the difference between the powerful and powerless can be very small and that you should pay as much attention to the powerless as to the privileged.

Congratulations to you all. All of us wish you well as you embark on what I hope will be lives of service to the benefit of the people of the world. We're counting on you. And I know you're up to the challenges that lie ahead.

University.
A place of wonder.
A time of learning.
A space for growing.
University.
A way to future.
A realm for seeking.
A chance for courage.
University.
A path to reach back.
A call to action.
A place of wonder.
University.