In an inspiring speech about inclusivity, civility and understanding, Provost Michael Kotlikoff encouraged graduates to “build on the diverse and respectful experience of Cornell” at the university’s 148th Commencement, May 29 in Schoellkopf Stadium.
Attended by degree recipients, family, friends and members of the faculty, administration and board of trustees, the ceremony was shortened following Kotlikoff’s address due to rainfall that swept over the crowd a half hour before the event. University Marshal Charles Walcott was met with applause when he said, “We are going to confer all degrees at once,” in lieu of conferring them by individual undergraduate colleges and graduate degree programs.
Kotlikoff welcomed attendees and began with a moment of reflection for President Elizabeth Garrett, who died March 6. “A dynamic and inspiring leader and a wonderful friend, Beth was enormously proud to be a part of Cornell, and proud of every Cornell graduate,” he said. Garrett was honored with an empty chair on the stage, and students of the Class of 2016 “who are no longer with us” with a chair open in the front row.
“My goal today is to convey to you the pride we have for all that you’ve accomplished and to reflect on the Cornell experience – and how it has prepared you for what is commonly referred to as ‘the real world,’” Kotlikoff said.
“An enormous breadth of discovery and learning occurs here,” he continued, citing a long list of disciplines and schools from astrophysics and architecture to veterinary medicine. “The university experience itself – of leaving home and navigating a complex and diverse environment – leaves an indelible and enduring impact on our students.”
Students’ interactions “with people from different backgrounds, nations, races, religions and political persuasions” have prepared them “for an interconnected world that is sorely in need of individuals who understand others,” he said.
“I hope you have learned to listen as well as to lecture, to respectfully disagree, and to look for common ground. I hope that as graduates of Cornell – the most unpretentious, democratic and rigorous Ivy” – the graduates applauded, acknowledging their hard work – “you’ve also gained a fuller sense of who you are, and how you can contribute to our great American experiment,” Kotlikoff said.
He said that for students entering a university, “our diverse society is immediately made manifest. This is a valuable and undervalued part of the university experience, where we learn to respect other points of view – and to find our own voices. Cornell does not do a perfect job at this; frankly, we can and must do better.”
Stressing the importance of “reaffirming Cornell’s ‘any person’ legacy – our commitment to equal opportunity,” he said: “In these troubled and troubling times, when voices of fragmentation and fear gain attention and support, universities are an important counterweight … by responding to ignorance and fear with facts, historical context and rational argument. And importantly, while engaging in dialogue and debate with attention, respect and humility, confronting prejudice and unfounded assertions when appropriate.”
He continued: “As you leave Schoellkopf today … continue to widen your horizons and take a step or two outside of your comfort zone. Build on the diverse and respectful experience of Cornell. As Marie Curie said, ‘Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.’ Continue to apply what you have learned.”
“You’ve experienced firsthand that it is not only possible, but also valuable and enriching, to live, work, collaborate, disagree and debate in a diverse community,” he said. “Imperceptibly you’ve learned the power of reasoned argument carried out with civility, to bring about change.”
Underscoring “the more enduring and more valuable contributions of higher education,” Kotlikoff quoted from professor emeritus of history Walter LaFeber’s 1976 commencement address: “‘The founders of this nation and the founders of Cornell shared a common commitment, indeed a common passion: a belief in the power of ideas to transform individual lives and improve human society.’”
In conclusion, Kotlikoff urged students to take the day of commencement to “savor the things that have made your time here memorable.”
“Then,” he added, “seize opportunities to lead a life of consequence and contribution. Don’t be afraid to take the advice of the playwright Samuel Beckett: ‘Fail. Try again. Fail better.’ And each and every day do all you can to light the way for your generation and the generations to come. … We’re proud of you. We’re going to miss you. But you’ll always be part of Cornell.”
The Cornell Commencement address is traditionally given by the university president. Kotlikoff had acknowledged early in his speech that “I am a double stand-in” – for Garrett, and for Interim President Hunter Rawlings, who was being honored at Haverford College, his alma mater.
In 1976, in light of America’s bicentennial year, LaFeber was asked to deliver the address by President Dale Corson – who said at the time: “I felt that something significant should be said by someone who could say it with authority.”