Jacob Gould Schurman leading Cornell commencement in 1906

President Schurman presides over the 1906 Commencement ceremony. (Photo courtesy of Rare and Manuscript Collections)

From Big Red Presidents, Commencement Words of Wisdom

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Unlike most universities, Cornell has a long tradition of sending its grads off into the world with an address by its own leader

by Linda Copman

While campus would be almost unrecognizable to Cornell’s earliest graduates, some things haven’t changed—including a beloved Big Red Commencement tradition.

Unlike many of its peers, the University still sends its newly minted alumni off with an address by its own sitting president, rather than a celebrity speaker. Here are some of their words of wisdom from over the decades.

(Note: Some speech excerpts have been edited and condensed. Biographies of these and other Cornell presidents can be found here.)

Graduates listing to speeches at Cornell Commencement 2016
Grads in Schoellkopf at Commencement 2016. (Photo by Cornell University)

In Praise of Humility

“You came to Cornell through the advice of parents, friends, school associates, Cornell alumni, or through some inner compunction of your own. In any event, you came here to overcome your own inadequacies.

You have not completely succeeded, I hope—for a humble quality is an evidence of greatness, and Cornell could scarcely have provided the answers for all of the dilemmas and quandaries of one's inner self.

A certain sense of inadequacy will follow you always, if you are to strive and to grow in mind and character and leadership. But at least the urge to overcome your inadequacies is one of the great and enduring earmarks of the educated man or woman.”

Deane Waldo Malott, 1953

The Ends Don’t Justify the Means

“The temptations of moral tunnel vision are everywhere we look. Think, for example, of the soldiers who, in their efforts to defeat a dangerous enemy, are tempted to slip into torture.

Think of the campaign workers who want to help their candidate, and are tempted to caricature the opponent unfairly. Think of the business leaders who are tempted to be stingy about workplace safety in order to improve their price position in a competitive marketplace.

The temptations of moral tunnel vision are everywhere we look.

In the world of action you will find that it is surprisingly easy to become convinced of the paramount importance of your cause.

It is a short step to see those who oppose you as evil or immoral, or maybe just stupid or naive. And another short step to tell yourself that the harm you inflict on them is necessary to promote a greater good—or might even be, in some way, for their own good.”

Jeffrey Lehman ’77, 2005

Words to Live By

“First, be honest. Second, be zealous. Third, have faith.

Have faith in man. Far better to have too much faith than too little. Have joy. Cultivate the genial side of life.

Hand-written pages from a commencement speech by A.D. White
The speech, in A.D. White's own hand. (Image courtesy of Rare and Manuscript Collections)

Give yourself to your calling. Be true to that.

And do something for the public. Some of you will have greater—some less—opportunity, but all will have some chance.”

— Andrew Dickson White, 1873

The Power of Goodness

“Though knowledge is a great thing, goodness is greater still. Each of us must make himself true, just, brave, temperate, kind, gentle, and pure. These homely virtues were never more in demand than they are today.

Men talk of heredity, manifest destiny, and the force of circumstances, as though intelligence and conscience were not the governing powers of national and personal life. It is not the bigness of our territory, but the character of our people that is important.

And it is only by growth in individual intelligence and righteousness that we can fulfill our mission as a nation. The individual is the beginning of all. And the individual in the twentieth century will be tested by what he is and does, not by what he says, professes, or pays for.”

Jacob Gould Schurman, 1898

Only Connect

“You have made it through Cornell because of your skills and drive, but also because of the connections to those who care about you, here and at home. As you go forward, keep those connections strong.

Remember that there is more to life than completing your next work assignment, planning your next experiment, writing the next chapter in your novel, or making the next judgment on a matter of professional concern.

You have made it through Cornell because of your skills and drive, but also because of the connections to those who care about you.

Success depends on more than the strength of your analytical abilities or acuity of your professional skills, no matter how formidable they might be.

A satisfying life is grounded not just in individual achievement, but in the strength of the connections we forge with others—working with others toward shared goals, personal, professional, civic, societal. Find ways to build human connections in your life after Cornell.”

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Defending Democracy

“No democracy can endure solely upon the strength of the principles on which it was founded—even though we are ready to fight that they may survive, as did our fathers. The real test is their ability to meet constant human pressure.

Cornell's last message to you as you go out from her halls is that you play your part as citizens of the commonwealth. Give of your service freely, devotedly, and unselfishly.

Order your lives as to inspire those less privileged than yourselves to act in such a manner that the democracy shall live."

— Livingston Farrand, 1922

All You Need Is Love

“Without love, life is futile and arid. Only love redeems life from repetitious triviality. Only love humanizes and tempers our convictions. Only love preserves judgment from being judgmental.

Without love, conviction can run to excess and knowledge can be arrogant and selfish.

President Rhodes giving a Cornell Commencement speech
President Rhodes at Commencement 1989. He often ended his addresses with the blessing, "May the road rise up to meet you ..." (Photo courtesy of Rare and Manuscript Collections)

Taste may be refined—but after all, the butchers of Buchenwald enjoyed Mozart. Only love can transform knowledge to wisdom, which is the way in which knowledge is held. Hang on to one another tightly today. Hang on to your families and your classmates.

Don't forget. Don't neglect one another. It's a tough world out there, and Robert Fulghum was right when he wrote that all you really need to know you learned in kindergarten: ‘When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.’”

— Frank H.T. Rhodes, 1990


“A concern for the oppressed or the forgotten—be they a racial minority; a citizen of Vietnam, north or south; or a university undergraduate—is a proper concern of democratic man.

I think we have learned that you cannot push around your fellow man, even in good causes. I hope we have learned that the threat of violence or worse is not the proper response to those who have transgressed the boundaries of democratic style.

A breach of that style is not to be handled by counter-violence, but by reaffirmation of the requirements of the democratic decencies. Time will tell if we have mastered the art of democratic response as well as democratic protest.”

James Perkins, 1965

Educate Thyself

“Up to this time you have had the constant assistance of professors and teachers giving of their knowledge and experience that you might learn. In a sense, the race starts now again from scratch. The licenses of campus leaders expire on Commencement day.

The question now becomes, ‘Have you learned how to learn on your own?’

In a sense, the race starts now again from scratch. The licenses of campus leaders expire on Commencement day.

The danger in your present situation is that you will not sufficiently understand how your growth in personal competence during your years on this campus has been accomplished, and your personal responsibility for its continuation.

Further accessions of power are within your reach if you will but apply wisely the lessons of self-education which lie, possibly more or less hidden, in your experiences here. Get clearly in mind the fact that the most valuable education has to be self-administered.”

Edmund Ezra Day, 1938

You’ll Get Through It

“I very much hope that this is the last time in your lives that your world will be turned upside down by a pandemic. But I can almost promise you that it will be turned upside down by other things.

The email will come, or the text message, or the conversation, or the news report—that will draw a new line between what was and what will be, a past you knew and a future without a map.

Or you’ll face a decision that—whatever path you take—will change everything for you, or the people closest to you, or the people you’ll be there to lead.

And when that happens—the next time your world turns upside down—I want you to remember something.

Remember that you’ve been there before. Remember that you got through it. And remember how.”

— Martha E. Pollack, 2021

President Pollack leading Cornell Commencement in a packed stadium
President Pollack addresses the Class of 2017 at her first Big Red Commencement. (Photo by Lindsay France / Cornell University)

Top image: President Schurman presides over the 1906 Commencement ceremony. (Photo courtesy of Rare and Manuscript Collections)

Published May 25, 2022


  1. Frank Rapacki, Class of 1999

    Where is Hunter Rawlings?

    “Cornell, despite its size, is anything but a colorless place. This is a place of imagination, of ingenuity, of creativity. It is an elite university, but it is not elitist. There is an anti-establishment spirit here that is innovative, iconoclastic—and distinctively Cornellian.”

    NYT 1999

  2. Kenyon Erickson

    I am deeply moved by these wise admonitions and proud that they were uttered by Cornell Presidents over the years.

  3. Laura Higgins, Class of 1976

    Extraordinary reading.
    Much food for thought and a special glimpse through time. Each entirely appropriate to it’s year in history.
    Some eye-widening, some seem a bit dated but what goes around comes around in history.
    Laura Higgins Palmer BFA ‘76

  4. ronny colen fogel, Class of 1954

    in the next-to-last quote there is a mistaken use of the word ‘lie’. it should be lay. guess i learned something at Cornell.

  5. Tim McGuiness, Class of 1983

    It is a tremendous tradition, and I will never forget President Rhodes applauding each of us as we walked to the field to hear his address. That was much more impactful than having a celebrity speaker because it showed his connection and commitment to us.

  6. Laura Weiss

    I have always appreciated the fact that Cornell commencement does not include a celebrity speaker. I also appreciate the fact that Cornell does not issue honorary degrees – so if you meet somebody who has a Cornell degree it’s because they actually earned it!

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