President Pollack raises her hands at Commencement 2024

‘Your Values Will Help You Decide What to Do’

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By Martha E. Pollack

When you’re a student at Cornell, the end of a semester means showing what you’ve learned through papers, projects, and exams. Commencement, usually, comes only once.

But when you’re the president of Cornell, the end of a semester always means Commencement, whether for our December graduates in Barton, or our May graduates here in Schoellkopf. Over the last seven years and two months that I’ve been president, that’s added up to 15 Commencements, and 15 Commencement speeches.

At every one, I’ve tried to share something from what I’ve learned in my time as an educator and administrator: some lesson, some advice, something for the graduates to take with them as they head off to whatever comes next.

Graduates cheer at Schoellkopf Field during Commencement 2024

And I’ve been at enough Commencements in my life, here at Cornell and elsewhere, to know that graduates have a lot on their minds, and aren’t necessarily functioning at peak attention level.

So I’ve tried to keep the messages easy to remember.

I’ve told past classes of Cornellians to read. To be kind. To choose courage over comfort.

The nature of Commencement is such that I never really know what anyone remembers—unlike the experience of speaking at New Student Convocation in 2019, where I told the incoming students to be open to new experiences by taking off their headphones. I know that one sank in to at least some of them, because for years after that I’d pass students on campus who would see me, point at their ears, and say, “Look President Pollack, no headphones!”

I’ve told past classes of Cornellians to read. To be kind. To choose courage over comfort.

This is my last Commencement. There’s no paper, project, or exam that’s required to complete a term as president. There’s just this speech, and the chance to share some lessons and maybe a little advice.

I gave my first Cornell commencement speech in the spring of 2017, when I’d been here for just six weeks. I quoted from Daniel Fried ’74, BA ’75, a career diplomat whose career spanned six presidents, and events that seemed unthinkable when he graduated Cornell: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the breakup of the Soviet Union, the election of America’s first Black president.

Looking back on his career, Fried wrote, “I learned never to underestimate the possibility of change, that values have power, and that time and patience can pay off, especially if you are serious about your objectives.”

Aerial view of Schoellkopf Stadium during Commencement 2024 ceremonies

So I urged the graduates of the Class of 2017 to begin their careers by clarifying their values.

Clarifying our values is something we, the Cornell community, did together, through a process that took place just before most of you arrived in Ithaca—discerning together, across our students, faculty, staff, and alumni, what defined the Cornell ethos, and what it meant to be a Cornellian.

We arrived at six core values: purposeful discovery; free and open inquiry and expression; a community of belonging; exploration across boundaries; changing lives through public engagement; and respect for the natural environment.

Clarifying our values is something we did together—discerning what defined the Cornell ethos, and what it meant to be a Cornellian.

When we started that process, a lot of people asked me—most of them nicely—why defining our shared values mattered. What were we going to do with that statement of values, once we had it?

I answered: we’re going to use it. And we have. But I had no idea, back then, how often we’d use it, and how critically important it would be in the years ahead.

That statement of core values has been vital to me, as we’ve navigated the intensity and complexity of these past years: from a global pandemic to a national racial reckoning; through an increasingly divisive political culture, and the reverberating impacts of an ongoing war.

Clear values are a north star, in life and in leadership: casting light on complex situations, and guiding your decisions when the way forward is anything but obvious.

A decorated mortarboard with a mini McGraw Tower is seen atop a graduate's head during Commencement 2024 events

But just as a clear set of values will help you to navigate your lives, you’ll also, throughout your lives, need to navigate your values.

Because deeply felt values can come into tension with each other—and indeed, in any full and richly lived life, they will.

And when that happens, we can do one of two things. We can choose to let one value give way wholly to another, or we can do the hard work of managing that tension—seeking a balance that honors both values to the fullest extent possible.

At a personal level, finding ways to balance our values is something we do every day. You value your health and want to work out more, but on weekdays, it’s either time at the gym, or dinner with your family. You’re deeply concerned about carbon emissions—but you work in a field where you have to travel. You have a friend whose relationship you value dearly, but who has acted toward a third person in a way that you think was unfair.

Deeply felt values can come into tension with each other—and indeed, in any full and richly lived life, they will.

In every case, your values will help you decide what to do. But in the end, the one who has to make the decision, who has to choose how to balance your values, is you.

Because human lives and choices are inherently complex. And what is complex at the individual level is exponentially more so at the level of institutions and organizations.

Throughout your time here, and especially over the past seven months, we’ve seen two of our core Cornell values—free and open inquiry and expression, and being a community of belonging—come into tension, here in Ithaca and on campuses across the country. And we’ve had to confront that tension, and all the questions it brings.

Where should one value end, and another begin? When and how should one person’s right to freely share their opinions—to advocate, argue, protest—yield to another’s right to go peacefully about their work, to feel a sense of belonging? When does the desire to feel safe and comfortable need to give way to the educational imperative of being challenged by new and different ideas?

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Part of our responsibility, as a university, is demonstrating how to hold these two values together, even when they are in tension: finding ways to honor both, even when we cannot do so absolutely; deploying all the tools available to us as scholars to find the compromises and the solutions that are, while imperfect, the best available.

Because holding these two values together lies at the heart of the radical vision that Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White conceived in the waning days of the American Civil War—a vision of a new kind of university; where no student would be excluded because of their sex or race or nationality, and no field of study would be out of bounds.

In 1865, this idea was seen as dangerous, offensive, and even heretical: an ill-advised experiment doomed to fail.

But it was precisely that dual commitment to any person and any study—to not only tolerating, but valuing diversity, in individuals and ideas—that made our university, and the model it set, possible: a model on which the major research university, as we know it today, is based.

It was precisely that dual commitment to any person and any study that made our university, and the model it set, possible.

One hundred and fifty-nine years later, those two values—of freedom of expression and being a community of belonging—are still, in different ways, under threat.

Universities are being criticized for doing too much to make our communities more welcoming and diverse, or for not doing enough; for doing too little to protect speech, or too little to curtail it—or, just as often, for protecting or curtailing the wrong kinds of speech.

Finding solutions to the tensions inherent in free speech is something our nation has grappled with since the First Amendment was enshrined into law. Generations of courts and legislators, schools and universities, and all of us here at Cornell this year, have wrestled with the fundamental contradictions of this fundamental right.

Graduates pose on the Arts Quad prior to the academic procession as part of Commencement 2024 events

And a conundrum that has defied simple solutions for hundreds of years will not yield to them in the complex moment we inhabit now.

If we curtail speech on the basis of its content, then we head down a dangerous path—of handing over to others the right to decide what we can and cannot say, hear, learn, or know. That is something that we, as an institution dedicated to discovering, pursuing, and disseminating knowledge, can never accept.

So we seek other paths forward. We call out speech that is offensive. We speak up in defense of those it affects. We draw a line between speech that expresses ideas, and speech that crosses into threats or unlawful harassment.

If we curtail speech on the basis of its content, then we head down a dangerous path.

And we put into place policies that, however unpopular, are content-neutral, designed to protect the health and safety of our community, and ensure that our teaching and learning can proceed without undue disruption.

One of my favorite stories of Cornell’s early years involves our first president, Andrew Dickson White, who wrote a letter in 1874 responding to a question about whether Black students would be welcome at Cornell, and whether he was concerned about backlash. President White’s response was that the University would be “very glad to receive any who are prepared to enter ... even if all our 500 white students were to ask for dismissal on that account.”

There are moments like those when the University must demonstrate its commitment to its cherished values: even when they are in tension with each other, even when members of our community disagree on the right path forward, even in the face of great political and financial risk.

Professor Emeritus and mace bearer David Lee and President Martha Pollack during the academic procession at Schoellkopf Field, Commencement 2024

We are at such a moment now: a moment where we must be an institution that first and foremost seeks academic excellence; that upholds the highest level of commitment to free and open expression; that stands firmly and clearly against all forms of hatred and bigotry; and that strives always to create a community of belonging, where any person can find instruction in any study.

I have been in higher education, as a student, a researcher, a faculty member, and an administrator, for nearly half a century, and I want to tell you that there has never been a more critical moment for our universities than there is today.

We are facing gale-force political winds, and a sped-up political culture that moves from outrage to outrage with no space for reasoned discourse, consideration, or debate. We need to push back against that with clarity and resolve, with intellectual humility, and with an openness to always improving to meet the moment.

Higher education—with its culture that demands evidence and reasoned argument, and a commitment to truth—is a bulwark against the threats of authoritarianism faced by our nation and the world. And it is critical that we continue to educate students in ways that enable them to foster our free and democratic way of life, and to advance our society.

We are facing gale-force political winds, and a sped-up political culture that moves from outrage to outrage with no space for reasoned discourse, consideration, or debate.

The work of the University—the work of Cornell—has an impact that reverberates across nations and generations.

It continues on in the lives of our graduates—generation after generation of Cornellians, who bring our Cornell ethos, and our Cornell values, out into the world with them.

Graduates, as you and I end our time here together, and head out on our next adventures, I want to give you the same advice I gave at my first Cornell Commencement address, seven years ago.

Two students celebrate at Schoellkopf Field during Commencement 2024

Live a value-driven life. Think hard about your values: know what matters to you, and what will help you become the person you want to be. Whatever values are yours, make them your north star.

And remember that as much as your values will help you in your life, they’ll also challenge you. When they do, use the skills and the habits of mind you’ve learned here: the ability to see different perspectives, to deploy evidence and reason; to understand that sometimes, we can hold two truths in tension, and also hold them in balance.

Graduates, congratulations. Cornell will always be a part of all of us, just as we will always be a part of Cornell.

All images by Cornell University photographers Sreang Hok, Jason Koski, and Ryan Young.

Published June 4, 2024

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