“Good morning, faculty, family, students, friends – and especially Cornell’s three NCAA championship wrestlers. I’d be afraid not to say hello to them. And thank you, President Skorton, for that kind introduction.
“In the past few years, I’ve come to know your president as a very distinguished leader – and he has some great ideas I’m planning to steal: Every year, he moves into a freshman dorm during orientation week, and I’ve decided to do something similar with everyone who moves to New York City. So if any of you are starting down there in the fall, I’ll be over. Don’t worry – I’ll be fine on the couch. But I do insist you get breakfast from the Carriage House delivered.
“That’s getting ahead of ourselves. Today is about you: The Great Class of 2012, the graduates of Cals, I.L.R, Hume Eck, A.A.P, Engineering, Hotel Administration and Arts and Sciences. To all of you – and to all the grad students, as well – congratulations on making it to this glorious day in Ithaca. And by ‘glorious’ I mean any day when it’s not a blizzard.
“You have done a remarkable job overcoming every obstacle on the way to your diploma: You overcame living in the Low Rises freshman year, you overcame living on North Campus and having an 8:40 class on the engineering quad, you overcame the closing of your favorite bar and having nowhere to go after midnight – or, as you call it: ‘Palms o’clock!’ You even overcame piles and piles of parking tickets from Cornell Transportation. I know you never paid any of them, but you still overcame them.
“You survived it all – and here you are. However, while this is a very special weekend for the graduates, before imparting some of my invaluable, indispensible words of wisdom, I’d like to say something about another important group here today. They are sitting out there this afternoon, beaming proudly and not even thinking about what it cost to get to this day, or what happens if you can’t get a job and have to move back home. I’m talking about your parents and relatives – let’s give them a big hand. They deserve it.
“Now, I realize that this is Convocation – not Commencement. Which is a relief. I thought I was going to have to address some serious, weighty issues in my speech and ask deep, probing, transcendental questions about life and the future. That’s what commencement speakers do. But as the convocation speaker, I can ask the important questions that Cornell graduates really care about. Such as: ‘What the hell is happening with Green Café? It’s just been sitting there.’ Or ‘What is the second line of the Alma Mater? It can’t be: Far above Cah-yooga’s waters, dah dah dah dah dah.’
“Well, like you, I didn’t know the answers to those questions, so I did some research getting ready for today. I found out that your most famous alumnus is either ‘Bill Nye the Science Guy’ or Andy from The Office. I learned that Vinnie from Jersey Shore and Justin Bieber were supposed to be attending Cornell next year, but that turned out to be untrue. I even read ‘161 Things to Do Before You Graduate’ in the Cornell Sun. Very interesting. If you’ve done a lot of them: congratulations. Great job. If you’ve done all of them: please turn yourself in to the Cornell police.
“To get in the spirit of things, I actually did a few of the things on the list myself: I hung out on the patio at CTB. Parents – that’s College Town Bagels. I read tons of email from someone named Denise Cassaro – written in 23 different bright colors – describing all the activities I could do. And I even went to Olin Library last night and got kicked out at 2:00 AM and then took the ‘walk of shame’ over to Uris.
“So I’m feeling almost as prepared for today as you graduates are. I promise to keep my remarks brief, but in exchange, I do have one request to make of you: I ask that you not practice what you learned in Psychology 101 from Dr. Maas – how to ‘power nap.’ Sounds like my kind of class.
“In doing my homework for today, I couldn’t help but note that this year we are marking the 150th anniversary of the act of Congress that gave rise to Cornell: The Morrill Land Grant Act. The act provided land to the states for the purpose of founding colleges that would teach agriculture and engineering. President Lincoln signed the act because he understood that government had a role to play in preparing generations of young Americans to participate in, and lead, the industrial economy.
“The innovations, inventions and ideas produced by America’s higher education system became our nation’s unparalleled competitive advantage and catapulted us to the forefront of the industrial age. Generations of Americans benefitted from this public investment in research and knowledge, and so has the rest of the world.
“Lincoln signed the Land Grant Act on July 2, 1862. Just one day earlier, he had signed the Pacific Railroad Act, granting land and financing for the construction of railroad lines from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean. In the decades to come, the railroads would provide the crucial supply lines that fed the industrial innovations our universities were helping to pioneer. In fact, one could argue that in the span of 48 hours, Lincoln did more to advance American economic growth than any president before or since.
“And just two months later, on September 22nd, when Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, there is no doubt that he did more to advance the cause of American freedom than any president before or since. With those three strokes of his pen, Abraham Lincoln put America on course to fulfilling its destiny – and he saved a union that was, as Lincoln said in that same year, ‘the last best hope on earth.’ Not bad for a few months of work. These days, we’re happy if the Congress adjourns for the summer without ruining America’s credit rating.
“Lincoln’s vision – and his courage – made your Cornell experience possible. But even more than that, Lincoln gave all future generations a roadmap for building our nation ever stronger: Expand knowledge. Expand infrastructure. Expand freedom. That is the legacy Lincoln left us. It is not a Republican legacy. Or a Democratic legacy. It is an American legacy. The challenge before you, as you go out into the world, is not to preserve that legacy but to extend it. There is enormous work to be done in each area and we know we can’t sit back and wait for Washington to do it. We have to do it ourselves – and all of you can make a difference.
“To expand knowledge, we need great teachers in our public schools, who can prepare the next generation for the global economy. And we need talented researchers in our labs, who can develop new ways of attacking disease, advancing agriculture and understanding the universe. To expand our infrastructure, we need scientists who can pioneer new forms of clean energy and engineers who can build the power grids – along with the bridges, tunnels and high-speed trains – that we need in order to remain the world’s strongest economy. To expand our freedom, we need soldiers who will fight to protect us from tyrants and terrorists abroad and leaders here at home who will stand up for equal rights for all people, including – I believe – the right to love and marry whomever you wish.
“One year ago, you witnessed history being made when the New York State Legislature passed, and Governor Cuomo signed, a bill granting marriage equality to all New Yorkers. I believe it is only a matter of time before that right is recognized not just in New York State, but across the country. Every time our nation has confronted a question of freedom – from slavery to women’s suffrage to civil rights – equality has triumphed over exclusion. It has never been quick, or easy. But in every case, the federal government has eventually stepped in and guaranteed equal rights for all.
“There is no doubt in my mind you will see that happen with marriage equality in your lifetime. It may be an act of Congress or a Constitutional Amendment or a Supreme Court decision, but if you stand up for it, it will happen. And you will extend Lincoln’s legacy of freedom just as your parents and grandparents did before you.
“The expansion of freedom is not the only part of Lincoln’s legacy you’ve witnessed during your four years here at Cornell. Earlier this year, in what I believe will help do for New York City what the Land Grant Act of 1862 did for our country, Cornell joined with the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, and the City of New York to build a world-class graduate-level applied sciences and engineering campus on Roosevelt Island.
“We don’t usually give away prime real estate in the heart of our city. But we believe that providing land for the development of a world-class university campus will help us pioneer the economy of tomorrow. Given Cornell’s history as a land grant school, it’s only fitting that you won the competition. And I want you to know: the extremely strong support that Cornell had from students and alumni was a significant factor in the decision, so thank you! You helped make it happen.
“Our hope is that this new partnership will position New York City to be the global leader in the Information Age, just as we were for the Industrial Age. It’s one of the most exciting projects ever to take shape in our city’s history. And I would say it’s the biggest thing to happen to Cornell in decades – but I can’t, because I know that two years ago, the men’s basketball team went to the Sweet Sixteen.
“The new partnership we have with Cornell and The Technion Institute won’t change a thing about the undergraduate experience here in Ithaca. Don’t worry – we’re not going hire away Happy Dave to swipe cards at the new dining hall. But there is no doubt that the Roosevelt Island campus will open up new doors to graduate students, faculty and alumni.
“In fact, just last Monday, President Skorton and I announced that as Cornell begins the process of building its facilities, its temporary campus will be inside Google’s Manhattan office building. Talk about a match made in heaven. It gives Cornell a pipeline into one of the world’s most innovative companies and it gives Google a pipeline into some of the world’s most brilliant minds. I can tell you that Larry Page at Google is just as excited about it as President Skorton is, and it’s another sign that New York City has a great future as a tech capital.
“So all you engineers, computer scientists and techies who were thinking about heading west to Silicon Valley: If you want to really experience life – if you want to meet the most diverse, interesting people in the world, if you want to come to a place where you could have an in on the ground floor at Google and yes, if you want to find a date whose name is not Siri – come to New York City!
“Google and lots of other new tech companies are helping New York City’s economy grow faster than the nation’s. So if you haven’t found a job yet: You’re better off coming to the city than sitting on your parents couch. I promised your parents I’d say that.
“But don’t worry if you don’t have a job yet – or don’t know what you want to do with your career. Because whatever plan you may have is probably going to change 100 times before you turn 30. If my plan in college had worked out, I would have had a career as an electrical engineer. Instead, I went to business school, in hopes of becoming the manager of a factory. Instead, after business school, I took an entry-level job on Wall Street, where I thought I might spend my entire career.
“Instead, after 15 years, I got fired – and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. If I hadn’t been fired, I never would have started an information technology company and certainly never would have run for mayor. Yet I can’t imagine my life without those experiences. It’s fine to make plans; just be ready to change them.
“Now, even though I am not a commencement speaker, I thought I’d offer a few more words of advice anyway. Ordinarily, I tell graduates about a few of the key lessons I have learned in my life: Work hard. Take risks. Dream big. Give back. And I hope you’ll do all of those things.
“But today, I want to leave you with the words of a Brooklyn native, who came to Cornell, educated a generation of students and helped re-shape our understanding of the world: The great astrophysicist, Carl Sagan. Professor Sagan said: ‘Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.’
“He may have been talking about the origins of the universe, but he could well have been talking about our everyday lives. As you leave these ivy-covered walls, a new world awaits – a world where, every day, something incredible is waiting to be known. Go out and find it. Search for new knowledge and new insights. Search out new experiences and new cultures.
“Travel whenever you can. Read wherever you go. Think for yourself always. Do not rely on others to discover things for you. Ask questions. Be skeptical. Stand up for your beliefs – especially when they are not popular. Do not fall prey to partisanship. Remember that no political party has a monopoly on truth – or God on its side. Remember that most people who have changed the world have first been ridiculed or dismissed. And remember that this great university – and our great country – were not built by timid worries, but by grand hopes and bold action.
“And if you do all of that, I have no doubt that you will discover a world full of possibility, and shape it for the better.
“Now, before I leave you, I want you to do me one small favor: Tonight, at midnight, I want you to raise your glass to the memory of Palms O’Clock and to the future that is yours to discover.
“Congratulations, good luck, and if you’ll be moving to New York City, remember: I get the couch. Go Big Red!”