At the University's 144th Convocation, Mayor Michael Bloomberg urged the Class of 2012 to keep Cornell’s land grant mission, as well as the willingness to take risks, close to their hearts as they depart from The Hill.
In the sweltering heat of Schoellkopf Stadium, many in the crowd shielded themselves with umbrellas as they awaited Bloomberg’s arrival. Seemingly unfazed by the heat, however, Bloomberg readily delivered his speech to the almost 5,000 Cornellians graduating this weekend, drawing laughs and applause.
“If you haven’t found a job yet, you’d be better off coming to the city than coming to your parent’s couch … I promised your parents I’d say that,” he said. “But don’t worry if you don’t have a job yet, because whatever plan you have, it'll probably change a hundred times before you turn 30 years old.”
The New York City mayor described the series of unexpected twists that led to his current career in politics: he started as an aspiring electrical engineer before heading to business school. After 15 years, Bloomberg was fired from his equity trading job at Salomon Brothers — but he said it was “the best thing that happened to me.”
“If I hadn’t gotten fired, I wouldn’t have started a tech start-up company and certainly wouldn’t have run for mayor,” he said. “It's fine to make plans, but the only thing I can urge you is to be ready to change plans at short notice.”
Throwing a playful jab at Silicon Valley, Bloomberg told students considering moving west, “If you really want to experience life … and yes, if you want to find a date whose name is not Siri, come to New York City.”
Bloomberg said that he hopes Cornell’s partnership with the city, cemented in December after it won the tech campus competition, will position New York to “be the global leader in the information age, just as we were in the industrial age.”
“I would say this is the biggest thing that has happened to Cornell in decades, but I know two years ago, the men’s basketball team made it to the Sweet 16 … which sort of rivals it,” he joked.
He also reassured the crowd that Cornell’s tech campus would not “change a thing about the undergraduate experience,” addressing a concern raised by some faculty in the months after Cornell committed itself to the $2 billion campus on Roosevelt Island.
The tech campus will open doors for Cornell, attracting new faculty and alumni to the University — and when it opens, he told students, “Don’t worry. We won’t hire away Happy Dave to swipe cards at the dining halls [at the tech campus].”
Cornell’s legacy as a land-grant institution, Bloomberg said, made it “only fitting” the University won the competition.
President Abraham Lincoln, who signed the Morrill Act of 1862 — enabling land grant colleges to be created — arguably ”did more to advance the American economic growth than any president before or since,” Bloomberg said.
The president, in passing the act, also “made your Cornell experience possible,” Bloomberg said, adding, “Don’t forget that.”
“The challenge before you as you go out before the world is not to preserve [Lincoln’s] legacy but to expand it. There’s an enormous amount of work to be done and we know we can’t sit back and wait for Washington [D.C.] to do it,” Bloomberg said.
There are medical advances to be discovered; young students who must be educated; tyrants abroad who must be fought; and equal rights, including “the right to love and marry whoever you wish,” to be advocated in the country, he said.
Although the challenges that face graduates beyond Cornell have never been resolved quickly or easily, Bloomberg said that “eventually, in every case, the federal government has stepped in … and declared equal rights for all.”
“If you stand up for it it will happen, and you will extend Lincoln's legacy of freedom just as your parents and your grandparents did for you,” he said.
Quoting the late Prof. Carl Sagan, who taught astronomy and space sciences at Cornell from 1971 to 1996, Bloomberg said, “‘Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to happen.’ [Sagan] may have been talking about the origins of the universe, but he very well may have been talking about our lives. And as you leave these ivy-covered walls, a new world is waiting for you.”
Bloomberg urged soon-to-be graduates to “go out and find … new experiences and insights” beyond Cornell. Travel wherever you can; read wherever you go; be skeptical; and stand up for your beliefs, especially when they are not popular, he said.
“Remember that most people who have changed the world have first been ridiculed or dismissed, and remember that this great University, and our country, was not built by timid minds but by grand hopes and bold actions,” Bloomberg said.
As he concluded his address to the crowd, he asked graduating students to do “one small favor” for him at midnight: “Raise your glasses to the memory of Palms o’clock and the future that is yours to discover.”
“Congratulations, good luck and remember, if you are moving to New York City, I get the couch. Go Big Red!” he said.