August 23, 2004

President Lehman '77 Welcomes Class of '08

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Never thought you’d hear the president of Cornell give a speech about male supermodels? In his second convocation address as president, Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77 welcomed over 4000 new Cornell students and parents to campus on Saturday in Barton Hall. Lehman reminisced about the first time he sat in Barton Hall as a new student 31 years ago as well as when he repeated the experience 29 years later as a new parent. The speech’s recurring motif? The 2001 movie Zoolander.

After the disclaimer that Derek Zoolander is “an astonishingly shallow person,” Lehman explained how the state of the new student is like that of the three time Male Model of the Year.

“In his moment of deepest humiliation, Zoolander has a conversation with his own reflection in a rain puddle. Quoting Jean Valjean from Les Miserables, he asks ‘Who am I?’ His reflection responds, ‘I don’t know.’ And in a flash of blinding insight, Zoolander observes, ‘I guess I have a lot of things to ponder.’ We all have a lot of things to ponder. And during your time at Cornell you will develop your capacities to ponder them in ever more effective and satisfying ways,” Lehman said.

Lehman also spoke about The Trial, this year’s book of choice for the New Student Reading Project.

“This year’s text is Franz Kafka’s The Trial, which I’m sure you all have read by now,” Lehman joked.

After discussing the question of the “moral responsibility of the functionaries who operate within Kafka’s seemingly capricious legal bureaucracy,” Lehman said, “We want you, as Cornellians, to have that kind of subtle nuanced intellect — the kind of intellect admired by Keats and displayed by Kafka, Shakespeare, and Stiller.”

He demanded that, in order to get “the full Cornell experience,” students find ways to participate in the community as a whole and offered six suggestions for doing so. First, he encouraged students to introduce themselves to a complete stranger and said they could blame it on him if people thought they were crazy. “I won’t mind,” he said.

He then suggested that students find a “work of true genius” on campus.

“Third, try out a new sport or musical instrument or activity that you are not very good at. Your swim test does not count as taking up an activity. … Fourth, take at least one class a year that you are certain will never have any practical value for you. … Sixth, learn about Cornell’s special traditions. Sing the alma mater and Davey, eat far too much ice cream from the Cornell Dairy, sleep out for hockey tickets, and try to get the bear to talk,” he said.

Lehman ended his speech by addressing the parents in the audience. Their children, he told them “will still learn from you, but at least as often they will teach you things. Maybe, if you’re lucky, they will take you to see Zoolander.”

Erica Kagan ’05 and Jackie Koppell ’05 both spoke at the ceremony in their roles as Student Assembly president and student-elected trustee, respectively.

“Don’t waste your time,” Koppell told the freshmen.

“Cornell can give you the tools to understand the problems of the world and to help solve them,” she said.

Kagan’s speech focused on how students can make the most of their time at Cornell. “I think first year students should explore all the options that are available to them while finding a balance that will make them comfortable at Cornell,” she said.

As the Cornell community’s newest members exited Barton Hall, they were welcomed by yet another familiar trope, the Ithaca rain.

Archived article by Freda Ready
Sun Managing Editor