By JAMES RAINIS
When you think of the elite people who have been invited to speak at Cornell graduations past, you think of esteemed academics who jump-started their careers with an undergraduate degree earned far above Cayuga’s waters (take pop psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers ’47 or Dr. Mae Jemison ’81, who was a freaking astronaut), distinguished persons of letters (pre-Internet journalism magnate Austin H. Kiplinger ’39) or, well, tons of politicians, running the gamut from renowned conservative Rudy Giuliani to Democratic Minority House Leader Nancy Pelosi. What you don’t think of is an underachieving, Brooks Brothers-clad alumnus who spent his four years drinking, sticking his dick inside snowmen and singing in a particularly punny acapella group. Yet, fellow 2014 grads, here we are.
The selection of Ed Helms (hencely known as Andy Bernard ’95, because we didn’t book him for his work in the Hangover sequels or the “at least I got to see Jennifer Aniston in her underwear” road-trip flop, We’re The Millers) is, at first glance, hilarious. Harvard is entertaining themselves with the presence of the planet’s shortest billionaire — been there, done that, guys — and Yale is getting the dude who managed to lose a presidential election to a man who almost choked to death on a pretzel. Cornell, on the other hand, is showing a shocking amount of self-deprecation by picking a man who portrayed a character who exemplifies the perceived mediocrity and also-ran status of our university. Props to Convocation Chair, Jennifer Lee ’14: If she was going for the most meme-worthy choice, she knocked it out of the park. At an event where Cornell is making a last-ditch effort to sell us on being contributing alumni they’ve unwittingly ended up with the pop culture figure who best sends up the entire concept of the exceptionally proud college alum.
For the uninitiated, Andy Bernard is a character on the beloved sitcom The Office who is the personification of what GQ, in explaining their ranking of Cornell as the #1 Douchiest College in America, called “the chip-on-the-shoulder douche.” He’s racked up quite the resume, working at Lehman Bros., Bear Stearns and Enron, but he ends up as the Regional Director of Sales for Dunder-Mifflin’s admittedly unglamorous paper-selling operation. Therefore, Andy attempts to bolster his self-worth — and the esteem everyone else in the office has for him — by constantly referring to his Cornell education. He’s obsessed with his acapella group — Here Comes Treble, which some speculate is based upon Cayuga’s Waiters — and, like an overly-comfortable fratboy wearing Nantucket Red pants, refers to his coworkers by jocular nicknames. He even talks about having a column in The Sun, which he abandoned, in typical Cornell fashion, after realizing that he wasn’t going to become editor in chief. Bernard is obnoxious and pathetic, but it’s extremely funny to watch. After all, what’s more humorously pitiful than someone so obsessed with their college’s “illustrious” history that they feel the need to bring it up in casual conversation and treat it like the best thing that ever happened to them?
I began to feel less enamored with the decision after hearing the recent news about the discontinuation of American Studies 2001. Full disclosure: I am taking the class now — mostly because I couldn’t fit Wines into my schedule — and it has proven to be highly enjoyable. Corey Earle ’07 clearly loves the material, and teaches it in such a way that acknowledges he’s teaching a one-credit fluff class to a bunch of seniors who are willing to meet him halfway as long as he keeps things entertaining. The cancellation of Earle’s class is undoubtedly disappointing, but, if you look at the reactions of students across Twitter and Facebook, you’d think that they were sentencing poor Corey to death.
Perhaps I’m just a jaded senior, but the responses treat Cornell more like a cult or religion than an academic institution. In a letter to the editor published in The Sun yesterday, the authors wrote that “the course is intended to provide a large cross-section of Cornellians with a unifying, cathartic experience that ignites a passion for and a continuing, unyielding and persistent connection to our Alma Mater, far Above Cayuga’s waters.” Though my vague familiarity with the writers would lead me to believe that they truly mean what they wrote, it all sounds eerily similar to the pleas from the Senior Class Campaign as they beg me to begin “making my contribution” to the University (I have enough student debt already, thank you very much). Another quote from the letter sounds straight up Bernardian: “This class is extremely important to me since I’m a legacy. It’s not just the ‘History of Cornell,’ as they call it, it’s the history of my family’s time at Cornell.”
In Kurt Vonnegut ’44s Cat’s Cradle, he introduces the concept of the granfalloon, defined helpfully by Wikipedia as “a group of people who affect a shared identity or purpose, but whose mutual association is actually meaningless.” Vonnegut identifies several in the text, and it’s no surprise that he included Cornell. The granfalloon of Cornell is the University’s greatest achievement in marketing: Despite an exceptionally varied and unrelated clientele, the University has managed to convince thousands of people that their institutional relation is something to be valued and bragged about. Andy Bernard, the pop cultural punchline he is, is the avatar of any person who has bought into the whole Cornell scheme. “Not only is it providing an elite education,” he seems to say, “but it is an elite community that, in a way, makes me better than those outside of it.”
That’s why the hiring of Helms to speak at our Convocation — and it is most definitely a hiring and not an appointment, as Convocation Committee gets SAFC funding — is so damn funny. At an event where Cornell is making a last-ditch effort to sell us on being contributing alumni — what, did you think there were other motivations for the ridiculousness of Senior Week? — they’ve unwittingly ended up with the pop culture figure who best sends up the entire concept of the exceptionally proud college alum. And don’t be mistaken: there are scores of undergrads who will develop into the kind of people who push their kids to go to Cornell from birth, grab drinks at NYC’s Cornell Club and buy custom Cornell Patagonia jackets. As unflattering as it may be, maybe we can’t escape the self-parody. To paraphrase Hugh Mawran ’78, who was quoted in an Inside Higher Ed article about — seriously — Cornellians petitioning NBC for the creation of an Andy Bernard spinoff called Cornell and Me, perhaps we’re just going to have to live with the fact that some part of Andy, however small and insignificant, lives on in all of us.