Former Vice President Joe Biden addressed thousands of Cornell graduating seniors and their families at Schoellkopf Field on Saturday, calling Cornell “one of the great, great universities in the world” and imploring graduates to “wake up,” be tolerant and make their mark on the world.
He also ticked off a series of Cornell references — from remarks on tray riding down Libe Slope to enjoying this semester’s unusual snow day — and munched on a scoop of “Big Red, White and Biden” ice cream produced by Cornell Dairy.
Biden, who graduated from the University of Delaware and Syracuse University College of Law, said he would have been a Cornellian were it not for one barrier.
“I almost came here to law school, but I couldn’t get enough financial aid,” he said. “Y’all think I’m kidding, but I’m not.”
After being introduced by President Martha Pollack and making a series of jokes about Cornell having “the smartest cows,” a class on wine and icy weather, Biden launched into a fiery speech on the importance of treating everyone with dignity, which he called “what has always made America great and unique.”
“You cannot define an American based on ethnicity, religion or race,” he told thousands who gathered on the football field and in stands for the senior class convocation ceremony.
Dignity, Biden said, “has been part of our national ethic, because we know that if people are treated with respect, if we equip them with care — the capability to care for their families, to maintain their dignity — it’s harder for the politics of fear to find a home.”
Without mentioning Donald Trump, Biden issued a forceful rebuke of the president’s rhetoric and “America first” stance, saying Cornell graduates will enter a world where many Americans are anxious about their future and angry that globalization has cost them their jobs — worries he said are often preyed on by politicians.
“We saw how playing to their fears rather than their hopes — rather than their better angels — can still be a powerful tool,” he said. “As I said several times this commencement season, this past election cycle turned up some of the ugliest realities that still remain in our country. Civilized discourse and real debate gave away to the coarsest rhetoric stroking our darkest emotions.”
“The immigrant, the minority, the transgender — anyone not like me became a scapegoat,” Biden said.
But he assured seniors that the current status quo is “a temporary state of affairs” and that “the American people will not sustain this attitude for long. I promise you.”
Most vital, the 47th vice president said, is that graduates attempt to fully understand people with whom they disagree and remember that “every single person is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect,” which he said is “in our DNA.”
“Understand the people you’re dealing with, understand their problems,” he said. “It’s an awful lot harder to dislike someone when you know their dad is dying of prostate cancer, or they have a brother with a drug problem, or they just lost their job.”
Technology, Biden said, can encourage “shallow” relationships “that make it too easy to reduce the other to stereotypes.”
People who hold views antithetical to one’s own are “not flattened versions of humanity … they’re a whole person,” Biden said, “flawed, struggling to make the world better just like you, to make it in the world just like you.”
Under clouds that did not part but withheld rain, Biden read Ezra Cornell’s famous founding motto, “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.”
Ezra Cornell “wasn’t just talking about white men,” Biden said. “He wasn’t just talking about those born in the United States — not just the wealthy — he was talking about any person with the desire, the drive and the capacity to excel.”
The thousands who will graduate at Commencement on Sunday will have “an enormous amount of pressure” on their backs, and “temptations along the way to rationalize and to make choices that other people want you to make,” Biden said.
The 74-year-old, who has been named the Benjamin Franklin Presidential Practice Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, recalled graduating from law school at Syracuse on the school’s football field in 1968 and seeing the world as a frightening, volatile place.
“I remember my colleagues and I looking at each other when we graduated, and thinking, how could this be happening?” he said.
Less than five years later, at 30, Biden was sworn in as a U.S. senator in Delaware, a position he would hold for 36 years until being selected as President Barack Obama’s vice president.
“There’s no reason why you and your generation — the class of 2017 — can’t have a similar and more profound impact on this country than my generation did,” Biden said. “And I mean it.”
“I’m so optimistic about your generation that I’m optimistic about this country,” he said, later adding: “It’s time for the country to wake up and ladies and gentlemen of the graduating class of 2017, go out and wake us up.”
Moments later, Matthew Baumel ’17, the Convocation Committee chair, presented Biden with a scoop of Cornell Dairy ice cream made especially for Biden, which contained “powerful chunks of chocolate that are sure to be your vice after just one bite.”
After chowing down, Biden exclaimed: “It’s really good.”