May 28, 2006

In farewell Commencement speech, Rawlings pays tribute to 'life-changing' power of gifted teachers to change students' lives

President Hunter R. Rawlings, delivering the farewell Commencement address of his yearlong interim presidency, spoke at length about how gifted faculty members can make education "a life-changing experience." He invoked many of the great names among Cornell's educators, from first president Andrew Dickson White to Nobel laureate Hans Bethe, as he bade farewell and congratulations to the Class of 2006.

On July 1, Rawlings, who was president from 1995 to 2003 and then returned last year, will hand over the presidency to Dr. David Skorton, formerly president of the University of Iowa.

The May 28 ceremony in Schoellkopf Stadium was held in bright sunshine. "It's a beautiful morning in Ithaca, New York," Rawlings said to applause.

To the approximately 6,000 graduating students, he said: "I welcomed you to Cornell in August 2002, and I had the pleasure of teaching many of you in my field of classics during your sophomore and junior years. This year I have returned to seeing students primarily at rallies and protests and in monthly meetings with the Daily Sun: not exactly as much fun as teaching ancient history. But I've enjoyed it immensely."

The Class of '06 knew Rawlings as a classics professor for two years and as president for two years. He told the graduates: "I think I know your full personality. My conclusion is that you did the wrong freshman reading assignment. You were supposed to read 'Frankenstein,' but I think some of you read 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.'"

The seated graduates listened intently to Rawlings' words, a sea of black caps and gowns splashed with color not only from their red carnations and rows of master's and doctoral hoods but balloons, props and custom-decorated mortarboards. A sunflower sat atop one graduate's cap, a cluster of ivy on another, a horseshoe for good luck on yet another. Hotel Administration graduates hoisted a huge (and unopened) celebratory jeroboam of champagne.

Throughout his speech, Rawlings spoke of the importance of the bond between teachers and students. "Great teaching by great researchers and scholars is at the heart of a Cornell education," he said. Cornell's first president, Rawlings related, "told Cornell's first entering class in 1868, 'You are not here to be made. You are here to make yourselves.' Today's graduates have taken on President White's challenge and responded exceptionally well."

Speaking of another great Cornell teacher, Rawlings said that the late history professor Carl Becker "caught the spirit of Cornell: in particular, its iconoclastic, irreverent nature."

Rawlings noted that students will always carry the bond they had with their teachers with them, "and it will shape the way you engage the world." He quoted A.D. White, professor of literature Ken McClane and poet A.R. Ammons, and marveled at the accomplishments of recently retired history professor Walter LaFeber and the late physicist Bethe.

"Every teacher, every one of us, harbors the hope that he or she will have made a difference in the lives of students," Rawlings said. "Looking back on your Cornell experience 10, 20, 30 or 40 years from now, I hope there will be Cornell professors -- perhaps some you do not yet fully appreciate -- who will have planted a seed and given you insights and intellectual curiosity that will shape your professional and personal lives; professors who will have inspired you, through their integrity and fervent advocacy for the public good, to take on the responsibilities of professional service and engaged citizenship. I urge you to stay in touch with our faculty after you graduate."

That educational legacy will continue: Rawlings announced the news that actor and comedian John Cleese, a popular A.D. White Professor-at-Large for the past eight years, would continue his relationship with Cornell as a Provost's Visiting Professor. Read about the Cleese appointment.

The entire ceremony lasted less than an hour, and some graduates cooled off under the hot sun by lowering gowns to reveal T-shirts, dress shirts and bare shoulders.

"I like that he [Rawlings] noted the Cornellians and the important people," said Kasey Diserens, Arts and Sciences '06. "It's good to know the history."

Said Caitlin Chaves, Arts and Sciences '06, after the ceremony, "It was nice that [Rawlings] was our incoming and outgoing president."