Commencement 2015

Congratulations to the Class of 2015!

Peter Cooper once said: “Rewards come to those with patient industry and minds that soar.” Never before have I witnessed a student body that exemplifies this as you do. Peter Cooper would have been proud of your “patient industry”—I don’t think students anywhere work as hard. And he would have delighted in your “soaring minds.” Rewards surely will come to you.

Parents, families and friends of our graduates, please stand so that we may honor you. Achievement doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Whether it is the genes or the upbringing, or both, you deserve credit. Thank you.

Will the faculty please stand? Our dedicated faculty provide the intellectual context for the extraordinary learning experience at Cooper. Thank you.

Most of you arrived at Cooper the same year I did, for the academic year beginning in the fall of 2011. We were freshmen together, although I admit I did not live in the dorm.

We may have come from different places, literally and figuratively. And we may have had different experiences during this time.

And yet, here we are, united by this hallowed hall. The noise of democracy, of discord, of protest, is familiar to these columns, which actually stand for our right to disagree. John Cage heard cacophony as music.

At commencement, the Great Hall unites us in reflection about education’s broader purpose as envisioned by our founder: “My earnest desire,” he wrote, “is to make this building and institution … unite all in one common effort to improve each and every human being, seeing that we are bound up in one common destiny.”

So we may start from different places. And we may face in different directions. But we face a common destiny.

For Peter Cooper, a universalist, our common destiny requires those of us who benefited from opportunity to create opportunity for others. For the thin slice of humanity with a fine education, our responsibility is to give it to others.

Most importantly, we are united today because of our love for Cooper Union.

As parents know all to well, sometimes love requires doing some very tough things.

In early 2011, most of you were completing your applications to Cooper and waiting to hear if you were one of the privileged few. I was considering an offer to be the 12th president. I imagine we were attracted by some of the same exceptional qualities of Cooper.

We met as freshmen in the fall. While you were plunged into your courses, I was plunged into my own self-study course—on Cooper’s finances. I know your courses were challenging. Mine was too. Your courses led you to discover imaginary worlds, pushing the limits of thought. Mine did too.

But it is generally not a good idea to discover that you live in an imaginary financial world.

The shape of a building may appear to violate the laws of physics, but the foundation and internal structure cannot actually do so. If these mighty columns in the Great Hall were crumbling and in danger of collapse, creative work on the floors above could not thrive.

The truth can sometimes be brutal. It can burst a bubble, shred a narrative, explode a myth. Waiting for the elevator everyday, I see the plaque in the lobby quoting Peter Cooper saying: “Whatsoever things are true.” Financial truth is what it is, not what we want it to be. As disciplines, art, architecture, engineering —as well as the humanities and social sciences—force us to confront uncomforting truths. Indeed, that’s what an education is all about. That’s what makes Cooper Cooper.

You cannot really turn your back on the truth. It surrounds us. It is us.

I recognize it was jarring to announce during your freshman year that Cooper had only two to three years left until insolvency. But it is only because we confronted that truth that we are here today, and that we have secured our finances for generations of students to come.

As I stated in this hall during the occupation, returning to free-tuition is an aspiration. True aspirations must be realized on solid foundations.

I am grateful for all that I have learned from you, the Class of 2015. I danced—clumsily —with some of you in a Bollywood number at the Talent Show, played violin—however off-pitch—with some of you, and fumbled a volleyball with others. But most of all, I learned from you, from your shows, your critiques and your inventions. Collective learning also unites us as a community. I am happy that we learned so much together during these four years.

As you go forward today into a future that only you can shape, please remember the institution whose teaching and mentoring culture helped you realize your extraordinary talents and find your unique voices.

Be afraid of neither penetrating questions nor troubling answers. History is a dialectical process. In the words of John Lennon: “People asking questions lost in confusion, Well I tell them there are no problems, Only solutions.”

This text is adapted from remarks made at the 2015 commencement ceremony.
  • Founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers education in art, architecture and engineering, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences.

  • “My feelings, my desires, my hopes, embrace humanity throughout the world,” Peter Cooper proclaimed in a speech in 1853. He looked forward to a time when, “knowledge shall cover the earth as waters cover the great deep.”

  • From its beginnings, Cooper Union was a unique institution, dedicated to founder Peter Cooper's proposition that education is the key not only to personal prosperity but to civic virtue and harmony.

  • Peter Cooper wanted his graduates to acquire the technical mastery and entrepreneurial skills, enrich their intellects and spark their creativity, and develop a sense of social justice that would translate into action.