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CCSS annual lecture

From the President

Open Minds (And Ears): Students should—literally and figuratively—take off their headphones

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Jason Koski/UREL

At the beginning of this academic year, when I welcomed our newest Cornellians to campus at our annual New Student Convocation in Schoellkopf Stadium, I took the opportunity, as befitted the event, to offer some advice. I urged our incoming students to explore Cornell’s offerings widely: to take classes in areas that intrigued them, to try activities that challenged them, to enjoy the beauty of their surroundings. I encouraged them to take risks, and reminded them that all of us sometimes struggle and even fail. I told them about our Core Values, and asked all of them to embrace the ethos of Cornell: a place for “any person,” where every one of them belonged.

In addition to all of this advice, which I’m sure they expected, I also asked them to do something else: take off their headphones.

They laughed, but I meant it—both literally and figuratively. Literally, because headphones present a physical obstacle to one of the most important elements of a Cornell experience: our connections with others. Whether you are listening to music, a podcast, or even a recorded lecture, you are attending to a stream of information unavailable to others, and in so doing close yourself off to the interactions, casual and essential, that form the basis for strong and enduring relationships. Cornell, as a residential university, is designed to be an academic community whose members learn not only with, but from, each other. That can only happen when the lines of communication are open: when we are attentive to those around us, ready and able to speak and be heard.

When I asked our new students to take off their headphones, I also meant it figuratively. I asked them to turn off channels of information curated for themselves alone, and to open themselves to the thoughts, ideas, and contributions of those around them. Our students come to Cornell not only for the academic distinction they find here, but for the entire experience of a Cornell education: the lessons they will learn and the insight they will gain, inside and outside the classroom, from our wonderfully diverse community of faculty, staff, and fellow students. By listening to and grappling with opinions and outlooks different from their own, they sharpen their reasoning, refine their own thinking, and expand their own understanding—developing the skills that will enable them to thrive as global citizens, able to live, connect, and communicate with people who may be very different from themselves. 

That crucial ability to communicate across difference is something we support thoughtfully and deliberately at Cornell, both through conscious teaching and active learning and by fostering an environment that encourages engagement. Through our Intergroup Dialogue Project, which is now a mandatory part of the orientation experience for all new undergraduates, our students are able to explore the diverse identities of our community while acquiring the skills to engage in constructive conflict. Programs like the Peter Coors ’69 and Marilynn Gross Coors ’69 Conversation Series encourage civil discourse on difficult issues both in class and out, and our Active Learning Initiative provides opportunities across disciplines for students to engage intellectually and interpersonally with their peers as they learn. 

Cornell is, as it was designed to be, a place of diversity: not just of individuals and backgrounds but of experiences and ideas. It is also a place of unbounded intellectual opportunity, where the potential for learning exists in every interaction—if we keep our ears, and our minds, open.

Martha E. Pollack
president@cornell.edu

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