Love to Thee, Our Fair Cornell
I want to thank the organizers of the Saperstein contest for framing the topic that they did this year. It’s relevant to me, it’s relevant to many of my friends sitting in the audience today, fellow seniors who are beginning to think about what might be the best way to continue being good Cornellians and how we could give “love to thee, our fair Cornell.” It’s an incredibly important topic and a good conversation for us to have.
So when we think about the bench that sits atop Libe Slope, which reads “Love to thee, our fair Cornell,” it’s interesting to me how this bench is located. So if you think about this bench, it happens to be located atop the Slope and if you have ever, like me, sat on this bench and stared out at Cayuga Lake or at the town below, you realize that this is a bench which compels you to look at the world outside this University. I think Raymond Reisler could have easily placed this bench on the Arts Quad or looking into Anabel Taylor, but he chose not to. What he did was place the bench such that it forces you to contemplate the world outside this University and to me that’s incredibly important. What’s great about this little bench is that forces us to contemplate the busy humming of the bustling town beneath.
Raymond Reisler, to me, was an amazing man and his biography, which all of you might have read, stands testament to this. He did many things when he was at Cornell – he was a brother in Sigma Alpha Mu, he was a member of the Columns Board which doesn’t exist anymore but was a huge deal back then – the important thing for me is that he made himself indispensable wherever he was. This was a pattern that would repeat itself after Cornell as well when he became a lawyer and as an advocate against legal malpractice. He undertook his advocacy with great enthusiasm, his contributions were always important and he made his presence felt wherever he went. Even after he left Cornell, he was a leader in the New York State Bar Association and at the American Bar Association and when he was called to serve his country as a judge by Mayor Lindsay, he stepped up to the plate and served as judge for over a decade. We are incredibly proud of the fact that he didn’t forget Cornell throughout his career and that Cornell was very frequently a top priority for him. We all know stories of instances where he placed the interest of the University above his personal interests. What’s really important to me, however, is not his largesse towards this institution or towards individuals that he had met over here, it was his concern for the public at large. For me what’s really great about Ray Reisler is not that he had a very successful private practice in Brooklyn, not even that he served as President at one point of the New York Bar, it was his participation, for instance, in that 1966 conference that was focused on providing legal services for everyone, particularly people who could not otherwise get access to legal services. It was his crusade against legal malpractice that I mentioned earlier, malpractice which hurt those who could not get access to normal legal channels of recourse.
Why do I care about these “less prestigious” activities or honors? Why do I care more about his participation in this one conference to expand legal access rather than all his personal successes? Because for me loving our fair Cornell is about making certain that all the skills, talents, and networks which we develop here are then used later in life to help those who never had the chance to get access to Cornell’s resources, such as our Professors, to build those skills and talents and networks. When Raymond Reisler acted to expand legal services and curtail legal exploitation, those are the stories that I am therefore proudest of. When we read in Proverb 17:17 that a friend “loves at all times and becomes as a brother in adversity,” I think what Ray Reisler would want us to do, is to construe “friend” in the broadest sense possible. It’s very easy for us to read this quote and take from it the message that we must help, to the best of our ability, the people we know, the people we spend a lot of time with, the people who have helped us in the past. I think that’s an incredibly narrow reading of this Proverb. I think the way Ray Reisler would want us to read this, how a good Cornellian should read this, is to construe “friend” in absolutely the broadest sense possible. Anyone who seeks your help should be given the status of a friend and anyone with you in a time of adversity for them should be accorded the honor that you would to someone you’ve known for a long time. When we read in Leviticus 19:18 that you “shall love your neighbor as yourself” let us also interpret neighbor as broadly as we can, and let us not restrict our desire to help people, let us not restrict our enthusiasm to help those in need.
Why should we do this? Why should we not restrict our help? Why should we construe neighbor as broadly as possible? I can think of at least four reasons. First, there are passages in the Old Testament that I read for this sermon contest that tell us to do so. Exodus 22:20; “you shall not mistreat a stranger, nor shall you oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We’re told to not mistreat those who are not in our circles because we could, just as easily have been the ones who were seeking help. The fact that we’re in a position to help someone does not accord us, in any sense, a privileged position, or in any sense the opportunity or obligation to deny someone that help because the positions could very easily have been the other way around. It was fate, it was our luck, it was the circumstances that we were born into, it was the resources that we had access to that placed us in a position to help someone rather than in a position of needing help. Insofar as it is basically coincidence that you occupy these positions, we should be helping anyone who comes to us and seeks our help.
The second reason why the interpretation of neighbor, the interpretation of friend, should be very broad is because if we want to deal with inequality in our society today and if we want to achieve any semblance of social justice, that any of the individuals associated with this activity that we’re engaging in today so deeply wanted, restricting our largesse to the familiar just does not work. Going to college, going to Cornell in particular, today places us at an advantage over those who could not more than ever before. Why is this the case? Because fortunately or unfortunately, the way the modern economy works is by rewarding specialization. It rewards you tremendously for being able to train to do something particular and it leaves you at the greatest disadvantage ever if you simply have not had the opportunity to spend four years doing that one particular thing really well. Insofar as the world today, the economy today is so bent on giving preference and giving money and giving wealth and giving prestige to these lucky individuals, the only way we’re ever going to correct for this inequality, the only way we’re ever going to correct for this incredibly skewed distribution of wealth that we see today, that I and I hope many of you find very problematic, is by not restricting the use of our wealth and skills when serving others.
The third reason why we should do this is because Ray Reisler did so. He did this in his attempts to deliver impartial justice when he served as a judge. He did this in his attempts to curtail legal malpractice. He did this in his attempts to expand legitimate legal services. He spent his life; he used his wealth, the substantial amount of money that he accrued, in the service of others.
The fourth reason why we should do this is because, perhaps, it is the best way to love this institution of ours. I think Ezra Cornell really had it right when he stated his vision for this University that also happens to be our motto today, “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.” Unfortunately, far above Cayuga’s waters, we cannot, we simply cannot, accomplish this very worthy goal that he set for us. The space that we have is limited, the resources that we, as an institution, have are limited, and there simply are not enough beds atop this Hill to make sure that his vision comes to fruition. But as living embodiments of Ezra Cornell’s vision, we can make it a reality by spreading our resources, by spreading our skills as wide as possible, by interpreting neighbor as broadly as possible, by construing friend as widely as possible. That is the only way that the very worthy mission of this University is ever going to be realized.
So what exactly do we do then? I think there are two things for us to start with – the first one, for after we leave Cornell and the second one for while we are at Cornell. Let’s talk about what we can do once we leave Cornell. We need to recognize that some of us can have it very easy once we graduate, loving Cornell in that very narrow sense. When we graduate from Cornell, we will enter a family of a quarter of a million living individuals who will become a part of our networks. There are 245,000 alumni, many of whom occupy places of immense prestige and power in society. If we choose to be Cornellians in the narrowest sense possible, we can have an easy life making friends with these people, making our bits of money, and then disappearing from the face of this planet one day. That’s one way to live our life. But given that this is the world that we are about to enter, I think that we should all recognize the fact that this easy way to live is not the best way to live, that this easy way to live is not the way Ray Reisler would want us to live, it is not the way that Proverb 17:17 asks us to live, and certainly it is not a life worthy of a Cornellian. To use this network of people to collaborate to help humanity is a better way, so use these nearly 250,000 people that you are suddenly going to have access, absolutely, but not just for personal. Use them to create enterprises that improve the standard of living of the widest subset of humanity possible, to reach out to those who are struggling, who have been ignored by the social safety nets that we have today, and work with these 250,000 people to get rid of the systematic discrimination that exists in our society that prevents people from living similarly interesting and comfortable lives.
We can also, very importantly, act during our time at Cornell, and this is perhaps more important because it is more immediate. Remember also that we can be very comfortable in narrowly loving Cornell during our time on the Hill but that would again be a disservice because loving unconditionally what we have today prevents us from recognizing the many structural problems that exist in our time on this Hill. To serve blindly what Cornell is today prevents us from making this a better place for Cornellians in the future. If we construe loving our fair Cornell as simply as saying that everything that happens here is right, that nothing that exists today, none of the institutions that exist today need reform, that none of the power structures that exist today are problematic, is doing a disservice because recognize that there are institutions on this campus that some of are a part of that could do with a lot of change. I’m sure you all checked your emails this weekend and saw reports about three acts of crime associated with a very particular institution, I speak of fraternities. We could love Cornell by saying Cornell is brilliant, its fraternities are therefore brilliant and we should do nothing about them. But I think that would be a disservice to Reisler, to Ezra Cornell, and to the ideals that the Old Testament expresses because I think that the way in which you love a particular institution is by occupying the position of a concerned skeptic – someone who wants the best for that institution but someone who is the first to recognize the many things that are wrong with it. That is the way that we can act today, in our time as Cornell undergraduates to fulfill the worthy goals that all these individuals have set for us.
I want to conclude over here and quickly summarize for you what I’m trying to get at. I think we live in a world where some of us, and I think this room has quite the concentration of such people, who have got lucky and have had an incredible opportunity to study at a place like Cornell. If the life of Ray Reisler, and the vision of Ezra Cornell is any indication whatsoever of how we should love this institution of ours, it is to make sure that our generosity is expansive, that our help is close to unlimited, and that we live a life where we aim to, basically, make sure that by the time we leave this planet, our bank accounts are empty. If we can live as such individuals, or try to live as such individuals, then we would have gone a long way toward loving this institution of ours the way it deserves to be loved. Thank you.