Mayor Bloomberg's Commencement Address

May 29, 2013

On May 29, The Honorable Michael R. Bloomberg, Mayor of the City of New York delivered the 154th Commencement Address to the 2013 graduating class of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.  It touches on his student past as well as the importance of giving back.  Watch the video and read the text, provided by the Mayor's office, below.

“Mr. President, thank you. I know most of these students are saying, ‘With his academic record, he’s getting an honorary degree?’

“Just so you students know, I was always one of the people that made the top half of the class possible.

“As a matter of fact, this is a true story, I went to Johns Hopkins in 1960, which shows you I couldn’t be your parents, I could be your grandparents. And I went to study physics. And I got there and I found out that there was a German requirement, because if you think about it, in 1960, most of the physicists in this country had come from Germany, escaping before the war.

“And after three days in German class, I became an electrical engineering student. It wasn’t even close.

“I did graduate, however, with a degree, a Bachelor of Engineering Science, I think it was called, in 1964. And the commencement speaker then was somebody who talked for an hour and a half – or at least it seemed that way. And the President reminded me backstage that I am the only thing between now and you getting your degrees, so he urged me not to spend the next hour and a half talking. So I won’t do that, I’ll keep it short, but I have a message.

“First, let me start out by thanking everyone and saying good morning to the faculty and friends and honored guests and most importantly to you, the Class of 2013.

“To say I’m honored to be with you and to congratulate you for making this day possible is just an understatement.

“Cooper Union was one of those schools that I never applied to because I never would have had a chance of getting in here. The academic standards here were so much greater than my abilities.

“Nevertheless, don’t worry. It turned out okay.

“Now, I know graduating here hasn’t been easy. I understand the mad dash to complete your final projects has been grueling. As engineers, especially the ‘Kemmies,’ you have been living in the lab for weeks and yet here you are. Artists, you have subsisted I’m told almost off Frankie’s Kitchen for months, and here you are. Who knew? And architects, you probably haven’t seen the light of day for five years, yet here you are.

“Now, you’ve all powered through – and I guess that should come as no surprise. Hard work and dedication to craft is the Cooper way, and your final projects are just the latest challenge that you’ve survived. But it’s certainly not going to be the last.

“In your very first days, I understand you also survived the long lines to register for classes using computer punch cards from the 1950s. And that illustrates the first rule of engineering: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

“As a matter of fact, the one computer program that I ever wrote in college was in Fortran to invert a four-by-four matrix. It took me the entire Christmas vacation, because you had to punch the cards yourself and then run it through a compiler and then they sent you back this big listing with all of the errors that you’d made.

“And when I finished, everybody came back from vacation, and somebody said, ‘Can I borrow your deck of cards?’ And I’m like all students – nothing wrong with me, I wrote my program. Sure. And I said but be sure you take out the cards that say, ‘Written by Mike Bloomberg.’

“That person did not. Nor did everybody else in the class who copied his deck of cards. Whoops.  A little bit of a problem. But anyways, I survived.

“And some of you even survived the woodshop and welding class and others that had physics with Professor Wolf. Sorry about that.

“But it is true also that all of you survived thousands and thousands of slices of Two Bros pizza. I will make a point to stop and have a piece of pizza at Two Bros. I hope it’s really thin. That’s the way I like it.

“Anyways, you’ve made it through all that and more, and you should be very proud of yourselves. I’m sure your families are. And they’ve supported you up and down.

“And one of the lessons I always try to give to young people is get rid of the words ‘I’ and ‘me’ out of your vocabulary. Use the words ‘we’ and ‘us,’ because I can’t think of anything that anybody does that’s important in life that doesn’t require other people’s help.

“And these families have really supported you. Maybe you want to give them a round of applause.

“Now, it’s an honor to stand with you on this stage in this Great Hall that really has witnessed so many crucial moments in American history, including the speech that launched Abraham Lincoln to the White House and saved the Union.

“He supposedly used this very podium. And the first time I gave a speech a number of years ago here using this podium, I called my mother and I said, ‘You will never believe what I just did.’ I was so impressed with myself. She told me to go back to work.

“It is an honor to stand with a group of elite students in the long shadow of one of America’s most influential pioneers, Peter Cooper.

“As a technological innovator, he helped our young country grow into an economic powerhouse that we’ve all benefited from. And as a generous philanthropist, he created this educational institution that from its earliest days has propelled our country forward in the long march toward freedom and equality.

“Today, I had planned to come here to discuss the state of that march and the public responsibility that I believe you graduates to participate in it – and I’ll touch in that in a few moments.

“But first, I want to speak for a moment about a private responsibility that I think you have, and it’s a responsibility that I think I’ve had and I’ve tried to carry it with me throughout my entire life.

“Like many of you, I went to school, as I said, to study and to learn to be a better person, to be a more well-rounded person, and also to have the skills to make a living.

“Before that, during high school, I had to save for tuition. And my father worked as a bookkeeper and a local dairy. My mother thinks that the most he ever made in his life was $11,000 – and that was one year.

“The family scraped and saved. We were certainly not wealthy, but we worked together, and my mother made sure my sister and I waited for my father to come home, and the four of us had dinner every single night together. We set the table together. My mother did the cooking. We went around the table each describing what we had done that day and then we all cleaned up together. And it was really the most informative part of my life. As I’ve said, if I screw it up, my parents are not to blame in this.

“Anyways, I’d do work afternoons and weekends for an electronics company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, saving money. And the woman who was a MIT PhD encouraged me to apply to Johns Hopkins. If she had encouraged me to go to The Cooper Union, I probably would have tried, although I’m not so sure you would’ve even sent me an application given my record.

“Nevertheless, by going to Hopkins, I did attend a university founded in the 1800s by an abolitionist, an entrepreneur, and a philanthropist. Sound familiar?

“In fact, Johns Hopkins – the man – was an early investor in the B&O Railroad, which used the nation’s first locomotive steam engine, designed by none other than Peter Cooper.
           
“So thanks to Johns Hopkins – and my student loans and the job I had at a parking lot for all the years I was at Hopkins to help pay my expenses – I did receive what turned out to be a great education.

“And thanks to Peter Cooper’s generosity and vision, you graduates have received an absolutely top-rate, top-quality, free education, as well.

“But you do not leave here with a debt. You are not debt-free.

“Whatever success you find in life, you still owe a debt to Peter Cooper and to this great school, just as I always think that I owe an enormous debt to The Johns Hopkins University and to the Johns Hopkins, the institution that he founded.

“Now, I know that this has been a difficult time for The Cooper Union community. There is anger, there is disappointment over the tuition issue. And I’m not here to take sides in that. That’s not what today should be about.

“But I do believe that recent events here offer an important, final lesson that applies far beyond these walls.

“Peter Cooper once said, ‘Give a man a gift, but do not endorse his note.’ Peter Cooper gave you a great gift – but he did not endorse your note.  He did not absolve you of your debt to this great institution, and you will carry that with you for the rest of your lives, just as I have carried my debt to Johns Hopkins.

“And as frustrated and as angry as you may be about the school’s present situation, its future really is yours to determine.

“When you walk out these doors today, do not leave the passion you have shown for this institution and its past and its future behind. Stay involved.  Stay committed.  And do what Peter Cooper did: Donate what you can.

“I do remember after graduating from Hopkins the Alumni Association calling and asking me to make a donation.  I didn’t really have very much money to give.

“I started working on Wall Street. My first job was working in the cage counting securities in my underwear because it was not air-conditioned in the summer. My first year’s bonus was forgiveness of the loan they gave me so that I could afford to go to work there, because they paid a lot less than other firms that had offered me a job.

“But you can always give something. And so I gave $5. That $5 would be about $37, which I’m guessing is probably less than what you’d spend in a night at The Coal Yard. 

“Actually, if you spend more than $37 at The Coal Yard, the next morning you’ll probably wish you had donated the money.

“But over the years, I continued to give, and as I earned more, I gave more. And I also invested my time and my energy in the school by serving on its Board of Trustees.

“Because as generous as Johns Hopkins and Peter Cooper were, you must always remember: They gave us a gift.  They did not endorse our note.

“And it is our responsibility to carry on their legacy. And when times get tough and everything seems lost, you just can’t walk away and think that, well, it’s somebody else’s problem. It’s not somebody else’s problem. It’s our problem.

“Not if you really believe in what you’re fighting for. And when you really believe in something, then you have to be willing to work like hell for it, and sacrifice for it. Otherwise, you will lose it.

“And that’s a dream. It’s true of a relationship. It’s true of a cause. It’s true of a career. It’s true of a college.

“And what matters most in this world are the ones that require the most of us – and not just over a few months or years, but forever.
           
“Now, I know all of you believe that this school is worth working for and sacrificing for – your actions have made that abundantly clear. Don’t ever give up on that belief and don’t ever forget that anything is possible, if people band together and commit themselves to a common goal.

“And that’s the story of every great social movement that Cooper Union has helped launch. All of those movements would have failed if they had relied on the generosity and beneficence of a few. 

“But all of them succeeded, after many setbacks and discouraging moments, because of the commitment and sacrifice of so many.

“My father asked me one time why- a question I had, and I said, ‘Well, you’ve just talked about giving money to the NAACP.’ And I said, ‘Daddy, why are we giving money to the NAACP?’ And my recollection, it was $50, which was a big gift for us in those days. And he said, ‘Because discrimination against anyone is discrimination against everyone.

“And with that simple act and with that simple explanation, I think he taught me one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned in my life: When you’re lucky enough to enjoy rights and opportunities that others do not, you have a responsibility to help open the door to them.

“You don’t have to be wealthy to give back. You can give back by getting involved. You just have to be committed to opening doors for others.
           
“And no matter what career path you follow or find yourself on, I hope that you will honor Peter Cooper’s legacy by opening doors for others, and not only by giving back to this great university, but also by extending Cooper Union’s tradition of pushing our great country to live up to our high ideals.

“From abolitionism to women’s suffrage to civil rights to the rights of workers, Cooper Union has always been at the forefront of America’s march of freedom, leading us towards a more equal society and a more perfect union.

“Two years ago, when I wanted to give a speech outlining the case for marriage equality in New York, I came right here to this stage at The Cooper Union, because I believe that marriage equality is the civil rights issue of our time.

“It is also a great example of why Peter Cooper believed that religion and law should be kept separate.

“In New York City, we welcome all people to practice their faiths here – and I believe we must always defend their right to do so, whether they want to build a church in Washington Heights or a mosque in Lower Manhattan.

“But we must never allow religious rules to dictate society’s laws. And I’m very proud to have helped pass marriage equality here in New York, and I’m very encouraged that around the country, more and more people in both political parties are coming out in favor of it.

“But at the same time, recent events here in our city show just how much more work lies ahead.

“Twelve days ago, a horrific murder took place just a few blocks west of here. A young man, Mark Carson, was harassed and then shot and killed. Why? Just because of his orientation.

“It makes you shudder to think that this could still happen, but it did.  In fact, it happened just around the corner from the Stonewall Inn, where the gay rights movement really first began back in the 1960s.

“It happened because of bias and hatred, but also because an ex-con had no trouble getting an illegal gun.

“As Americans, we cannot ignore either problem, because both tear at the heart of our country every single day, killing too many innocents and leaving too many people afraid to be themselves.

“As free as we are as a city and a country – in no small part because of the people who have stood in this hall – the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is still far too fragile.

“Our Founding Fathers declared independence from England to secure those rights – and 237 years later, we are still working on it.

“As a matter of fact, if you want to think of something that is free – that people consider free that I would argue is not free – just think about the freedom to practice your religion; say what you want to say; protestors, those of you who did in the back; live where you want to live; be in charge of your own destiny. Those are rights that people don’t have in so many parts of the world.

“And those are rights that aren’t free. They are paid for every single day with young men and women your age serving this country overseas. And in many cases, as I remembered on Monday when I laid a wreath at the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument on the Upper West Side, they pay with the ultimate price, with their lives, so that we can have the kind of life that we want.

“The march continues, and I hope all of you will follow in Peter Cooper’s footsteps by helping to lead it and by ensuring that this school remains as much a part of our country’s future as it has been in the past.

“The issue, the debate you’re having, really isn’t about whether education is free. It’s really a debate about who can and who is willing to pay for it.

“But there’s nothing really free in life, everything requires work, and people need to earn a living. And we have to find the right balance between all of that.

“I know some of you are thinking, ‘Oh, that’s nice to say so, that as an alumni, I’m going to have an obligation to help the school and keep it going. But first it’d be nice to find a job.’

“Well, fair enough. But trust me, you will.

“It may take a little while, but you’ve worked as hard as any college student in this country, and from my experience, there is nothing more attractive to an employer than someone who has a good work ethic.

“If you’re an artist, there’s nothing more important than bringing your visions to life and a good work ethic. Talent is important, sure.  But talent is like luck – the harder you work, the more you have.

“If you’re willing to work long days and nights, giving it your very best, you will find opportunities and success. And as you do, just remember to help open the doors for those that come after you, because somebody before you opened the doors for you.

“So tonight, one more drink at the Coal Yard, or my favorite – two more drinks at McSorley’s, which incidentally was a favorite haunt of Peter Cooper. And then go out and make this school, this city, this country and humanity proud. God bless.”

  • 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.