Ehrenberg Inspires Graduates
by Sara LaJeunesse (May 2011)
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - “Family and friends mean much more in the long run than all of the professional success that one may achieve.”
That was the take-home message in Ronald Ehrenberg’s speech, which he gave at the College of Education’s commencement ceremonies on May 15. The Irving M. Ives professor of industrial and labor relations and economics at Cornell University was selected as the commencement speaker because of his outstanding contributions to labor economics, in general, and to the study of labor issues in higher education, in particular.
“He is an outstanding teacher and mentor who has positively influenced the professional lives of several faculty members in the College of Education at Penn State, including mine,” said David Monk, dean of the College of Education. “It was a personal privilege to participate in the presentation of an honorary degree to Dr. Ehrenberg.”
Ehrenberg, who was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the college as part of the ceremonies, talked about the importance of educators in his life, beginning with his parents who both were secondary school teachers in New York City. He then discussed the influence his college professors had on him. “When I reflect on how I have evolved as a professor, I clearly see the influence of all of my undergraduate professors,” he said to the students. “I hope you will reflect on your experiences at Penn State and the impacts that your professors have had on you.”
Ehrenberg continued by addressing some of the challenges that the College of Education’s graduates face as they enter careers. “You are beginning your careers at a very important time,” he said. “Our nation’s economic prosperity and improvements in its standards of living during the 20th century were driven largely by our leadership in education. However, in recent decades our educational performance has stagnated; while we continue to produce about the same proportion of college graduates as we did in the past, many other countries have improved their performance and we have fallen to no better than 10th place in the world in terms of the share of our 25 to 34 year old population with college degrees.”
One way to improve these numbers, he said, is to adopt a principle of ensuring that all students succeed. He used his wife, Randy who, prior to retiring, had been the superintendent of North Colonie, an award-winning district in the Albany, New York area. “While there are many characteristics of the district that led to its success, most important was that long before the passage of ‘No Child Left Behind,’ the district adopted the principle that the success of each student is the responsibility of the school system as a whole and no student should be permitted to fail. The attitude that each student can and will succeed is important for all teachers to adopt.”
Ehrenberg noted that graduation speeches usually conclude with the speaker offering the graduates some lessons about life; therefore, he offered three such lessons. “No one sails through life without facing major problems,” he said, describing the ordeal he and his wife went through when one of their sons developed a malignant brain tumor in 1991 and later died in 2008. “The happiest people are not necessarily the people who are lucky enough to avoid problems, but rather the ones whose ability to cope increases at a more rapid rate than their problems do,” he said.
The second piece of advice Ehrenberg shared was to seek out help when it is needed. “In academia, as in many other professions, individuals are never supposed to display weaknesses and insecurities to colleagues. However, I believe that those of us who have achieved great success have an obligation to discuss these matters with people such as you who are beginning your careers and I hope you will find mentors who will be as equally open and honest with you as I have been.”
Ehrenberg’s final, and most important, suggestion was that the students not become so obsessed with their careers that they ignore what really is important in life.
Ehrenberg has been a Cornell faculty member for 35 years. He is a Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow and is director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute. From 1995 to 1998 he served as Cornell’s vice president for academic programs, planning, and budgeting. Ehrenberg recently received the Jacob Mincer Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Labor Economics.
From 2006 to 2010, he was an elected member of the Cornell Board of Trustees. New York Gov. David Paterson nominated him for membership on the SUNY board of trustees in May 2009 for a term ending in June 2013, and the New York State Senate confirmed his appointment in March 2010.
Ehrenberg earned a B.A. in mathematics from Harpur College (SUNY Binghamton) and an M.A. and a Ph.D. in economics from Northwestern University. He received an Honorary Doctor of Science from SUNY in 2008.