Cosby Urges Rensselaer Graduates: Be Honest, Be Humble

May 12, 2001

Cosby Urges Rensselaer Graduates: Be Honest, Be Humble

Albany, N.Y. — Bill Cosby today urged the 1,100 graduates of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to change the world by being honest, remaining humble, and continuing to learn from others.

“Regardless of your education, I want you to remain a human being, thinking that there is always something to learn from anybody — the janitor, the person bringing coffee, the person speaking with a broken accent,” said Cosby, who delivered Rensselaer’s 195th Commencement address at the Pepsi Arena. He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Arts and Humane Letters.

Charles E. Schumer, the senior U.S. Senator from New York praised Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson for her “leadership here at one of the greatest universities in the entire nation.” Schumer said Rensselaer was “one of the keys to educational excellence and job growth here in the Capital Region.”

President Jackson introduced Cosby as “a treasured part of American culture and a vital force in raising the aspirations of young people around the world.”

“Dr. Cosby,” she said, “emphatically believes that the best assurance for a satisfying and rewarding life begins with knowledge.”

After receiving his doctorate, Cosby removed his ceremonial robe and revealed a red Rensselaer sweatshirt to match his Rensselaer baseball cap, replete with gold tassel.

“People talk about the world,” Cosby said. “You happen to be the world. You are one person. Can you make a difference? Damn right. You can make a difference. You can start paying off your student loan, and really mean to pay it off. You could start to pay your parents back, and really pay them back (for your education). You could do a lot everyday that would change this world. I guarantee that if you’d ever go to your parents’ home and give them, in cash, what they spent on you, you would change the world.”

“We’re talking about character, ladies and gentlemen, and those numbers will not go up on any board. Character is integrity. I just want you to feel and become human beings. I want you to be honest.

“No one will know who you are unless you tell the truth,” he said. “No one will know who you are if you don’t take the responsibility for the mistakes that you make, and stand up and say, ‘I did it.’”

Cosby recalled a class at Temple University in which the professor and students spent three hours debating the question: “Is the glass half-full or half-empty?” Afterwards, Cosby rode the subway to the home of his paternal grandmother, who had dropped out of school in the third grade. She asked what he was studying, and he told her about the half-empty/half-full debate.

His grandmother, who was kneading bread, answered without hesitation, “It depends on whether you’re drinking or pouring.”

“I’m telling you,” Cosby said, “you may know a lot, but you don’t know nothing. You’ve got to respect everybody. Be proud of yourself no matter what you do. College does not teach character. You teach yourself character. And you only learn by recognizing and executing integrity. And in doing that, you’re going to change the world.”

Cosby reminded the graduates that Sunday is Mother’s Day, and another opportunity to be honest.

“How many of you,” he quipped, “are going to use that diploma as her present? Think about it. This is something she paid for. If you want to give her something, give her an honest kid . . . and tell your Mom you love her.”

Rensselaer also conferred an Honorary Doctorate of Engineering on Vinton G. Cerf, widely known as the “Father of the Internet,” and an Honorary Doctorate of Laws on renowned sociologist William Julius Wilson.

Contact: Patrick Kurp
Phone: (518) 276-6531
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Founded in 1824, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is America’s first technological research university. Rensselaer encompasses five schools, over 30 research centers, more than 140 academic programs including 25 new programs, and a dynamic community made up of over 6,800 students and 104,000 living alumni. Rensselaer faculty and alumni include upwards of 155 National Academy members, six members of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, six National Medal of Technology winners, five National Medal of Science winners, and a Nobel Prize winner in Physics. With nearly 200 years of experience advancing scientific and technological knowledge, Rensselaer remains focused on addressing global challenges with a spirit of ingenuity and collaboration. To learn more, please visit