Apple CEO Tim Cook delivers commencement speech for Tulane’s Class of 2019

Campbell Lutz, Senior Staff Reporter

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Few life events are as consequential or memorable as a college graduation. Each year, Tulane hosts graduation in New Orleans’ massive Mercedes-Benz Superdome and puts on a ceremony meant to match the significance of the event. Complete with fireworks and New Orleans-style jazz music, this year’s May 18 ceremony honored Tulane’s Class of 2019 graduates.

For some students, the highlight of the day was Apple CEO Tim Cook’s keynote address. The speech received widespread attention, and a variety of news outlets including CNBC and The New Orleans Advocate reported on it.

Tim Cook

Courtesy of Tulane University

Before Cook took the stage, President Michael Fitts came to the podium and gave a brief introduction. Fitts jokingly lamented that Cook, a native of the Alabama coast, chose to attend nearby Auburn University instead of Tulane.

“Tim, let me just say, we still want you,” Fitts said. “In fact, we want you so badly we’re giving you a degree today.”

In addition to Cook, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet and actress Blythe Danner received honorary doctorates.

After giving Cook an open invitation to drop in on any Tulane class he wants in the future, Fitts went on to praise Cook’s achievements as CEO of Apple and welcomed him to the podium to loud applause from the crowd.

Cook started off his long-anticipated speech by giving a shoutout to the volunteers who helped set up and the bartenders at The Boot Bar and Grill. He also gave a shoutout to the city of New Orleans. In his days as an Auburn undergraduate, Cook said, he and his friends would make frequent trips to the Big Easy, drawn by the city’s “beignets and beers.”

But his praise for New Orleans went beyond the local cuisine and nightlife.

You’ve been fortunate to live, learn, and grow in a city where human currents blend into something magical and unexpected, where unmatched beauty — natural beauty, literary beauty, musical beauty, cultural beauty — seems to spring unexpectedly from the bayou,” Cook said. 

Tim Cook

Courtesy of Tulane University

The disaster-prone city’s unlikely position on the edge of the bayou is, according to Cook, a testament to the importance of working hard and putting forth an effort in the face of adversity.

He challenged students to question the status quo. Just as Cook accepted a leadership position at Apple in the 1990s at a time when the company was on the verge of bankruptcy and the industry’s future was uncertain, he told students to seek out society’s greatest problems. That, he said, is where professional achievement is to be found.

“Whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of being too cautious,” Cook said. “Don’t assume that by staying put, the ground won’t move beneath your feet. The status quo simply won’t last.”

The crowd cheered when Cook mentioned the challenge presented by climate change as an example of the need to innovate. He cited the people in Louisiana whose homes and livelihoods are threatened by rising sea levels. Empathy, according to Cook, is the best way to break down the political lines that divide society and improve the world.

Cook ended his speech on a note of hope.

“Call upon your grit,” Cook said. “Try something. You may succeed. You may fail. But make it your life’s work to remake the world, because there is nothing more beautiful or worthwhile than working to leave something better for humanity.”