2003 Columbia College and SEAS Convocation Address

August 25, 2003

It is an enormous privilege and a pleasure to welcome you as new students to Columbia University and also to welcome into our community all the families and friends of our newest members. We, on the faculty and administration, appreciate how important – how exhilarating and yet how daunting – this day is, representing in so many ways the first step into a new stage of life. While each of you arrives at this point with your own unique personal story, a story that will take new shape and form especially over the next few years, every one of us on the faculty began as you are now beginning and we therefore know something of what you are feeling. The most important thing I can say to you, and to your parents, at this particular moment is that we at Columbia view your education and well-being as our foremost responsibility. We welcome you into our little universe, a universe where understanding is accorded the highest value. And we promise you that your opportunities to experience the incredible riches of this great institution will be as great and as meaningful as any university can make them.

It is important at the outset that I say a word or two about your parents and families. Entering college is for nearly all students more than simply immersing yourself in a more advanced level of education. It is also a setting out on your own, a leaving of home, and the beginning of an independent life. This is, accordingly, an occasion that touches the deepest of feelings. For you, the students, the feelings are, in all probability, primarily ones of unqualified glee mixed, of course, with a little anxiety. For your parents, on the other hand, the feelings are the purest form of love and pride, coupled with a lot of anxiety. (For your younger siblings, the feelings are quite different altogether—mostly about claiming the possessions and other spoils you are leaving behind.) At times such as this, we all feel both the need to say profound things about what this all means and the inability to say those things. The best we can do is what Pericles did in his Funeral Oration, which is to acknowledge openly the failure of our words to communicate what we want desperately to say. And, yet, we do express our feelings, subtly to be sure, in all the small acts of helping and caring—the carrying of boxes, the fixing up of your dorm room, the framing and placing of pictures, and so on. I urge you, the students, to see in these ordinary acts of parental kindness their real and true – and larger – meaning.

Now, it should be said that sometimes in these moments of high personal meaning, rather than being grateful, we turn surprisingly irritable and even cranky. One of my senior faculty colleagues once told me of how, having been hospitalized with a broken foot while traveling, his wife made the long trip to see him. The whole time he awaited her arrival he felt nothing but loving anticipation of being finally reunited. And, yet, when she actually walked into the hospital room, he felt unexpectedly, unaccountably, and inexplicably annoyed with her, even petulant—for what, he had no idea, but he felt it nonetheless. Crankiness, it seems, is a natural way of sometimes expressing our affection – a trait that, it must be further observed, is especially prevalent among the young. I’m sure your parents on many occasions have experienced this form of demonstration of your love and gratitude, and will not be surprised at its presence now – and, of course, we look forward to having this among the others pleasures of your company in the weeks and years ahead.

Now, this afternoon my main substantive message to you, our new students, is simply this: I do not believe there has been—certainly not in my lifetime—a better, or more critically important, time to be in college than right now. I say this deliberately and not just to make you feel good, although I hope it will also do that. The reasons why this is so are highly complex, but in essence, they are twofold: the combination of the enormous advances in our understandings of the world with critical discoveries in many fields of human inquiry over the last few years and the fact that the circumstances of the world we live in have shifted so significantly that we are experiencing issues and problems of a kind and a magnitude we have not seen before. We live in a time of seemingly enormous potential but one with equally enormous problems that must be addressed and solved. And, importantly, there is a feeling that if we understood things better than we do, life for us on the planet now and for future generations could be so much better. Thus, to give but a few examples: We have now broken the code of life, and yet we are only beginning to grasp how that information actually makes life and how it can be altered to cure disease and to improve life. We have developed the most successful and prosperous democracy and economic system in human history, and yet we cannot end poverty or feel confidence in our system of education. We have through the power of our ideas and the glories of new technologies engaged with the world as never before, and yet we do not understand the forces of globalization that have been set in motion, nor have we settled upon the nature and degree of responsibility we should now assume for others in the world, nor have we figured out how to save the planet from ourselves, nor have we come to terms with the kind of international order that can deal effectively with these issues and dilemmas.

It is this compelling and obvious combination or intersection between the uncertainties created by the course of human affairs at this period of time and the power of knowledge to address human and global needs at a time like this that gives an extraordinary sense of vitality to what goes on within a university such as Columbia. There are times when ideas matter more than at other times, and now appears to be a time when they can matter most.

But, not only is this the best of times to be within a university, I am confident that Columbia University is the best of universities to be at. What you can learn at Columbia—with the amazingly varied expertise of its faculty, and the talent and dedication of our staff—is breathtaking. But the distinctiveness of Columbia is really in the feel of the place, in its unusual culture of serious and sophisticated intellectualism along with a caring about the world. Nothing can compete with the ethos of the Core Curriculum. Who, after all, wouldn’t want to sit with Socrates and hear what he has to say about life as we know it today and might know it in the future? It is in moments of uncertainty, such as we are experiencing now, that revisiting what has been thought before becomes so invigorating to the mind and so illuminating. And, you get to do this in the very special context of our celebrating Columbia’s 250th anniversary.

Finally, I would say that there is no better place in the world to undertake your college education than at Columbia University in the City of New York. What you have available to you in this City, with Columbia as your base, is simply unmatched anywhere. Everyone in the world must come to New York City, and everyone wants to visit Columbia – partly, to see you, the exceptional students. The opportunity for you to encounter world leaders, in every field of endeavor, is unparalleled. Just keep an eye out for visits of political leaders during the third week of September. And then there are the arts. With Columbia’s Passport to New York program much of the greatest art in the world is available to you for free. And we are working on ways to expand your and Columbia’s engagements with the arts in the City, as well as internationally. We are now working with one of the leading nonprofit theater companies in the City to make front row seats to regular performances available at steeply discounted prices to Columbia students.

So, this is your new life—a life at one of the world’s great universities (at a time when it celebrates its illustrious history), in one of the world’s great cities, at a time in history of enormous possibilities and problems, when the power of knowledge and understanding are being recognized and called for from every quarter. Over the next several days, as you settle into your new home, you may at times feel cranky (which we know to interpret as a sign of your affection for us) but most of all I hope and expect that you will feel the overwhelming sense of good fortune that has brought you to this university at this moment, just as we feel our great good fortune at having you become part of our community.

Thank you and good luck.