2003 Commencement Address

May 21, 2003

It gives me enormous pleasure to say, on behalf of the trustees and the faculty, congratulations to the graduates of 2003. Today is your day and, after all the hard work you have put into your education over so many years of your lives, you deserve every ounce of satisfaction and pride we hope you are now feeling in what you have achieved. Our job this morning, just as it has been for the past several days of celebration, is to make it clear to you how much we admire you and wish you every continued success as you move onto the next stage of your life.

For the parents, families, and friends of the graduates, we also want you to know that we recognize how important this day is to you as well. Certainly, for many of you, this is a highly enriching moment (in every sense of that wonderful adjective). We know that your deep pride and satisfaction in your graduate’s accomplishments, symbolized by and condensed into this brief ceremony, and reflected in the beauty and magnificence of this special physical setting, has a long and very personal history, one filled with the twists and turns of fate and of heroic individual efforts, a personal story that gives this moment its profound significance.

My wife and I have attended commencements for our own children – very recently, in fact, and at this very ceremony one year ago, when our daughter graduated from the law school – and I know first-hand the extraordinary feelings that well-up inside one on an occasion such as this. It is impossible to be jaded or bored at a graduation, although we university administrators do our best to test your natural disposition towards happiness. In fact, to an extent that may even surprise us, all our attention—every bit of it—becomes focused on our own child or family member. We try as hard as we can to locate our graduate among the mass of graduates, barely repressing (or perhaps not) the urge to wave and scream out our adoration. For the moment, no one else matters; only your own graduate. Indeed, I have come to believe, observing my own behavior and attending, now, dozens of commencements, that among the fundamental forces of the universe, along with gravity and electromagnetism, we need to include the force of familial identification and to recognize that it reaches the zenith of its power at graduation ceremonies. I’ll return to this force later in my talk this morning.

I want to return now to the graduates. By any measure, and by comparison to any segment of time across history, you have attended the University at a remarkable and possibly even momentous period. For nearly all of you, that period spans a time when the world seemed to be flourishing in nearly every way to one when the world is struggling to come to terms with threats and instabilities – economic, political, and social. The date “9/11” signifies for all, and especially for New Yorkers and for Columbia University, the depths to which the human soul can be plunged. Most of us come to Columbia because here, more than at any other educational institution in the world, you can experience national and global events; and, indeed, so you have. For the rest of your lives, each of you will try in your own way to assess and express the significance and meaning of these events – some through literature (like the great World War I war poets), others through the visual arts (like Picasso’s “Guernica”); others through political theory (like Isiah Berlin and Hannah Arendt); and others through still other forms of expression.

Yet, in many ways these horrific events have strengthened our links to this great university and to the values that it lives by and represents. Next year we begin the celebration of the 250th anniversary of Columbia, to which you will be able to return as alumni/ae. As with the turning of the millennium, this will be an occasion to deepen the bonds that connect us to our predecessors and our successors and, of greatest importance, to enhance and refine our understanding of the ideals towards which we strive as a university. Although a large institution like this one, with such a long history, has too many facets and dimensions to be captured by a single characterization, it is nevertheless a fair summation of Columbia’s distinctive history to say that it has always produced an unusually large share of the leaders of its time. As an institution, it certainly has proven its capacity to adapt to the needs of the time.

Two hundred years ago, in 1803, as Columbia still occupied property near the site of the World Trade Center, the school graduated 18 seniors and 2 medical students. There were no honorary degrees awarded, and, happily for them, no commencement speech. Individual graduates, however, delivered “orations” (a practice we are seriously considering reinstituting next year). To be sure, this is when students were real students: To be admitted to the college, an applicant had to show proficiency in translating into English Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars; the four Catiline Orations of Cicero; and the first four books of Virgil’s The Aeneid.

One hundred years ago, Columbia had just moved from its intermediate home in midtown Manhattan (near St. Patrick’s Cathedral and what is now Rockefeller Center) to Morningside Heights. Only Low Library stood here along with Fayerweather, Schemerhorn, and Earl Hall. Alma Mater was dedicated that year; St. Paul’s Chapel was under construction, Nicholas Murray Butler was just named President of Columbia, and Joseph Pulitzer offered a gift of $1 million to establish the leading school of journalism. The student body had grown from 102 to 4,507 – which means that, at that rate of growth, we should expect the student body of Columbia over the next century (that is, by 2103) to approach one million students. Sports had become very popular at Columbia, as they had at other institutions after the Civil War, although football faced increasing criticism because of injuries players sustained due to insufficient padding and to special plays such as tossing the ball carrier over the line of scrimmage for yardage or a score. On the day of Commencement 1903, there was a morning baseball game on South Field between the students and faculty, which the students won by 28 to 12 (which strikes me as a moral victory for the faculty). In the description of the college graduates, it was observed that 28 intended to go into law, 17 into business, 1 into the ministry, and, it was said, 8, “will do nothing.” Some things never seem to change. It is worth noting, however, that President Butler that day announced that one graduate (Marcellus Hartley Dodge) had given $300,000 towards the building of a new dormitory – we are still waiting to see which of you will step forward today to match that gift.

Today, of course, the reach and magnitude of Columbia University is many times what it was just a century ago. With over 20,000 students and 16 schools and 2 affiliated colleges, drawing students, faculty, and staff from literally all over the globe, and with teaching and research on virtually every issue imaginable, the mantle of “the world university” is increasingly easy for Columbia to assume.

A century from now, in 2103, when you return for the centennial celebration of your graduation today, Columbia will probably not be one million students but it may well be close to 100,000 (the rate of growth over the last one hundred years); and perhaps half will come from other parts of the world. Columbia University In the City of New York will continue to define our identity and our home. So upper Manhattan will still be the site of our classrooms and facilities, including new laboratories in which the genetic discoveries are made that lead to a doubling of the average life-span… thereby making it possible for you to celebrate your centennial. Students then will look at you blankly as you reminisce about your time – how you were there at the birth of MTV, the World Wide Web and Amazon.com; how rap and hip-hop became mainstream, and you listened to Alicia Keys, Lauryn Hill, P. Diddy (formerly Puff Daddy), Norah Jones, Coldplay, and Third Eye Blind (and, if you were really with it, you listened to John Adams, Tan Dun, and Sharon Isban); how cell phones became ubiquitous; how Columbia made Spiderman into a famous movie series; and how you shared files and violated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998. Some things will not have changed, of course, like the Core Curriculum; and Coach Shoop will secure successive Ivy Football championships by reviving the strategy of throwing the ball carrier over the line of scrimmage (with more padding, of course).

What will certainly not have changed is the elemental force known as familial identification. As your child marches in the Columbia University graduation ceremony of 2103 (for, don’t worry, fertility and our admissions policy with respect to legacies will both be extended), all your focus of attention will be directed towards your graduate, just as you are now the exclusive object of attention of your families today.

Now, the truth is that whether there will be a Columbia University at all one hundred years from now will depend entirely on whether you and the other leaders of your generation deal successfully with the largest issue of our age, with the issue that has just come into focus while you have been students at Columbia: What is the New World to look like, with the United States as the dominant military, economic, and cultural power on the planet? As a society, we are just beginning to feel our way into this New World. Its shape and contours are vague before us. As a society, we are unaccustomed to thinking in these ways, but there is no escaping the reality that is before us. What are our responsibilities? What should be the character of our relationships with the other parts of the world? Do we have the right institutions to deal with the problems we will face? These are the kinds of future-shaping questions that confronted the early graduates of Columbia, like Hamilton, Jay, and Livingston, who had to figure out the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and this is the magnitude of the questions now confronting you, and us.

One way to think of what we are facing is to ask ourselves just who will be within the orbit of those we really care about? The development of societies, and especially a society like this country, depends upon our extending the feelings I have called familial identification to those who are part of the larger community we define as our town, our city, our state, and our nation. The extent to which we embrace strangers in our sense of who we are going to care about – to care about in serious ways, not just as abstractions – determines the character of the society we call ours. Today more than ever before we are being asked to extend our sympathies well beyond what has been asked of us in the past.

And, yet, few things in life are simple (except for familial identification) and some hard questions we just have to face again and again. Eight decades ago, in 1918, five Russian aliens living in New York City were arrested for distributing leaflets praising the Russian Revolution, denouncing President Woodrow Wilson for military actions in the First World War, and calling for a general strike among workers, especially workers at munitions plants. The case became a landmark in the development of our principle of freedom of speech because of a famous opinion by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Holmes had no sympathy for the speakers, whom he called “poor and puny anonymities,” or their message, which he called a “creed of ignorance and immaturity.” But he argued that our Constitution has a “theory” and that theory is that “the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas – that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which [our] wishes safely can be carried out.” This means that the First Amendment should protect speech until the point at which it “so imminently threaten[s] interference with the lawful and pressing purposes…that an immediate check is required to save the country.”

But there is, and was, another view. A well-known law professor, John Wigmore, challenged Holmes. The nation was at war, he said, the outcome was uncertain, soldiers were dying, and munitions were critical. Holmes was “blind to the crisis – blind to the lasting needs of the fighter in the field, blind to the straining toil of the workers at home, obtuse to the fearful situation which then obsessed the whole mind and heart of the country.” Here we have, he said, a “misplaced reverence” for freedom of speech at the expense of our proper concern for fellow citizens. And, so, to him the “moral right of the majority to enter upon the war imports the moral right to secure success by suppressing public agitation against the completion of the struggle.”

Holmes, in fact, was on the losing side of this decision, but his dissenting views carried the day with history – with history, that is, up to now. The feelings we have that I have called familial, and that live in an extended orbit we ourselves create, including the soldiers who fight on the nation’s behalf, often clash with the seemingly abstract values and principles we also embrace for social and other purposes. That was true one hundred years ago; it is true today; and it will still be true one hundred years from now. I believe Holmes had it right (although I prefer different reasons), and Wigmore did not. But that is not my point. My point is that now and in the future we will need, as much as ever and perhaps even more so, to bear in mind the underlying sources of the tensions we feel in difficult issues, to bear in mind how those before us resolved them, and to bear in mind that some hard questions never will and really never should disappear.

But, for now, we can happily return to simple matters – the uncomplicated love and admiration of you, the graduates, by your families, your friends, and your university. You have graced this institution by your presence; you have taken your place in the succession of enormously talented individuals; you have the capacities to guide us through the great issues of our time; may you also have the wisdom to live well with the human dilemmas that we cannot escape and that, hopefully, have made your education here worthwhile.