2009 Convocation Address

August 31, 2009

On behalf of the Trustees, faculty and staff, it is my great pleasure to welcome you, the Class of 2013, to Columbia University in the City of New York.  As we set out on the first day of an adventure that promises to change your life, I am well aware of the mixed emotions that are colliding in the hearts and minds of both the incoming students and your proud, but slightly worried parents.

Let me start by saying you have chosen well and so have we.  You have survived the rigors of the admissions process and made it into a university that is consistently ranked one of the best in the world.  While the students may be disappointed, your parents will be happy to know that Columbia ranks near the top on many lists for academic excellence and near the bottom for party schools.

But today, it is not our job or our desire to put your hearts at ease.  Quite the opposite.

You have come to Columbia and to New York City - places that are renowned for their robust expressions of academic and creative freedom - at one of the most dynamic times in American and indeed, human history.

Just over the past year, our society and many of its institutions have suffered wrenching upheavals that have left few of us untouched.  Information technology and world events are evolving and converging at bewildering speed, leaving many of us, both young and old, furiously blogging, texting and twittering to keep up.

While it is common to think of this day and this occasion as part of your "orientation," as far back as 1929, one great American philosopher and Columbia professor, described the feeling of "disorientation" that accompanies the first days at Columbia.  This is the way it has to be, today and in the days and years to come. 

It's partly that so many things about your life are new - not least, of course, your newly won personal freedom (which, as they say, you must use responsibly).  But you are also entering college in a time, perhaps an era, of extraordinary transformations.  Besides the changes here at home, there are the tectonic shifts occurring across the world, which we too easily describe as "globalization."  The rise and the spread of market economies and the resulting trade in goods and services, the rapid developments in the ability to communicate at any time and any place, and the sheer insatiable human curiosity about each other, all these forces and others are reshaping life on our planet, making us more inter-dependent, altering our moral compass, creating problems on a planetary scale, and making possible the advance of a global society.  This has happened so quickly that all of us are trying to catch up.  But, I can assure you, there is no better place to be in this regard than Columbia, which is justly famous for its engagement with the world as it is.

Still, it is worth bearing in mind, especially today as you begin your college career, that not all in the world is new and that minds stretching across the centuries have struggled to understand what you will now take up - love and friendship, honor, evil, war and peace, the forms of social organization, and the make-up of the natural world.  It is the persistence of great questions that makes a university education worthwhile (and makes tuition a bargain and the debt bearable).  And it is the nature of the engagement with these questions here at Columbia that makes this place so special.

Among many things, all this means that, now, you must take an active role in shaping your own education (especially outside the classroom, in the travels you undertake, the lectures you attend, in the service you give to others).  It also means that we, the teachers, will have to listen even more to what you think, because youth - not age - almost always has a better sense of what's coming.

As you set out on your educational journey of exploration and discovery, you will have the help and support of an extraordinarily dedicated team of professors, administrators and staff here at Columbia, several of whom are just as new to Columbia as you are.

You have already met our new Columbia College Dean, Michele Moody-Adams and the new Dean of our Engineering School, Feniosky Peña-Mora; as well as our veteran Administrators, especially Vice President for the Arts and Sciences, Nick Dirks.  They are joined today by our incoming Provost, former Stanford social psychologist, Claude M. Steele, who will serve as our chief academic officer.  We are excited by his arrival and I want to take this opportunity publicly to welcome him as the newest member of our administration.

Let me say, once again, welcome to Columbia.  The years ahead promise to be rich with opportunity to learn, which to us in the academic community is the coin of the realm.  It will, to be sure, be difficult at times; you will feel amazed and befuddled by the complexity of things you thought were simple; you will feel confused and overwhelmed.  But we are always here to help you.  And, remember always, as your parents will attest, in all probability, you will never again in your lifetimes have years like these.

May you have the calm perseverance and the healthy self-doubt during your years at Columbia to experience the new world unfolding before us, to dream big dreams, to discover and give voice to your passions, to allow understanding to grow into knowledge and to have some fun.

Congratulations on coming to Columbia.  Good luck to you all.