2014 Commencement Address

May 21, 2014

On behalf of the Trustees and the faculty of Columbia University, it is my very, very great pleasure and honor to welcome all of you to this ceremony to celebrate the graduation of the Class of 2014. Every year we gather in this magnificent academic forum, at this moment unmatched in beauty anywhere in the world, to affirm the achievements of our extraordinary students and to reaffirm the intellectual bonds that connect us to those who have passed through these gates for 260 years and to those who will do so for centuries to come. Sixteen different schools are represented here today, along with our affiliate institutions of Teachers College and Barnard. In a time when life can seem increasingly fragmented and solitary and technological, this glorious ritual, in this utterly unique spot on the planet, seems all the more remarkable and thrilling.

This is a day that is all about the graduates and about what you’ve earned – earned through endless and mostly foggy hours of study; earned by overcoming again and again your natural inclination for procrastination, following the principle of just-in-time, which means waiting until the last moment to study for exams and write papers (although it’s a well-known fact that the smarter you are the more you tend to procrastinate); you have earned all this through sacrifice of something we call sleep, not to mention nutrition and personal hygiene; and earned by carrying on in those inevitable moments of low self-doubt.  

While this occasion is about you, there are also a few people here today who’ve contributed mightily to your getting to this delightful point in life and whom you’ll never be able to thank enough. I can assure you that nothing focuses the mind like the successes and disappointments of one’s own children. And, as much as we, your faculty feel deep affection for you, nothing can compare to the pure adoration of your parents and families. Please, take this opportunity to thank them.  

Today we mark, and we celebrate, what in all likelihood you will come to see as one of the defining experiences in your lives – your years of education here at Columbia. I hear this from alumni all the time – how their Columbia experiences were transformational for them. In a surprising number of instances, they also add how this is where they met their spouses, partners and best friends in life, typically right here on the steps of Low under the bewitching eye of alma mater.  

By tradition, Columbia does not have an outside speaker at this grand occasion, when we officially confer your degrees, only the University President. So, let’s just get one thing clear, getting disinvited isn't an option. And it shouldn’t be on any other campus either. 

Today I want to talk to you about the world to come and about the role of universities in that world. As we naturally take stock of what you’ve accomplished, think about the relationships you’ve formed, the talents you’ve discovered, it’s also a moment to imagine what your future will hold and what the world will be – both of which intersect, because what we will be always depends to a significant degree on what reality calls on us to be. 

Commencement has a magical quality of lifting up our line of sight and letting us view our lives across a wide swath of time. When we imagine what your world will be like, over the next half century or so, we get a better view of what our own world has been like, and then we see better the worlds of our parents and grandparents and families. When you see it that way, you realize that you can better grasp the course of history and its discrete eras through the people you have actually known, across a span of about two centuries – a long time, indeed. Commencement, in other words, vastly expands our vision of where we have come from and where we are going.  

Now, as I think of the world ahead for you, it would appear that the defining element will be the exponential increase in the intimacy, the inter-relationships -- of all of humanity. We seem to be becoming closer by the day. All across the planet, people are congregating and meeting in massive cities, the things we make and consume are made and consumed everywhere, we now exchange information and ideas simultaneously on the first ever truly global communications system, and we are always flying about to see one another. Everyone, of course, wants to come to New York City, and, as reflected in our admissions data, wants to enroll in Columbia University in the City of New York.  

While many of our grandparents started out in small towns and on farms and occasionally sent telegrams, our parents traveled around in cars and listened to the radio and then later, television. My generation lived in multiple places in the United States, had more television channels and toured the world. Your world is wondrous in comparison. Basically, as far as I can tell, you will live everywhere, know everything, and talk to everyone. Yours will be the biggest world ever invented – and yet also the smallest. And, like it or not, your fates will be more intertwined with those of all humanity than ever before -- for good or ill, depending on how you handle it.  

There are already many momentous issues that come with this trajectory of integration – environmental changes and threats, economic instability, unfairness in the distribution of wealth, privilege and the conditions of work. But our biggest challenge, by far, is overcoming our massive ignorance about each other, about the histories we bring into the present, the cultures that sustain our societies over time, about the values we hold dear. The integration of the world is moving rapidly beyond the mere transactional and becoming very personal, putting us exactly at the point where understanding each other is imperative. And we’re unprepared for that encounter.  

Now, there are many, many reasons why great universities are important in the world. But none is more important than helping us develop the skills and capacities of understanding other peoples, other perspectives. Every part of the university does this, but here the humanities and our great undergraduate curriculum stand out. Listening carefully, putting aside one’s preconceptions, always being on the lookout for when you’re suddenly puzzled because that’s often where insight is to be found, building up through continuous practice our imaginative strength to pretend actually to be someone else, if just for a moment – all these and other capacities are so hard to do well and yet so essential now.  

Too much of the world is organized around a goal of simply maximizing the collection of competing self-interests – international organizations are built around the nation state each with its self-interest, corporations are built around maximizing profits, and so on. This is normal and to be expected. Cooperation is good, but sharing your lives together is better. And, in your more intimate world, nothing will ever work well without, first, a deep and sympathetic awareness of the needs, desires, values, aspirations, and the ever-present, ever-elusive sense of dignity that together play out so differently with peoples around the world and, second, a commitment to finding a life together structured around deep mutual understandings and shared values wherever they can be found. This is the prime skill-set of universities, especially Columbia.  

Let me give an example. The Edward Snowden case marks your time here at Columbia, in the same way that the Pentagon Papers case marked that time for my generation. Recently, the Guardian U.S. and The Washington Post received the Pulitzer Prize (awarded right here at Columbia) for their news reports using some of Snowden’s trove of classified information detailing the massive system of NSA surveillance within the United States and in foreign countries. As we know, this has become a major national and global firestorm, which followed not long after Private Manning released classified information to Wikileaks and then to several major newspapers. Snowden (who is about the same age of many of you here) has asylum in Russia, and our graduate Attorney General Eric Holder has indicated Snowden may face criminal prosecution for taking and then disclosing secret government documents to persons not entitled to receive them. (Our other alumnus, President Obama, hasn’t ruled out a prosecution.) There have been no threats, however, of similar actions against the newspapers.  

Now, this affair raises a classic and perennial question for every society: namely, how do you balance the interests of the public in having a well-functioning government, in which some degree of secrecy is obviously necessary, and the interests of the public in knowing about what it’s government is doing so that the public can decide whether it likes it or not?  

The answer in the United States is very complex and messy. It is basically this: The government can classify information and operate in secret as it wishes. It has no constitutional obligation to inform the press or the public about what it’s doing, even though we know for a fact it will over-classify information and exceed all reasonable needs of secrecy. Government employees may choose to leak information they think the public should know about, but, if they do, and are found out, they may be fully prosecuted, even though they may be absolutely right about the public interest in having this information.  

The press, on the other hand, may knowingly receive this information and publish it, and the government may not stop it from doing so (absent proof of extraordinary harm to the nation). This is the holding of Pentagon Papers. However, it has not been decided whether the government may prosecute the press after the fact of publication, an ambiguity in the constitutional interpretation of the First Amendment that clearly leaves journalists with at least some sense of jeopardy. As a matter of historical practice, however, two facts are important: established news organizations have almost always consulted the government in advance of publication about potential national interests at stake, and refrained from publication when persuaded, and, second, the government has never pursued a prosecution of the press to test its powers under the First Amendment.  

To some, this system seems pure madness and dangerously chaotic, too risky for government secrets or too un-protective of leakers and the press. To others, it shows the utility of experience over logic and the genius of disorder and ambiguity. But one would, I think, have to say that up to now this unruly system has worked reasonably well, in the sense that there have been no major breaches of national security and the public has been kept reasonably informed.  

But now there are three points to raise:  

The first is a question, whether you will need to change this system because the facts on the ground have changed. The amount of government secrets is growing exponentially; leakers can do more harm because computers make it a lot easier for them to leak; and the recipients of leaked information (like Wikileaks) do not in any sense have a stake in the well-being of the nation. Whether these are material facts calling for a different constitutional and policy accommodation will be for your generation to decide.  

The second is an observation about how this very major issue fits in the new world. Until recently, this has been largely a matter of internal national dilemma. Now, it’s a global issue to be discussed and resolved globally. Leaks of the Snowden variety, of which there will be more in the years ahead, involve secrets of other societies too. That means their laws and policies may be invoked against leakers and the people and organizations that publish the leaks. Moreover, we now have a keen and growing interest in other governments and their secrets because their actions, like ours, affect everyone. So, as with climate change, economic regulation, and a host of growing global challenges, this issue demands that we understand each other better and find workable resolutions.  

The third point emerges from this realization. Nations all around the world, including those closest in general character to ours, like Britain, have given very different answers to the classic problem of balancing government secrecy and public knowledge. As you see, it is not by any means a simple matter to explain our system. And, surprisingly, it is relatively new, in fact. Our grandparents were the first generation to ever see a Supreme Court decision on the First Amendment, in 1919, and the Supreme Court upheld the very law the government now applies when it prosecutes leakers and would apply against the press if it chose. Our parents saw the evolution of a different understanding of freedom of speech and press. But it wasn’t until 1971 and Pentagon Papers that the current system was conceived. Most of our own history, therefore, actually looks more like a lot of other countries do now.  

And to explain our system you have to dig deep into our culture, to the remarkable idea that all power should be limited and opposed, in practice as well as in principle; to the radical idea that the public is the true sovereign in a democracy; and to the fundamental belief that a more open, uncontrolled, uninhibited, even at times seemingly chaotic and risky system for freedom of thought and expression will yield insights, creativity, long-term stability, and a life worth living better than any other system.  

But now think this: If it’s hard to explain our system, with its own mixed history, complex structure, and connection to our deepest values, none of which can be proven in any sense of logic, just think how hard it is going to be for us truly to understand the history, structure and deeper values of other societies on this, or almost any other, issue. Yet, that’s where we and you are going to have to do, far better than we can right now.  

Let me say this to you finally. You have made our work at Columbia a joy and a privilege. I feel – and I hear this all the time from others – every time I have the opportunity to interact with you, inside and outside the classroom, I feel how extraordinary you are and how proud you make us feel to be part of your educational adventure. I envy the opportunities you will have to shape a world that has so much promise and potential, with huge problems, to be sure, but not like those that brought the world to near collapse and mass destruction as happened over the course of the last century.  

It’s just a fact that you will be the people to lead in this era. You may now doubt your powers to influence the world’s course, but to your parents, classmates and friends, to your teachers and mentors, and to a nation and a world that desperately awaits your arrival, you do have the power and, I hope, understand your great responsibility precisely because of what you've been able to discover here together at Columbia.  

Please, also, bear in mind always what a special and unique place Columbia is, in such a great City, and appreciate the role it has to play, not only in the world, but in your own minds throughout your lives.  

Congratulations and my very best wishes to you, the Class of 2014.