2020 Commencement Address

This day—this event—brings with it a complex array of emotions. Nothing on the academic calendar has greater personal and collective meaning than University Commencement—the one moment in our institutional life when we all come together to celebrate the amazing intellectual achievements of our graduates. What each of you has had to do to get to this moment is a story unique to you personally and common to all, but above all else it is the result of an extraordinary capacity for self-motivation and talent, and we stand here ready to cheer your successes. You are the Class of 2020, and you have our warmest congratulations.

Although this is a joyous day for you and your families, and for all of us at Columbia, we must also acknowledge this is not how we wanted it to be. Because of the unfathomable circumstances we are living through, this is the first virtual Commencement in our history. There is an inescapable sadness in the distance that separates us from the people, places, rituals, and traditions that bring meaning to our lives. More profoundly, we mourn the members of our community we have lost due to COVID-19, including current and former faculty members, students, and employees. And we share along with all of you the concerns and fears you have felt for yourselves and for your loved ones, especially those who may be vulnerable.  

Every one of you has a personal story about the effect of this pandemic, some parts shared with others and some parts only yours. Whatever your story, I want you to know that you will have a place in our hearts for as long as we live, that you will be remembered by this University long after we are gone, and that we extol what you have done, understand what you have endured, and wish you futures marked by the accomplishments and satisfactions you deserve.

A tree branch full of pink flowers, against the backdrop of university buildings

Let me just take this moment of celebrating you to also say a word in celebration of our universities. The search for truth, for knowledge and understanding, can be a banal phrase. But it takes on rich meaning when expressing the purpose of a great university like ours. In a time of crisis, such as we are in now, it is universities that we look to for guidance, for sustenance, and for help. The knowledge and expertise that emerges over time from the efforts of dedicated scholars and students has always supplied the foundation on which every good society is built. 

Right now, we need a human and societal response to an elusive virus—treatments, a vaccine, care for our communities—and it is to universities that society looks. And these special institutions are doing even more. 

Never let anyone get away with criticizing universities as ivory towers, somehow removed from the real world. Speak of impact, of doing, as you will. At this moment, along with all the life-sustaining knowledge yielded by an outpouring of scientific research and scholarship, we also have witnessed from our colleagues a stunning display of the courage, selfless dedication, and resilience needed to care for those whom the pandemic has afflicted. The power of joining knowledge and action has never been so vivid. I call this the Fourth Purpose of the University, along with research, education, and public service. 

And, speak of the real world. To whom do we turn when life becomes deadly serious? It is to the provinces of the humanities, to those who ask the fundamental questions of existence. It is there that we find comfort and insight and meaning. In a great university, like Columbia, this is where we live. 

And where for a good part of your lives, you have lived too—with us, in partnership, as we search for truth and ways to help the world. It is, perhaps, a solemn moment in which to say congratulations, to say thank you, and to say goodbye, for now, to you, the Class of 2020. But it is also a moment of extraordinary and shared revelation in what we have lived together, and it will provide a bond between us that will be forever special. You are always welcome back, as alumni, to the campus you have called home, and I hope we will be together again soon.

On behalf of the entire University, I send our deepest and warmest best wishes.