2020 Convocation Address

Sculpture of a male figure sitting down thinking, also known as "the thinker."

During new student orientation, President Bollinger greeted the students and the families of the Columbia College and Columbia Engineering Classes of 2024 with a virtual address.

August 30, 2020

I am sending you this welcome in a moment of great poignancy. The formal Convocation is one of the great academic ceremonies of the year, matched only by Commencement. These two great moments in the University calendar mark the entrance of our newest members and the departure of those students who have completed a critical stage in their education with us. Each is filled with high emotions – the sense of accomplishment, of anticipation, and of gratitude to those – most notably the parents – who have seen them through to this point in life.

You are at the beginning, and in all the years I have been fortunate enough to be in this role and to stand with you at the outset, never did I imagine that I would have to do this virtually. But I can assure you of this, that the feelings of pride and warmth for you and the determination to provide you with the best educational experience in the world in the years ahead are just as strong as ever, and perhaps even stronger because we have been deprived, for the moment, of that personal interaction we value so deeply.  

Now, I realize that the disruption you must be feeling in your lives at this time must be intense. There is no denying the facts that we are all struggling with a crisis of historic proportions and that young people like yourselves are being especially affected. The idea that your hopes and dreams have been modified and at least partially put on hold is hard to deal with. 

But I want to assure you of several things. 

The first is that every single faculty member and staff of the University is completely and totally dedicated to helping you, and us, get through this period.  We do not know how long this will last, but I am optimistic that there will come a point soon when we will be returning to normal.  Until then, we are reshaping and redesigning our teaching and courses to provide you with the extraordinary education that Columbia distinctively offers. 

The second observation I want to offer now is to remember that we will have a long time together. And, although this is a challenging start, we will have time to make up for what we have had to forego at the beginning. I promise this will happen. 

The third and last thought I want to convey here is extremely important but quite a bit more complicated. It really is about how we learn, about how we become who we are over the course of our lives, and about how all of that relates to this moment in time. Let me begin with how we learn. As someone who has spent nearly all of my professional life in the academy, I might be expected to say the following; it is a fact of life, I believe, that the most important thing in the world is ideas. Democracy is an idea; a free market economy is an idea; the treatment of disease is an idea.  Ideas, theories about how the world works and about how we should be in the world, these are the foundations of how we live. There are, however, many ways in which we form our ideas. Pursuing an education at Columbia University is one way (one of the best! Of course). But observing and acting in the world is another way, too; a way which also provides us with the opportunity to develop ideas that will work in fact. The best way to learn is usually a combination of these two methods, a continual process of interaction and interchange between reflection, on the one hand, and action, on the other hand. 

Now, if this is true (and many serious minds have come to this conclusion, in one form or another), then it can be helpful to learning well that we learn in a time of momentous events. And we are most certainly in a time of momentous events. There is the pandemic, of course; an historic, world-wide threat to our health, our economies, our social fabric, and our ways of life. There is also, however, simultaneously, a crisis of democracy now confronting the United States, as well as many nations around the world. And within our democracy there is a crisis of a centuries-long inequality and injustice that continues to manifest itself in extremely harmful ways, particularly in the lived experience of African Americans. There are other crises, too, many on the international stage.  With respect to every one of these crises, there is a heartening mobilization of the best sides of humanity to grapple with them, and we see the quest for better health care, economic rejuvenation, and maintenance of the social fabric; we see noble efforts to call out authoritarian tendencies and to maintain the essential ingredients of a system of constitutional democracy – respect to facts and truth, tolerance of peoples and viewpoints, and observance of restraint in the exercise of power; and, with respect to the pernicious problems of inequality and discrimination, we have the beginnings of a Second Civil Rights Movement. 

You are launching your college career while living in this enormously significant and fraught moment. It will be remarked on, studied, analyzed, reviewed, interpreted and assessed for decades and even centuries to come. And you were in it, part of it, affected by it, taught by it, hurt by it, perhaps helped by it. 

And nearly all of the ideas you will encounter in your classes will have relevance to this world. For you, and for us, they will not be abstractions, or detached from reality, but rather blindingly and illuminatingly relevant.  In more subdued or placid times, that is not the same educational experience. 

I should add that we at Columbia have taken on the mission of not only leading in the discovery of ideas but also in the bringing of these ideas to the making of the world. So, in a variety of ways, we want to provide chances for you to participate in the world, as well as study and think about it. 

And, so as hard as what we are going through now is, always keep in mind that there is something profoundly special and even beneficial to the core enterprise of the Columbia education you are receiving. 

Still, I want to close by saying how much I look forward to seeing you in person, perhaps even having you in my course on the First Amendment, when the ordinary rhythms of our academic lives can be renewed. For now, in this painfully removed form, I say congratulations on joining us at Columbia and good luck in the years ahead.