2021 Convocation Address

Light blue flags that say "Columbia College" and "Columbia Engineering."

During new student orientation, President Bollinger greeted the students and the families of the Columbia College and Columbia Engineering Classes of 2025.

August 29, 2021

It is with the greatest pleasure and honor that I, on behalf of the entire university community, welcome you to begin your undergraduate studies at Columbia. This ceremony, officially known as Convocation, always happily marks the beginning of the academic year. But your presence today gives it a very special meaning. The collective dreams represented in this audience, together with the sheer determination and endurance you have each demonstrated in order to be here and to give those dreams a chance of becoming reality, make us all the more impressed and inspired along with your parents, families, and friends who join us this evening in person, or in spirit, and whom we also welcome with equal warmth and respect. We are confident that what brought you to this point will sustain and serve you well through the years ahead at Columbia and in your lives beyond us. Let me just add that each of us at Columbia are also feeling that this remarkable occasion will hopefully mark the end of a hell endured and a fresh start on life—for this is the first university ceremony to be held in person in more than a year and a half. Therefore, for all of us, this is not only a convocation to mark your entrance into college, it is also a convocation for life itself. Thus, we celebrate together two happy and converging beginnings in our lives.

I would like to touch briefly on three matters, all interconnected but each worthy of separate attention, and I hope useful for us to think about on this special occasion. The first is the intellectual character we strive for in a university and most certainly at Columbia. The second is to understand and appreciate what universities are and what they do for society in the world and how Columbia fits into that constellation of institutions. And the third is about you, and a few recommendations I want to offer as you embark on this incredible adventure.

The fact is, in practice, free speech is hard. It is counterintuitive and it requires real effort to live by its expectations.

So, I want to begin by focusing on the norms of intellectual character we expect of ourselves at Columbia. You are entering a unique, intellectual environment and it is important that we be clear about it from the outset. There are two distinct parts of a university, each with its own rules about how we should think. One part is a kind of public forum in which students and faculty express their views about the issues of the day. We debate, offer our opinions, raise questions, consider ideas, and work through our thoughts on matters we regard as important. Most of the time, this is an internal Columbia conversation but often, speakers from outside are invited to join in these discussions. The rules here are more or less those that apply in the nation as a whole. Because we are private—that is, not state sponsored—the First Amendment does not apply to Columbia. In theory, I could forbid—on punishment of expulsion—any criticism of the university administration without any First Amendment consequences, but I choose not to. But Columbia, like nearly all universities, has voluntarily chosen to live by the principles and the spirit of the First Amendment when it comes to our own public forum. That means many things, too many for me to even begin to account for here, but it most certainly means this: We do not and will not punish or officially sanction anyone for their speech because many, or even most of us, regard the ideas expressed as offensive or dangerous or harmful. There are, to be sure, some limits: incitement of imminent violence, personal harassment, and so on. But the vast bulk of speech, including really bad ideas, is by long experience and tradition fully protected by the First Amendment and accordingly, also protected here. Be forewarned: you are about to enter a community and live in a community where offensive and harmful expression is part of what we must learn to endure and counter through means other than censorship, and counter we must. So, we must be prepared for being offended and living with difficult and even harmful speech. I say that fully conscious of the fact that all of this may well seem right to nearly everyone in the abstract but not at all so when the injury of truly bad speech is upon us. The fact is, in practice, free speech is hard. It is counterintuitive and it requires real effort to live by its expectations. Human nature makes us more inclined to be intolerant than tolerant. We like to have beliefs; we like to define ourselves, to create our identities, through our beliefs. And when our beliefs or ourselves are challenged and attacked, especially unfairly, we can try to crush the opposition. We have, over time, come to realize that we need to learn how to moderate those impulses in order to live successfully in what is bound to be, certainly in a democracy, a near constant state of disagreement and even disagreeability. There is nothing pre-ordained about this way of structuring society. Indeed, it is highly unusual in human affairs to take this path. It is, therefore, one of the great experiments in social organizations. And so, you should think of our own public forum as an entry point into this larger human debate.

Universities, collectively, are the societal home for the search for truth.

That brings me to the other part, the major part of what we do in the university, and that is to be very, very serious about the search for truth and understanding, and knowledge through scholarship and teaching. We all know that it would not be a very good or desirable life if we always lived by the rules of the public forum, and so we don’t. Fortunately, we have institutions like universities where we put our faith in rigorous professional norms of academic inquiry—what I like to call the scholarly temperament. In the academic world, we are devoted to reason, committed to inquiry for the sake of knowing, dedicated to preserving and carrying forward the best of the human mind—“best” being forever redefined, and insistent on a disposition of open mindedness, self-doubt, and respect for the judgement of our peers. In contrast to the public forum where we abjure reasonable restrictions on speech, in the academy, we go way beyond what we might call normal ways of thinking and insist on strict notions about good thinking. Stupidity, ignorance, falsehoods, lies, incivility, plagiarism—all these and lesser sins of the mind are actively forbidden and penalized, censored, if you will. We do this not because we ourselves like to be this way—though we do—but because we are charged by our public charter to find knowledge, and this is the best way we know how to do that. It’s a serious business we’re engaged in and just as the intellectual character needed for the public forum is difficult to come by, so too does the scholarly temperament not come naturally, and for similar reasons. To do it well requires patience, self-restraint, and continuous practice. We must always be on our guard against our natural inclinations. So universities are complex; life is complex. The rules that work for public discussion are not the rules that work for building knowledge. We need both realms, and each is better for the other.

This brings me to the second large subject, which is the value of universities. We often hear people speak about the importance of truth and its pursuit. What I want you to know is that universities, collectively, are the societal home for the search for truth. More new knowledge has been generated by these institutions, especially over the last century, than anywhere else in society. Just about everything you and we take for granted as constituting a modern life can be traced to discoveries in our laboratories, our libraries, and research studies. Just think about the pandemic and the ensuing world crisis. It has been the expertise of public health, medicine and biological sciences, especially, that have taken us from being helpless victims at the mercy of the virus, to agents able to fight for our own destiny. Never take for granted while you are here what the academic world does for humanity. To be sure, Columbia leads among academic institutions, and we, accordingly, bear special responsibilities. To that end, we are innovative, dynamic and always open for creativity and new ideas. Everywhere you go, there are professors who lead in their disciplines. No university is more committed to teaching, and you are the beneficiaries of this ethos. Columbia is the most international and global university with more international students, nine global centers, and countless programs and opportunities to experience the world. Columbia is among the most scholarly in the best academic traditions and the most determined to try to have knowledge serve the public good. We call this last belief, that knowledge should have consequences for the public good and it is part of our role to see that that happens, we call this the Fourth Purpose of the university, represented in a new branch of Columbia called Columbia World Projects. Columbia has initiatives at every intersection of new knowledge. In neuroscience, precision medicine, cancer, data science, democracy in crisis, racial justice, and the arts. And now we have the first school of climate in the world, and this week, we welcome our first students.

The extraordinary burdens you have borne and the life experiences you bring with you now will provide you with an unusual, intellectual maturity with which to encounter and come to terms with the greatest issues of humankind.

And now, to you. I want to return to what I said in the beginning. It is impossible for anyone to grasp just how difficult and complex the last few years have been on your lives. You have been through an enormous amount, perhaps more than any generation since the Second World War. It is not just the hopefully once-in-a-century pandemic, but the fragility of democracy in America, the continuing injustices of race, the emergent consequences of the crises of climate change, most recently the tragedy surrounding America’s exit from Afghanistan, and, most certainly, the pandemic. There is a lot to say about all of these converging historic events, but I would now just emphasize one. As you enter this special period of your long lives, a unique period by any measure, and work to master the complex intellectual mentality and character of academic life in an institution that is but one of the larger groups of vastly successful and important universities with special responsibilities of leadership, give yourself the time, the freedom, and the opportunities to explore what all this can mean to you. The extraordinary burdens you have borne and the life experiences you bring with you now will provide you with an unusual, intellectual maturity with which to encounter and come to terms with the greatest issues of humankind, which is much of our focus here. Things that seem abstract to many people will be very real and vivid to you. That will be to your educational advantage. There will be plenty of time in life to become an expert in something, plenty of time in which to specialize and get ahead, but I can assure you there will, in all likelihood, only be this precious time in which to experience the comprehensive quest for knowledge that defines the distinctive academic world, both in substance and intellectual character. It may sometimes seem as if an attitude of exploration is self-indulgent or wasting time or not purposeful enough, but you will in fact be able to draw on these experiences for the rest of your lives. Approached with a spirit of exploration, your time here will ultimately be life expanding, precisely because it is different and unlikely to be replicated. Above all, I want you to know and to feel that everything you will do here is part of something larger, something I believe is often noble, complex, worth trying, mature, and, at scale, large and consequential. That is my deepest hope for your Columbia experience—that you will connect what happens here to you, to larger ideas and realities. 

On behalf of the entire University, welcome to Columbia, welcome to the life of the mind, and welcome back to life.