Class Day Address 2023

In his last Commencement season as President of Columbia, Lee C. Bollinger delivered brief remarks at the Class Days of each of the undergraduate colleges (Columbia College, Columbia Engineering, and Columbia General Studies). Each school at the University hosts a Class Day for their graduates, in addition to the University-wide Commencement ceremony. 

Lee C. Bollinger, standing at a lectern, speaking.

May 16, 2023

I want to begin by congratulating our students, of course, and by recognizing the families and friends who are gathered here this morning. All of us appreciate how important this moment is for you, and the sacrifices and celebrations that have led to this point. We share in your joy and in the achievements of these exceptional young people. I will be speaking at length tomorrow, so I will share just a few thoughts today.

It is not possible to stand before you and not be reminded of one’s own college years. I have always felt, and said, that there is nothing in life like this four-year period. Nothing. I do not mean to idealize it. For most of you it is magical for others not-so-much, but for pretty much everyone, it is transformative. Especially of the mind and intellect. There is something that lasts forever in being immersed in the realm of ideas and knowledge, especially in a great research institution like Columbia.

My thought for you now is not about what you have been through and how it has changed you. It is rather to project ahead and to say something about its lasting role in our lives. I think the thing that has struck me the most about my life as I look back from where I am now is how so much of it is unexpected. Not all, by any means, and a full accounting would have to cover what has stayed the same and turned out as expected. But a lot of it has been surprising.

Let me give one example. As some of you know, my field is Constitutional Law, and the First and Fourteenth Amendments, in particular. I became engaged with this field in the era of the 1960s and 1970s, when virtually every major national issue was translated into a constitutional question. Brown v. Board of Education set off a torrent of civil rights decisions, laws, and policies, including Affirmative Action in higher education, all as the nation grappled with centuries of invidious discrimination against African Americans. First Amendment decisions were, in turn, shaped by this period of ferment. New York Times v. Sullivan, Brandenburg v. Ohio, and the Pentagon Papers, among many others seminal decisions set the jurisprudence of the age. The year I clerked on the Supreme Court, 1972, was the year Roe v. Wade was decided. All these and so many other cases and issues engaged me deeply and promised a world of steady progress, as I saw it, from this profound base.

But now as I close out my career the opposite course is being charted, by a different Court, with a different jurisprudence in mind and animated by a different view of life. We saw it most dramatically a year ago with the Dobbs decision, and likely will see it soon with the

Harvard University and University of North Carolina cases on Affirmative Action. There are many others.

To my mind it’s shocking and unexpected in the arc of my life. I never would have predicted it from where I started.

Now I say all this not because I'm asking you to agree with my views of constitutional jurisprudence but rather to highlight in a way that's meaningful to me what I suspect will be true for you in ways that matter to you. The world will be altered in ways you just did not expect, sometimes, of course, for the good. But not always. It's amazing to think that the biggest world events came unexpectedly: The collapse of the Soviet Union; 9/11; the Great Recession of 2008, and of course, as you know so painfully, the COVID-19 pandemic. All these surprised people, even experts. So, will it be true in your own lives.

So, my theme is how life unfolds, whether in big or small ways, is so often elusive to our minds. And in that elusiveness and surprise and shock the one thing you will hold dear and be your guide, and settle your mind, is the time you spent in college letting the world of ideas flow through your minds and being remade as a thinking human being. More than in any other period of life, this one is concentrated on timeless ideas and themes that cut across the ages and make you feel part of the sweep of time. This tends to have a settling effect and provides a larger perspective. Additionally, your capacity to articulate your beliefs when challenged, to engage with others who see the world differently, to adjust and renew your involvements has now been determined— and my point is that you will need it all because a lot will change and you can take nothing for granted.

So, that's my thought for this morning as we recognize your achievements and mark this moment. I very much look forward to seeing you tomorrow.

Congratulations to all of you.