2016 Convocation Address

Lee Bollinger speaks at the podium at convocation in 2016 with flowers in foreground

"The Vast Wilderness of the Human Mind"

August 29, 2016

This is a very special occasion for all of us, and I want to say to the parents and families—we know how thrilling this moment is, and how poignant.  To the undergraduates—it couldn’t be a better time to go to college and to be at Columbia.  There are so many things I could talk about today: the global footprint of Columbia, the opportunities you face, that there’s a new campus opening this year for the first time in over a hundred years—campus buildings designed by Renzo Piano and Liz Diller—and that you’ll be able to see that unfold in the time that you’re here and for decades after that.  In many ways, this is a great time.

Jim Valentini and Mary Boyce are fantastic deans.  They are deeply caring, very accomplished scholars, and they are here really to help you.  I’d like to also recognize David Madigan, the Executive Vice President for Arts & Sciences, who oversees all of this, but especially works with the great Columbia faculty who are going to be your teachers and colleagues.

Every year at this time, we welcome a new group of students, like you, to our academic community.  I can assure you it never, ever gets old, and it never feels like business as usual.  There is a freshness you bring, and for some reason no one has quite figured out, you’re always smarter and more accomplished already then others who have come before.  Remember, however, there will be others coming after you, about whom the same will be said.  But more than anything, your presence reminds us all of how transformative this new life in this University will be for you, just as it has been for us.

"You are about to experience the world of knowledge and of the life of the mind in ways you can only barely glimpse from this vantage point."

This is a defining moment in life, when you begin your undergraduate career at a great university like Columbia.  It is not defining in the way that a birth or a marriage is instantly life-changing, but rather defining in a more gradual, almost imperceptible way.  This is a period of life when your intellectual character will be shaped, and to a considerable extent, determined.  You are about to experience the world of knowledge and of the life of the mind in ways you can only barely glimpse from this vantage point.  But I can assure you that by the end you will be a different person, not only in all that you will know compared to what you know now, but more importantly in how you will think in the world—the basis of your intellectual character.

To be at Columbia is to exist in a world where virtually every human thought ever conceived is open to study, examination, consideration, acceptance, rejection, debate, and analysis.  To be sure, we have standards that guide us as we move through this vast wilderness of the human mind—we insist on notions like reason, fact, nonpartisanship—but nothing is off-bounds for intellectual inquiry.

Over the past couple of years, there have been a number of controversies on campuses all over the country, including ours, which were all more or less about speech—the speech of fellow students, of residence hall administrators, of faculty, of institutions through the naming of buildings and the display of pictures, and of outside people invited to the campus—no doubt you have heard and read about these.  The debate, in part, was about what to do about speech that was considered offensive or dangerous.  Sometimes there were calls for bans on speech and official punishments.

I do not want to enter into a discussion about any of these specific issues.  I do, however, want to make two overarching points.  The first is about proposals to stop speech from happening on campus, officially or through private acts of disruption.  The rules of the road here are very clear.  Even though a private institution (Columbia is a private university) is not subject to the First Amendment (only actions by the state are covered by the First Amendment), all private universities, including Columbia, have voluntarily chosen to live by First Amendment principles. 

The First Amendment as we know it today, in this country, is not all that old—in fact, when you are in your senior year here, the nation will celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of the first Supreme Court decision interpreting freedom of speech.  And, while it has ebbed and flowed in the scope of protection for speech over that period, in the past half century, we have all come to a pretty clear position, rather unique among nations: with extremely few exceptions, speech that is about or relevant to public issues and the search for truth, broadly interpreted, is fully protected against censorship, no matter how offensive or dangerous it might seem to you and me and a majority of the citizens of this country.  In this case, what’s true for the country is also true for Columbia.  We don’t ban speech.  We don’t censor speech.

Now, I do not for a second want you to think that this is a simple, clear-cut, self-evident principle or policy.  You hear a lot of people these days talking as if this were all perfectly obvious and no reasonable person could believe otherwise.  I have spent a good part of my life trying to understand why this approach is indeed the right and sound way to structure a society or a university.  But I can assure you, it is highly complicated.  Nevertheless, it is the choice—it is our choice—and you should know that at this University, you cannot expect the institution to intervene, to stop thoughts or viewpoints many of us may dislike, and deeply so.  And we will not let others do what we cannot.

At the same time, we cannot just leave it there.  Just because we cannot and will not stop or censor expression does not mean we will or should do nothing; that we are powerless.  Indeed the burden we impose on ourselves for foregoing censorship is the responsibility to engage the debate.  We can express counterviews, give reasons why the contrary view was wrong, offensive, and dangerous.  We can be upset and angry, organize an opposition, ignore or shun a speaker, or deploy humor to deflect injury.  We can also listen, reflect, reconsider, and forgive.  To say that we can’t ban speech is, in a sense, easy.  To say what follows next is hard—very, very, hard.

And there’s the point: how you grapple with ideas, with thoughts and viewpoints in the myriad of ways available to you will determine who you are.  You will never completely resolve this process.  It is too complex for rules or clear guides.  You will make many errors.  You will feel embarrassed looking back.  Or proud and hope you can replicate what you did before.  Will you be confident in your beliefs, yet open to alternative perspectives?  Courageous when confronting evil, or weak and fearful?  Able to change your mind when evidence and reason call for a change?  Or stubborn and myopic about things you just don’t like or can’t refute?  In all this, you will compose who you are.  In this open environment, created—indeed, created for this purpose—by the First Amendment for the society, and by the University for you and for the search for truth.  That’s the best rationale we have for our no-censorship approach in life.  We’re thrown into the deep waters of life, and we have the opportunity to be better at dealing with the world as it is.

There are two final points I’d like to make.  The first is: as you grapple with all of this, you should bear in mind something about ourselves, about human nature, that most thoughtful people on this subject have concluded, which is that we are not naturally disposed to be open minded, to be tolerant, and willing to engage with the thoughts that are foreign to us, contrary to our own beliefs and views and challenging.  Our natural instinct is to preserve our own ways of thinking, whatever they happen to be.  We can avoid discourse.  We prefer to associate with those who reinforce our own ways of thinking, and we fear the uncertainty of not knowing what or how to believe.  This does not mean that everything you believe now or in the future is presumptively wrong.  It just means you should always reflect carefully, and a bit suspiciously, about how you are responding.

The second point and last point is this: in the university world, our basic intellectual inquiry emphasizes habits of mind that we think increase the odds that we will discover new ideas and truths.  We stress being able to suspend our beliefs, to embrace self-doubt, to take joy in learning that we were wrong, to welcome knowing what is not true as another step towards knowing what is true, to be articulate about ideas, to relish complexity, and to use reason while knowing its limits.  We have all these qualities, to an extreme, and we know that.  To some extent, it makes us ill-suited for the world outside.  But, we ask you, while you are here, to join us in these special qualities of intellect.  It may be your only chance in life to see what’s possible with them in mind.

In these years ahead, you will make friends, find loved ones, have fun, but above all else—you will become the person you choose in this ever-bustling, never-sleeping, always-engaged metropolis of ideas that is Columbia University in the City of New York.  Welcome to our home.