Columbia University - President Bollinger Gives His Final Commencement Address at Columbia University

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Family and friends in attendance.

The president of the university, Lee C.


It is my very, very great honor indeed.

Privilege and joy

to welcome you all here

on this very special morning

in this glorious academic setting

to this magnificent occasion.

I am especially sentimental today

as this will be my last commencement speech.

After serving more than two decades

as president of Columbia University,

I. I like to think

that we are graduating together.

I am sure

I’m sure

that you and I, that was the response I hope to elicit.

I am sure that you and I both

will hold this moment in our hearts for the rest of our lives.

On a personal note,

I’m pleased to say I have a job.

I now return.

I now

return to the life of a law professor, a career.

I began

at more or less your age in 1973,

two years after graduating from our law school.

I have loved being president of this

great academic institution.

By any measure I can think of.

It has been a worthy way to spend my life,

and most importantly, a transformative

education in itself.

This transition for me is somewhat complicated.

A word you will hear me say a lot this morning.

I feel some elements of sadness as I leave behind colleagues, everyone,

a dear friend, and adjust to a world in which

I am increasingly unneeded.

But certainly I am delighted

to have more space and time in life for other things.

Perhaps the way your families felt when you went off to school.

However, endings are a part of life,

as this occasion so poignantly symbolizes.

And I couldn’t be happier.

That Minouche Shafik

will become our next president.


So let me say personally

and on behalf of the faculty and the staff administration,

how thankful we are to each and every one of you

for enriching our lives.

And this appreciation and extends to all

who have supported you throughout your academic journey.

Please take a moment to thank them as well.

I thought a lot about what

to say to you on this occasion.

One naturally feels and expectation to offer thoughts

as profound as this moment is in your lives.

Given all that’s happening in the world,

you might well expect me to talk about big issues

and in particular, big threats to democracy.

But it

strikes me that you are already well versed

in civilization’s scale problems

that your generation has been tasked with solving.

What I can do, and I hope to do, is to sum up a little part

of what I have learned over time contributes to a good life.

I am interested in the seemingly simple matter

of how to be a person in the world

and what qualities to nurture and develop.

I don’t have a precise name for what I’m going to talk about,

but in general it’s about developing

a certain disposition of openness

something frequently commented on

but little appreciated in how hard it is to achieve

and sustained.

Being open minded, whether as a society

or as an individual, has many models.

The place

we typically start in thinking about the subject is the First Amendment

and the sacred principle of freedom of speech.

That is something

that is something

I happen to know a little about.

But I am not turning to the First Amendment for the reason you might think

as some kind of article of faith

that we all should strive to live by.

In fact, quite the opposite in many respects.

I understand why in this current age,

some of you may feel the First Amendment

protects too many bad things

giving oxygen to the toxic forces that divide us.

To that, I would say that’s a legitimate debate

and always has been and always will.

Rather, I want to use the First Amendment

as a point of reference, as we

said, about the far more complex task

of creating our own our

own personal free speech, as it were.

This is where we decide for ourselves

how to think, learn, tolerate

or not engage with others or not,

including those with whom we are closest.

I propose that we see life

as having different ways or layers

of trying to achieve the same thing

and compare them and look at how they intersect.

I see the First Amendment as a point of departure,

not a destination as it where

we are letting ourselves off the hook

when we expect society to conform to standards that we know from

our own lives are too unyielding to accommodate life’s infinite.


But we begin with free speech and the First Amendment

in the United States.

We proudly have decided

primarily through Supreme

Court cases over the last century, that the government or the state

should not, quote, censor speech

except in extreme situations.

For example, when it poses a serious

and imminent risk of violence.

This means that we must hold, withhold

imposing sanctions on speech

that is racist or anti-Semitic

or materially and dangerously false.

We exercise this self-restraint

only towards behavior we classify as, quote,

speech, a puzzle in itself,

and we embedded as a fundamental principle

in the Constitution.

To the questions why and to what ends,

we say the following.

First, we recognize that human nature

is not naturally open

to other beliefs and ideas.

We are made for intolerance, not tolerance.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr expressed this

premise explicitly and succinctly in 1920

as he

initiated the cascade of jurisprudence

we live by today.

He acknowledged, quote,

persecution for the expression of opinions

seems to me perfectly logical.

If you have no doubt of your premises or your power

and you want a result with all your heart,

you naturally express your wishes in law

and sweep away the opposition.

To allow opposition by speech seems to indicate

that you think the speech impediment or that you do not care whole heartedly

for the result, or that you doubt either your power

or your premises.

So intolerance or persecution

towards other beliefs and opinions is perfectly logical.

But that’s not the end of the story.

Holmes says famously,

We need to reject these natural impulses

and aim for something higher, namely truth

for when we realize, he says,

that time has upset many fighting faiths.

Then we come to believe that the ultimate good desired

is better reached by free trade in ideas that the best test of truth is

the power of the thought to get itself accepted

in the competition of the market.

And the truth is, the only ground upon which

there wishes safely can be carried out.

This, as it were,

has become the American creed,

and it is a wonderful

and really glorious thing.

But given the problematic relationship between the premise and the ideal,

it is no wonder that each new generation

must work to understand and live by this faith.

It’s also odd,

more intricate than this, because we do not live by this faith

throughout all society and certainly not in our own lives.

Even when we have the same goals in mind.

Take where we are right this minute

in the academic world.

A very different framework applies in the search for truth.

Here the quest is bounded by strict norms

of objectivity, reason, civility,

peer review, full attribution

and constant skepticism applied to one’s own ideas.

In this realm, what I like to refer to

as the scholarly temperament prevails.

And for those who abridge those norms,

the penalties, the censorship

as it were by another name are severe

non promotion and even exclusion.

As with the First Amendment commitment to free speech,

the scholarly temperament does not come easily.

It is only achieved by education and mental discipline.

Here then are two worlds I and you know well,

they are very different in character, very different

in the precepts about the permissible,

permissible intellectual traits.

Yet both are dedicated to the discovery of truth.

One is like a wilderness and the other a manicured garden.

I won’t

here go into how to square the two worlds in a society

such as ours, nor whether they even need to be squared.

My main point takes a different path.

What I want to get to is our own lives,

the ones that each of us constructs day after day.

None of us would ever choose personally

to live according to the dictates of the First Amendment

or the scholarly temperament.

They may well be appropriate for their respective spheres,

and they may each in their own way

be models for us to turn to for guidance as we create our own.

But they will not work for ordinary life,

even for the same goal.

Here is where my recommendations come to them.

Let me say first, however, that I’m not trying to solve

the larger questions each of us confronts about who we will be

or what beliefs we will hold,

or with what degrees of intensity and conviction.

We need courage to fight for justice.

That is another topic.

My focus today is how we build within ourselves

a disposition to be open minded that is authentic, lasting,

and ultimately a force for positive change.

So here are some ideas I have turned to myself for help.

I have found them useful in building my own understanding and knowledge,

in feeling freer and happier, and for nurturing relationships with others.

There are ten, I say, under my breath

the first, and in many ways the most important recommendation

is to be constantly alert to our natural impulses that lead us astray.

Here, you need to start with where the First Amendment starts.

And Holmes was right.

We will have our beliefs, and the more strongly we hold them,

the more we will want to protect them from contradiction and rejection.

But our impulse is even more dangerous

than Holmes suggested.

Not only do we want to, quote, persecute

opposition, we also want to join with others

in feeling fortified and righteous in doing so.

We want to agree.

To agree.

In other words, we need to see that our natural inclination

is to be closed minded, not open minded.

We are not born believing in free speech or openness.

We have to learn to be this other way.

From there, I think it’s helpful to develop a conscious awareness

of how little we even experts,

actually know about ourselves and our world.

Human knowledge is vast and stupendous.

Stupendous, as this university attests,

as a repository of human knowledge.

But our ignorance is far greater.

I love and have enormous respect for expertise,

but you have to be careful not to let it be intimidating.

And the best way to do that is to peer into our shared ignorance.

For that is where we find our sense of shared humanity

and where old and new things await our discovery.

Next, for those things we do

and can know,

we must always work on seeing their complexity

as deeply as we can.

The mind naturally simplifies

things and looks for and assumes there are answers.

Sometimes there are, but more often there are choices to be made.

I always tell my students

to try to make the problems

we study as complex as possible,

and I suggest you follow the tried and true method of academics

to ready their minds by beginning every response,

by saying, Well, it’s complicated

and then go on from there.

Next, once you see the centrifugal forces

against openness and you see the path ahead,

you realize this is something that happens only

by continuous practice, by habit.

You have to make it part of who you are

and do it over and over again.

Just saying to people be open

is like saying to someone, Go play the piano.

You have to work at it to build

your capacities, gain agility and strength.

And that’s why pianists do scales.

And these are scales for open mindedness.

Now, when you are in conversations with people,

which is a great way to learn,

you should always ask more questions than give answers.

Everyone has something to teach us.

Something of unique interest.

And your task is always to find that.

Keep the proportions of questions,

the answers at least 80%.

Given human nature, I predict

you will have no problem succeeding in this

unless you run into someone who was at this commencement,

who actually listened to what I’m saying and who was persuaded.

A vanishingly small pool of people.

I realize.

Then try this.

When you encounter a problem, an issue

on which reasonable people disagree.

Imagine all the arguments you would make until the point

where no alternative seems possible.

Then start all over again.

Imagine you are the other person

and make their arguments to the same end in your mind

and then

try to hold both arguments in your head at once.

This is very, very hard to do.

Seventh idea is always remember

that the problems of life may be different in consequence,

but are more or less equal in complexity.

As your parents will no doubt agree,

deciding which school to send your child

to can be just as vexing

as any matter of American foreign policy.

Do not be dismissive of any opportunity to bear witness to the difficulties

of making the right call under any circumstances.

Remember, too,

that being open is not only a way to truth and understanding,

but also helps build relationships.

I learned a long time ago

that in marriage, family life,

friendship, there is no such thing as a contract.

But we agreed

does not work when feelings change.

Empathy is a branch of openness,

and empathy is crucial to any relationship

at any level.

Keep notes.

Ask yourself, What have I learned?

Why didn’t I understand that?

And how well did I follow my own principles?

Everyone from researchers to wine experts knows

that by writing down your impressions, you understand your experience better

and have a reference point for the future.

And finally, know that aging

makes it all much easier.

The older you grow, the less certain you are,

and the more you appreciate what humans have done with curiosity.

Age will help you out,

making you more patient of yourselves

and others, and more willing

to be open to the baffling but exhilarating mysteries of the world.

So there are the ten ideas.

Know your bad impulses.

Feel our vast ignorance.

Work at seeing the complexity of things, not the answers.

Make it a habit.

Ask more questions than provide answers.

Imagine you are the person you disagree with.

See complexity in ordinary life.

Be open and empathetic in relationships.

Keep notes and let age help you out.

I have been very fortunate to have my professional life

correspond to my personal life.

Freedom of speech.

The great American University

and being a law professor and president of Columbia

have all been interwoven.

This has given me a mine of precious materials

from which to draw from the national to the quotidian.

I love each and I love them all together.

I still do not understand all I need to.

But as they intersect, I understand each better.

I hope and expect you will find the same is true in your lives.

Let me return

to my opening remark

that this is my last commencement address.

The commencement speech

is one of the hardest in life to give.

No remarks can live up to the meaning

that this has for all of you.

It is a bit of a trap

because when you try to close the gap, the risk is that

you will end up with the cliché and the banal.

Enough said on that.

I only ask that you give me credit

for being self-aware.

But for sure, the commencement speech focuses the mind.

And if you’re ever asked to give one,

I strongly urge you to say yes

and then get out of town as quickly as possible.

My deepest congratulations to all of you,

and especially my fellow graduates of 2023.

Thank you.