Jump to Navigation

2004 Commencement Address

2004 Commencement Address

May 19, 2004

It is my very great honor and pleasure, on behalf of the University, to congratulate the graduates of 2004, from Columbia, from Barnard, and from Teachers College. A Commencement audience is the hardest to give a speech to. In this magnificent academic space, attentions are easily diverted. I know that the slightest misstep, even a moment of boredom, will be punished by continuous inattention. You can, therefore, be sure I will be brief.

First, let me extend a special welcome to the parents, families, and friends of the graduates—and especially to the parents. We know that for every one of you there is a story behind your son’s or daughter’s presence here today, a story of difficulties overcome and disappointments endured as well as many, many successes enjoyed. To be a parent is to be a worrier: we desperately want our children’s hopes and desires to be fulfilled. At this celebration of achievement and fulfillment, every parent can feel that sense of joyous relief that all is well. It is a time for suspension of worry. Congratulations to the parents, therefore, as well as to your sons and daughters.

Commencement is a day that represents for us how life is made up of a series of comings and goings. Over a lifetime we weave ourselves in and out of encounters with people, places, institutions, and experiences. We leave our families and our hometowns when we head off to college, return to them frequently when we’re in college, and then our families and friends come to college to help celebrate our graduation. Eventually, you (the graduates) will return to the University in the years ahead, just like you have returned home to your families and friends. Of course, everyone, and everyplace you return to changes while you are away, which makes every return a partly new experience in its own right. The sum of these leavings and returnings, like the sum of our constantly increasing and ever-changing memories—the forgetting and the remembering—is how we forge a life. We make a life together today.

I left Columbia in 1971. I can still taste the exquisite, once-in-a-lifetime feeling—which some of you must have experienced in the last few days—of walking out of the last examination I would ever take and knowing that it was the last examination I would ever take. Then two years ago my wife, Jean, and I returned to Columbia (having, of course, come back to the University in the interim for different kinds of visits). It is amazing to me how long it takes, even with an institution you know fairly well, to feel fully settled in it. It takes comings and goings to make a place a home. It takes acquiring the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of little pieces of knowledge. It’s knowing where the dry cleaner is, the grocery store you like, a regular path, or the security guard at the gate. These are just as important to feeling at home as developing really close friends.

I was saying that I now feel I know many of the basics. I know, for example, that the most desirable and most desired dormitory on campus is Wien Hall. And I know that many of you—or so you’ve told me—had starring roles in Spiderman 1 and 2. Yet, there are still things I haven’t figured out. Who is this person called “presbo?”—a name I hear with some frequency as I walk across the campus. I also don’t know where all of you go from about November to April. As far as I can tell, you’re nowhere to be found in these months. At all other times, you’re right here on the sunny steps of Low Library, apparently staring at Butler, where you know you really should be. I do know that Columbia students are a fairly serious lot. During your reclusive months, I see a fair number of you emerge momentarily and then re-descend into the notorious rings of the euphemistically called “Dodge Fitness Center.” There you experience various levels of suffering and punishment, which, from what I have seen, you richly deserve. In the first circle—i.e., the running track—to which are assigned those who have committed no sins but were simply born before you should have been born—I have seen some of you (and this is the truth) actually reading while walking or jogging. That has led me to conclude that all the rest of you who have headphones on are listening to books on tape, perhaps of “two or three of the first select Orations of Tully,” which, as you know, applicants in 1754 had to recite (in Greek) in order to be admitted. The greatest sinners among you are submerged in the water and chemicals at the lowest ring, because given how studious you are about learning and knowledge, the greatest punishment—in the Orwellian sense of the perfectly designed punishment for each of us—that can be conceived for you is to deprive you of the opportunity to read or listen. That’s undoubtedly why we still have the mandatory swimming test.

Back to the weaving of life by comings and goings.

Any important day in our lives, such as this one, is filled with intersecting meanings—birthdays, beginnings, historically significant events, and so on. But this day, the day on which you become the Class of 2004, is, in fact, extraordinarily rich in this way. You alone—and you will be forever unique in this way—have the honor of graduating on the 250th anniversary of Columbia University in the City of New York, making this the fifth oldest university in the United States and you the first graduates of the long march ahead to the end of the fifth century of Columbia’s birth in the year 2254. This is also the month of the 50th anniversary of the absolutely determinative and world-shaping decision in 1954 of Brown v. Board of Education. It is also, notably, a time in the human cycle, when the country is again at war, which always puts special stresses on the fundamental values of our society, especially values like freedom of speech and tolerance. And, finally, we might say that at this moment, by world-wide consensus, the United States is, for the first time in its history, the most powerful and in so many ways the most dominant influence on the globe, with the concomitant fact that the nation’s fortunes are more intertwined with the peoples of the planet than has ever been true before—all of which raise profound questions for us at Columbia about our responsibilities in this present and future world.

I want to say a few things about these intersecting currents, but I want to do so primarily through the lens of our own history.

In the beginning, at the moment Columbia was formed in 1754, there was no freedom for Blacks and many Native Americans, there was very little in the way of freedom of speech as we think of it today, and the United States, as such, didn’t even exist. Yet, Columbia was born out of a contentious debate over the scope of religious tolerance in new educational institutions. The issue was whether the new college should be an Anglican institution or more broadly non-denominational. Columbia chose the latter and, in fact, became the “only colonial college never to have a theological faculty.”

Free speech, however, cannot be said to have thrived at the little college. From my admittedly narrow perspective, too little credit is given to student Alexander Hamilton for intervening when a crowd of students, at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, threatened the Loyalist president, Myles Cooper, permitting Cooper to skulk out the back door of his residence to catch a ship back to England.

Fifty years later, Columbia was part of a society still recovering from the infamous Alien and Sedition Act of 1798, which simply made criticism of the government a crime.

As Columbia celebrated its 100th year, in 1854, the thunderous cloud of Dred Scott was beginning to take form in the lower courts. You will be happy to know that no commencement speech was delivered at that time, but every student had to deliver an “Oration” (a practice we are re-instituting for next year’s graduation).

At the time of its 150th year, Columbia was just beginning to take on a modern form that would give it such a powerful influence in reshaping these forces. As Plessy v. Ferguson, in 1898, pronounced the “separate but equal” doctrine and retreated from the heroic efforts against slavery and discrimination, Columbia began to expand its own vision of what an educational community should look like. In 1901, President Seth Low spoke with pride of how far the University’s reach was extending. He noted that when he graduated from Columbia in 1870, out of 129 students in his graduating class 114 came from New York and, for diversity, the remaining 15 came from New Jersey. Columbia, he said, was then a “purely local college.” But, by the turn of the twentieth century, the graduating class had tripled (to 473) and was drawn from “24 different states.” No university in the United States, Low boasted, was “more broadly national in its outreach and influence.”

By the two hundredth anniversary in 1954, these threads begin to come together. In Grayson Kirk’s commencement address, in the midst of the national trauma of intolerance with the McCarthy hearings, he spoke of how universities needed to stand “together in resisting that resurgent anti-intellectualism which is all the more dangerous and vicious because it pretends to wear the mask of national patriotism.” “There can be no greater travesty of true patriotism,” he said, “than the assumption that all persons who disagree with an individual or group must . . . be traitors to their country.” That, he declared, was really “un-American.”

It is interesting to me that Kirk did not mention the Supreme Court decision two weeks earlier in Brown. But it is worth mentioning now that Columbia faculty, graduates, and students were, along with those from Howard University, the most important leaders in the efforts that led to that decision. And it is a great honor for us today to be able to confer honorary degrees on several of these great figures.

And then it was Brown that reshaped the very idea of freedom of speech. Forty years ago, with a Columbia faculty member arguing the case, involving freedom of speech in the context of civil rights, the Supreme Court in New York Times v. Sullivan declared for the first time that the “central meaning of the First Amendment” is the rejection of the very idea of the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798. And, so, a little college that began by debating the scope of religious tolerance in a different society came in time to define itself and to play a role in the creation of modern life two centuries later.

In the life of Columbia University, which we celebrate in this 250th anniversary, it may be said that we as an institution are always seeking to be nearer to the river, for us the Hudson River. Morningside Heights and Washington Heights border the Hudson, as does Teachers College, and Barnard is even a little closer. Indeed, our current dreams of Manhattanville in West Harlem may fairly be said to arise out of our desire to be just a little closer to the river. Seth Low in 1901 actually remarked on this institutional instinct. He observed how these graduates were the first to have entered the University after it had moved from its water-less mid-town location to Morningside Heights. He called this the “acropolis of Manhattan Island,” and he further noted how “once more” the University had “a view of the Hudson River, as King’s College commanded it when it was erected in 1756.” It has been the river, he said, that had made New York City, and it is the City that had made Columbia University in the City of New York.

We all need to be near to a river. In all the comings and goings of life, we need – we desperately need – something that connects us to what is fixed, permanent, something we can live by and with, return to, look for guidance from, and change, too, but only gradually and with care. We need basic principles – basic principles such as the free pursuit of knowledge, and freedom from prejudice and bigotry, and freedom of thought and expression. This is what the river stands for and why we always want to be nearer to it. The river is always there. It is the past and it is the present. It is time made visible. The new flows like the old. The shape may change but ever so gradually and even imperceptibly.

We still have much to do near that river. Just consider a few of the matters we have already noted. Columbia itself must further develop along the course we have been on for the last hundred years. We must encompass and embrace – in our research, our classes, and our student body – still more of the world than we do today. At this moment, Columbia’s student body is five times larger than it was when Low spoke in 1901. 8,318 students are graduating today; 10,909 including Barnard and Teachers College. All states and the District of Columbia are represented. More importantly, in the Class of 2004, 128 countries are represented by international students, fully a quarter of the graduating class. This steady progression of Columbia – from a “purely local college” to a “broadly national” university to an international university – reflects both the growth of knowledge and the sense of responsibility to educate the world and to better educate our students for the world. This is a progression that we must nurture.

There are mistakes and missed opportunities that we as a society have made that need to be corrected. The Supreme Court made a terrible error 30 years ago, in 1974, when a narrow majority declined to hold that education is a fundamental right protected by the Constitution and, accordingly, that the property tax system of financing our public schools is unconstitutional. How can we seriously believe that the educational opportunities of a young child in this country should be determined by the aggregate property values in the school district where that child happens to reside?

And with freedom of thought and speech, as if we never learn, once again we have seen how the passions of war have led so many in the nation (including some leaders) to condemn disagreement and dissent as acts of disloyalty meriting a punitive response. And how can we accept legislation that requires (as the Patriot Act does), with no provision for judicial review under normal standards of proof of possible criminal activity, that our libraries – including university libraries -- must on government demand turn over their records about their users to law enforcement and then to make it unlawful to inform the student or library user that this has been done?

I think these are departures from the principles of the river. Others do not. But the larger point is that we need the river and we need to be nearer to it.

My last, and strongest, hope today is that you will come to see Columbia—and Barnard and Teachers College—as one of the rivers in your life – an institution committed to permanent values worthy of our collective respect and admiration. You and we are part of what flows through this great institution. We want you to feel that what you’ve had at Columbia is something that will never leave you and that you feel you must return to – physically and in spirit – as you live out your lives. We hope and expect you to return, to retrace your paths, to shop at the same little store, to greet the security guard at the gate, to visit Wien, to star in a new movie, to call out Presbo, to sit on these steps, to descend once more to the circle of your assigned punishment, and – if you really want – to take yet another examination (which we promise to grade more leniently). With all the comings and goings that make up your lives, may you take with you from your time at Columbia something so steady and lasting that you will always want to be a little nearer to it.

Congratulations to you, Class of 2004, on this 250th anniversary of Columbia University in the City of New York on the banks of the Hudson River.