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Special Feature

Commencement 2009

Nearly 12,000 graduates heard Lee C. Bollinger’s call to create a global public forum that is “uninhibited, robust and wide open” with regard to freedom of speech; US Attorney General Eric Holder ’73CC, ’76LAW, above, addressed Columbia College seniors on May 19.  
For the next generation of global citizens, there is no more important task than creating a society “in which ideas matter, knowledge can be pursued freely, dissent can be heard, and objective news can be gathered and published” everywhere in the world, President Lee C. Bollinger told the University’s approximately 12,000 graduates during his commencement address on a warm, sunny morning May 20.

Bollinger, a legal scholar of First Amendment issues, warned that the free market can no longer be expected to support journalism, nor can we assume that the rest of the world in the 21st century will share America’s appreciation for a free exchange of ideas.

“Having spent my own life thinking about the great principles of freedom of speech and press,” said Bollinger, standing in front of Alma Mater at Low Library, “I find myself increasingly concerned about the need to secure and to realize these freedoms on a global scale — in the increasingly interdependent, emerging global society that will, in all probability, define the span of your lives.”

Bollinger told graduates that they must promote freedom of speech around the world. He laid out three prescriptions: First, we must refuse to pursue an economic relationship with countries that do not support the open exchange of ideas. Second, we must learn to see the foreign press as an extension of our domestic press, and fight for its survival as part of the common good. Third, we must bolster the American press as an example to other nations, funding public broadcasting, agitating for access to war zones, and supporting the development of international law to protect free expression everywhere.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, above center, posed with Barnard College President Debora Spar and Barnard Trustees Chair Anna Quindlen ’74BC.
“As a society, we have long depended on two major institutions — our universities and the press — to be champions for and practitioners of the principle of freedom of expression,” said Bollinger. “Each in its own way serves the public good, each offers its own kind of syllabus for good citizenship, and each is emblematic of our larger responsibility to answer bad ideas with better ideas, and not to hide or be silent.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Attorney General Eric Holder ’73CC, ’76LAW also sounded themes of social responsibility when they addressed Columbia’s graduates earlier in the week.

At Columbia College Class Day, Holder told outgoing seniors that they should see themselves as public servants no matter the careers they choose. “You must give the people the benefit of your education, the benefit of your expertise, and serve them ably and faithfully in whatever you do,” he said. Holder described his own student experience as tumultuous, surrounded as he was by protests related to the Vietnam War, black consciousness, the women’s movement, and gay rights. He recalled staging a sit-in to establish a black students’ lounge and negotiating his group’s demands with Dean of Students Henry Coleman, whose office his group occupied.

“In the ultimate display of chutzpah, I later asked him to write my law school recommendations,” said Holder. “This being Columbia, of course he agreed. He was a great and a generous man. This college allowed an impetuous, testosterone-laced youngster to express himself in ways that other institutions would have considered unacceptable.”

At Barnard College commencement, Hillary Clinton urged the 585 members of the Class of 2009 to stand up for marginalized women around the world, using such 21st-century tools as microloans and online social networks.

“As women with strong voices and strong values,” said Clinton, “you are in a unique position to support women worldwide who don’t have the resources you do, but whose lives and dreams are just as worthy as yours and mine.”

To watch video and to read about this year’s honorands, alumni medalists, and recipients of the presidential award for excellence in teaching, visit

Joshua J. Friedman ’08JRN


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