2009 Commencement Address

May 20, 2009

It is my very great pleasure to say, on behalf of the trustees and the faculty of Columbia University, congratulations to all of the Classes of 2009. 

This event, this graduation ceremony, in this glorious space, on this magnificent day, is both exhilarating and humbling.  There is no other occasion I can think of that has a greater purity of happiness and good will than this one.  The concentration of joy and well-deserved satisfaction contained by the walls of these buildings, which bespeak an intellectual life, is as potent a force as exists in the universe - more happiness per square inch than we are likely ever to see again.  Years of mental labor and toil have brought you to this moment, and marking this intellectual milestone is our happy and simple mission for the day.  I am honored to share it with you.

Standing on these steps, I cannot help but recall several other memorable and moving moments this past year, when students, faculty, and staff came together here in what has come to be regarded as Columbia's town square. 

On these steps, this past September 11th, we stood together in memory of those lost eight years earlier and to listen to presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama who had come to this campus to talk about one of Columbia's defining values - service to our neighbors, our nation, and our world. 

Then, on these steps, on January 20th, we stood as one to witness the inauguration of the first Columbia graduate and the first African-American president in the history of the United States.

And on these steps - on far too few balmy days this cold, damp Spring - you have sat with friends and classmates to share both some occasional sunshine and some part of yourselves - an ageless form of human connection that still beats updating your Facebook page. 

Now, on these steps - and all the way back to Butler Library - we assemble once again, for many of you the last time, to share the exhilaration of today's commencement.

And to feel humbled.  For today marks an ending as well as a beginning.  You have succeeded here, but now you have new goals to imagine and pursue.  It's humbling to realize that the quest never ends.  Then there's the strange fact that the more we learn the more we become aware of how much we don't know.  Knowledge makes us feel ignorant.  And that's humbling.  And, finally, this is a time to take stock of the fact that you did none of this alone.  You have benefited from countless people, as you have set your aspirations, struggled to overcome life's disappointments, and celebrated your successes. 

This is a good moment, then, to welcome and specifically to thank the parents, grandparents, and families and friends of the graduates.  On behalf of all of us at Columbia, we want to thank you for letting us have the pleasure of teaching your children, to learn from them and to be inspired by their hopes and dreams for the future.  We share your pride in them.  We know that many of you have made great sacrifices to get to this day.  Your love, support and faith in your graduates have given them the courage to undertake the greatest educational venture of their lives.  And, so, before we go any further, let's give this opportunity to the graduates to thank the people who truly made this day possible, your parents and families.

Commencement is a time to imagine the future.  For those of us here today who are older than you, we know all too well that the future seems to have its own way of unfolding, often very differently than we anticipated.  But we still should take advantage of this grand occasion to step back and take a large and long view of what service we need to render to the world we now inherit and will hand over to the generations who will follow you.  Your lives will stretch across this new century, and today we can stand on your young shoulders and, in doing so, perhaps peer even further into what lies ahead. 

For me, living in one of the greatest universities in the world, so committed to understanding the world in all its complexity, and having spent my own life thinking about the great principles of freedom of speech and press, 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. 

This is a matter of deep and abiding importance to this graduating class, not least because you have been here at a pivotal moment in history.  You came in texting and you're going out with a twitter.  And regardless of whether you're a fan of digital downloads or old fashioned ink on paper, while you've been here you've seen the value of dialogue, and of access to timely, credible, independently generated information and ideas.  In August, 2005, just as many of you were settling into your first semester here, Hurricane Katrina was ravaging the city of New Orleans, amid accusations of gross government mismanagement and misinformation.  Your Columbia years have coincided with two brutal and still unfinished wars - in Iraq and Afghanistan - shaped by our own government's far too extensive control over information.  You will tell your children about the unprecedented economic crisis that erupted during your time here - a global event fueled by inadequate disclosures and regulation.  From the standpoint of our ability to acquire a full understanding of things that matter, we clearly have a long way to go before we can rest.

Meanwhile, you have been witness to and strengthened by participating in the process of vigorous open debate - on issues such as gay marriage, the conflict in the Middle East, and climate change.  And you have played a role in one of the most exciting political campaigns in American history - a campaign waged like never before through online media and social networking.

Through it all, you have lived in the most privileged intellectual environment on the planet, perhaps of all time.  Nothing compares to this - to the freedom you have felt - and possibly taken for granted - to consider every idea and to hear every speaker imaginable (and I mean every speaker).  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.  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.  As a result, you have had that all too rare human experience of thinking, listening, and speaking without fear or threat of the censor's lash. 

America is radical among nations in this tradition, the most committed to free speech and free press of any country ever.  In the stirring language of the Supreme Court's famous decision in 1964, The New York Times v. Sullivan, we have put our faith in a system that is "uninhibited, robust, and wide-open." 

But it was not always so in our country.  Indeed, it has been so for less than a century.  Around the time of World War I, Congress could and did make it a crime to speak or publish anything that was "disloyal" or "scurrilous" and could cause "contempt" or "scorn" for the United States, the Constitution, the flag or the military.  And on this campus President Nicholas Murray Butler comfortably informed the Columbia community that all vocal opposition to the war would be grounds for dismissal. 

Our judiciary at first found no conflict between these laws and the First Amendment of the Constitution, but then over the course of the next several decades it cleared away the brush and tangled vines of censorship to give us the vista of freedom we have today.  Our government acted affirmatively in many ways to do the same.  Protection of state secrets, laws against speech deemed "dangerous" and "offensive," and laws favoring reputation over free expression all had to give way to a freer and more open society.

(This well-served a country that was remaking itself.)  We moved from a collection of individual states with local jurisdiction to deal with local problems to a national society able and compelled to face up to increasingly national problems.  As a society, we became more and more inclusive and therefore diverse and pluralistic, making dialogue an even greater necessity.  Our means of communication expanded.  And we had the good sense to know that we had to create and fortify a national public forum, protected against the chilling effects of local laws or censorship.  Collectively, we bet our future on a simple proposition that people behave better when they know more.

Many, many people and many, many institutions over the last century made it possible for you and for us together to experience the unfettered freedom of thought, speech, and publication during your years here at Columbia.  The question before us now is both simple and profound, namely how do we do this on a global scale, for an emerging global society, in this new century?  To create a global public forum that is "uninhibited, robust, and wide-open"?  This central task falls squarely on your generation.  And, since Columbia aims to exemplify these values, it falls squarely on all of you. 

This idea of a global public forum arises out of the extraordinary integration of the world that has been accelerating during the years while you've been in school.  What we now call "globalization" is mostly a matter of increased trade in goods and services through the opening of markets around the world.  It is also a matter of increased contact through greater travel, the internationalization of education, and the invention of new technologies of communication (principally, of course, the Internet) that link us together in ways barely imaginable a generation ago.  And, it is also very much a matter of the rise of common global problems - of the degradation of the environment, wars, and disease.  For both good and ill, globalization is the defining phenomenon of the era, and it promises to be so even more in the future. 

Meanwhile, we certainly do not have the public institutions to make this global integration work very well, as we have discovered in the recent global financial crisis.  But an even more fundamental problem is the fact that we do not have the flow of information and the exchange of ideas we need to build the public institutions and to devise the policies to make this work. 

What's more, the very same technology - the Internet - that is making global communication so pervasive - is simultaneously undermining the financial model of the traditional press, as we've known it.  Ironically, and unfortunately, at the very moment when we want and need more serious study of and reporting on global issues, we are getting less and less of it.  Universities - including Columbia - are expanding their presence internationally, but the press is pulling back - closing foreign bureaus and decreasing coverage of international news.  This is in addition to an observable and regrettable regression in some of the media into triviality, popular obsessions, and intolerant and shallow opinion-mongering. 

No one should take this development lightly.  As Walter Lippmann wrote about the shortcomings of the press in its coverage of the First World War, a crisis of journalism is a crisis of democracy.  No one should assume that the institutions committed to a professional culture of journalism or scholarship can be replaced by thousands of individual, citizen-journalists, just as you cannot replace our great universities with multiple individual websites each offering specialized knowledge in an atomized way.  Sometimes you need big, strong news organizations to challenge the vast powers of government, corporations and other large institutions. 

Next week under that dome behind me we will give a Pulitzer Prize for a deeply researched newspaper report on how the Pentagon successfully pitched its Iraq spin to many of the former generals who often appear as military experts in the news.  It is unlikely that a lone blogger would have had the wherewithal to get and publish that story for a national audience.  

It is also a fact that we can no longer expect the free market to produce institutions that actually play a quasi-public role, as universities do or the press does as our "Fourth Branch" of government.  Eventually, there will have to be new sources of funding for the press, other than through the private market.  For now, oddly, a significant part of our world news comes through the BBC, and therefore courtesy of British citizens.  (Meanwhile, other government-supported broadcasters, from China's CCTV to Al Jazeera English, are developing their own global presence.)  We have yet to realize that we will need to compete for our ideas in the global marketplace of ideas.

But we also must face the harsh reality that much of the rest of the world does not take the same view of freedom of speech and press that we now do.  Many countries forbid discussion about topics deemed too sensitive or dangerous; media are strictly controlled by the state, with no allowance for a private or independent press; transmitters block radio and TV signals from coming into countries; Internet portals are configured to reject messages from entering or leaving countries; websites are prohibited or subject to registration requirements; reporters (foreign or domestic) are denied access to newsworthy places or people; they are put in jail on trumped up charges; or they are subjected to unofficial violence tacitly encouraged or condoned by hostile governments.

But the state of censorship in the world today is in many ways not unlike it was here just a century ago.  And it changed, through the dedication of many and the time of a few generations.  If we believe in this, we now must help this happen. 

What can be done about this?  There are many - far too many for this address - but I would offer a few suggestions.

The first, and by far the most important, is that we need to begin to see this as a goal.  Nothing ever really begins to change until people start to think differently, until people embrace a new paradigm.  There have always been, and there are today, many people concerned about promoting human rights, including freedom of speech and press, around the world.  For these efforts, we should be thankful.  But, given the growing interdependence and integration of the world through globalization, this is no longer a matter of human rights but a very practical need for information and ideas by which to develop the institutions and policies to make the world a better place.  The message we must convey to other countries is, we cannot have an economic relationship unless we also have the openness to information and ideas that ultimately is the foundation of a true relationship.  And, given that we live now in a world in which censorship in one country can lead to inhibiting speech everywhere - just as the Court recognized in New York Times v. Sullivan with respect to Alabama's libel law - we can no longer afford to view local censorship as being purely local in consequences.

We must see the "foreign" press as our press too, for it is from them that much of our information will ultimately derive.  When journalists and scholars languish in prison, when websites are banned and signals blocked, the rights of all of us are abridged. 

Finally, we have to make of ourselves an even better example for the world.  President Franklin Roosevelt said (some years after he had left this university without quite making it to where all of you are today):  "If the fires of freedom and civil liberties burn low in other lands, they must be made brighter in our own.  If in other lands the press and books and literature of all kinds are censored, we must redouble our own efforts here to keep them free.  If in other lands, the eternal truths of the past are threatened by intolerance, we must provide a safe place for their perpetuation." 

That is why today we need to ensure that the press has full and unfettered access to war zones to report on where we are sending our young men and women to fight - not embedded but present as a right.  We need to provide more funding to our system of public broadcasting and entrust it with the mission of reporting to and reporting from the global arena, especially where the news media can no longer afford to do so.  We need to become more committed to the development of international law governing these matters.  And we need to integrate more than we do now, in every field of study here in our universities, and in every center of policy-making, a sense of how vital it is to everything we want to do that there be the freedom of thought, speech, and press that we have come to enjoy - and hopefully not take for granted - here at Columbia. 

As our Attorney General of the United States told those of you at the College yesterday, this graduation may seem a culmination, but it is just the beginning of a new responsibility of citizenship.  Just when you thought you were done with your finals and papers, here is a new and even more challenging task - living a life and helping build a world in which ideas matter, knowledge can be pursued freely, dissent can be heard, and objective news can be gathered and published.  That is a worthy assignment for all of you, and, I am proud to add, you are worthy of it. 

My greatest hope for all of you is that you will find some such mission to which you can dedicate your amazing talents and good will, and in doing so fulfill the deeper ambition and purpose of the knowledge and understanding that are cherished here and exist to a degree unparalleled in the world today.  On behalf of all of us at Columbia, we congratulate you on this magnificent milestone in your lives, send you forth with optimism at the good you can now accomplish, and look forward to your saying in the future, "And it was on these steps, on May the 20th, 2009, that I received my degree from Columbia." 

Congratulations and Good Luck.