2009 Commencement Address
May 20, 2009
It is my very great pleasure to say, on behalf of the
trustees and the faculty of Columbia
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.