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Lee C. Bollinger‘s Final Commencement Speech as University President

Bollinger at Columbia University commencement ceremony 2023
Bollinger-Commencement-2023 (Photo: Eileen Barroso)

Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger spoke to the graduating class for his final time as University president on Wednesday, May 17, 2023.

The speech addressed free speech and higher education as a force for good in the world.

It is my 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 like to think that we are graduating together. 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 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, every one 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, staff, and administration, how thankful we are to each and every one of you for enriching our lives, and this appreciation 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 an expectation to offer thoughts as profound as this moment is in your lives. Given all that is 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-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 sustain.

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 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 set 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 were. 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 subtleties.

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 “censor” speech except in extreme situations (for example, when it poses a serious and imminent risk of violence). This means that we must withhold imposing sanctions on speech that is racist, or antisemitic, or materially and dangerously false. We exercise this self-restraint only towards behavior we classify as “speech” (a puzzle in itself) and we embed it 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: “Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly logical. If you have no doubt of your premises or your power and 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 impotent, . . . 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 “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 that truth is the only ground upon which their 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 equally problematic premise and the ideal, it is no wonder that each new generation must work to understand and live by this faith. And it’s also odd, more intricate than this, because we do not live by this faith throughout 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 the 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 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 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 be each in their own way models 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 in. Let me say first, however, that I am 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 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 where the First Amendment starts. 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 “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, 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, build your capacities, gain agility and strength — 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 proportion of questions to answers at least at 80%. Given human nature, I predict you will have no problems 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 hard to do.

Seven, always remember that the problems of life may be different in consequences, 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, and 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 with yourself 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’ve 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 to my fellow Graduates of 2023.

Thank you.

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