President Bollinger Reflects on a 'New Age of Disinformation' in Commencement Address

Bollinger discussed free speech, knowledge, expertise, and humility, as well as the role of universities as a force for good in society.

May 19, 2022

As graduating students from across Columbia gathered in front of Low Library on May 18, 2022, surrounded by families, friends, faculty, alumni, and trustees, President Lee C. Bollinger delivered his first in-person Commencement address since 2019.

He reflected on the challenges the students have faced during their studies. He spoke about free speech and the relationship between disinformation and attacks on knowledge and expertise. He discussed the importance of institutions like universities in society, how much they contribute to the world and how forcefully they must be protected. And he expressed his faith in the students gathered before him, to deploy the knowledge and the skills they have acquired at Columbia in the service of addressing the great problems facing our global society.

The Challenges of the Times

In his speech, Bollinger remarked on the constellation of global crises that have shaped the educational experiences of the graduating students, making their achievements particularly remarkable.

“Your Columbia journey has been nothing like any I have ever witnessed. I can barely begin to touch the surface of the times: A once-in-a-century pandemic; life-jarring climate-induced catastrophes jolting us into a state-of-emergency mindset; a world flirting dangerously with authoritarianism, repressing human rights and yielding naked aggression to a degree not seen since the era leading up to the Second World War; violent acts of racism that add still another horrible chapter in the struggles of Black Americans to overcome invidious discrimination, made worse by a refusal of many citizens even to acknowledge the historical and ongoing truths of this injustice; and of other innocent groups, suffering other injustices.

“I know each one of us is privately taking stock of how these events—singly or altogether—have affected our own lives and the lives of those close to us. Collectively, we can be certain that many among us have suffered deeply; and not one of us has been untouched. To all of you, therefore, in recognition of the many challenges you have had to endure and overcome, we say with more conviction and more respect than ever before, Congratulations to the Class of 2022.”

A New Age of Disinformation

Bollinger, a preeminent First Amendment scholar, used the occasion of this address to remark on what he saw as “an over-abundance, an excess, an abuse of freely expressed but deeply misguided speech that threatens a moral, ethical, just, wise, and sane world.”

He called the current moment a new "Age of Disinformation," fueled by the Internet and social media. These developments are forcing many to question long-held beliefs about free speech in this country, namely that “bad speech, including falsehoods and lies, is better remedied by opportunities for more speech rather than by government intervention.”

“Openness of mind is counter-intuitive; it must be learned both in principle and in lived experience, and our worst impulses that we constantly have to live with mean it will always be in jeopardy. Which is why we had to create a hard-to-change constitutional freedom and then take it to an extreme, as a lesson in life in tolerance. But the profound question before us today is: Does this basic premise, does all of this, still hold true?"

Attacks on Knowledge and Expertise

In his address, Bollinger argued that this rise in deliberate disinformation and propaganda has undermined “the very idea of deep knowledge and expertise itself.”

“Disinformation is now powering a particularly pungent form of populism in which experts are discredited, even ridiculed, and an arrogance of feeling one can believe whatever one wants to believe is settling in and becoming normal. This attitude is in direct conflict with universities because we are society’s primary institutions for preserving and advancing what humanity has struggled to learn over the millennia. Over the past several years, our own faculty have been targets of this abuse.”

“Attacking expertise is a common tool of fascism and authoritarian regimes. When we discredit a particular piece of knowledge, we make it harder to think well. We undermine the essential task of a self-determining society to draw on the vast body of information and thought painfully developed over centuries and held safely within our academic institutions and across our cultural institutions and professions. Falsehoods today are increasingly accompanied by a rejection of a necessary humility about the limits of our knowledge and of a basic trust in others who have devoted their lives and careers to understand deeply an important subject.”

Free Speech Cannot Stand in the Way of Condemning Disinformation

Bollinger asserted that the strong protections for speech that exist in the United States do not imply that "it is wrong to do what we can to stop falsehoods and disinformation generally."

"Is 'free speech' an 'absolute,' as some would have it, and should we, accordingly, refrain from doing anything to stop bad speech in ways beyond official censorship? My answer to that is: Not for a second should we think that way. That way lies madness and the loss of a well-educated society."

“'Good thinking' is a critical goal of any individual or society. The rejection of 'bad thinking'—however difficult it is to define precisely—is a necessary condition of that. Indeed, this is what we call education—the development of the human capacity to think well—with reason from knowledge, and with respect for facts and a reasonable openness to relevant ideas and opinions. This is not easy, to be sure, which is why we devote so many years to arrive at where you are now.”

“'Free speech’ is not an end in itself but a thumb on the scale in a particular direction. It would make no sense to order our lives entirely in that direction. Keep it always in mind, of course, but do not allow it to take precedence over other principles we value.”

Universities as a Force for Good in the World

Bollinger offered his views on the importance of universities in society, of the ways in which they contribute to the world and serve the public good.

“Whenever I let my mind try to take in the full breadth of what happens here—in laboratories, in clinics, in libraries, in studies, in classrooms, and work all over the planet—I am exhilarated. But I am also filled with humility because I know so little of all that is known here, and at similar institutions. To come to a university such as Columbia is to learn to be humble; to realize how little you know and always will.”

“I love being president (I recommend the job highly!), not least because I get to know just a little bit more of that amazing whole. In this time of our many trials and crises, as we reap the benefits of universities, we need to do all we can to protect them. They are not perfect, for sure. I feel strongly, for example, that we need to make the boundaries between us and the rest of the world more permeable and more connected in the betterment of human society and the world. This mission, which I call the Fourth Purpose of the University—in addition to teaching and research and service—might help people more broadly feel more respectful of what we have to offer.”

'Every One of You in Your Own Way Will Help to Solve These Problems'

Bollinger concluded his remarks by expressing his admiration and respect for the graduating students, as well as his confidence that they will use what they have learned at Columbia to change the world for the better.

“Another reason I love being president of Columbia is the opportunity to be in your midst. As students in our classrooms and laboratories, you are what makes academic life worth living. We may be daunted by this troubled moment in history, but I am most certainly convinced, to the core of my being, that every one of you in your own way will help to solve these problems and to heal the world. You have demonstrated that human capacity to think well, and I know you will deploy it in meaningful and inspiring ways. Most of all, you will have the proper degree of humility that a truly great education instills."

"On this day, we celebrate you, all that you have accomplished, and the institution that nurtures us, especially in this new historical era we have entered. Congratulations to you, Class of 2022.”