While I’ve worked at Columbia University for four decades, until recently, I never had an office with a view of the landmarked historic part of the campus. The Columbia campus is a beautiful oasis wonderfully maintained by hardworking grounds staff, but it can be something of a shock to the first-time visitor. I remember my first visit in the spring of 1981, during the faculty search process that brought me to the university. I emerged from the number 1 train stop on Broadway and 116 street, went through the gates and couldn’t believe my eyes. A wide, landscaped plaza appeared before me, surrounded by landmarked buildings. ”Where did this come from? And how could I live in New York City for so long and not know this was here?” I suppose it’s a long way from East 59th Street and Avenue T in Brooklyn to Morningside Heights, so I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised that I was so ignorant. New York City never loses the ability to surprise, but I was not prepared for Columbia’s Morningside Campus. During the winter, trees on the central drive of campus, “College Walk,” are always beautifully illuminated with thousands of small white lights. The campus is really stunning, and normally this time of year, contractors are busy erecting bleachers and putting up tents for the thousands of graduates and their families that come to celebrate commencement together. This year, the campus is lush and green, flowers are blooming, and the sun is shining. Sadly, for the second year in a row, there are no bleachers and the campus is a movie set rather than the site of a spectacular live event.
Last year, COVID-19 canceled in-person commencement, and this year it’s canceled again. I know there is no choice, and I believe that the university is correct in holding it virtually. I also know that our university community will come together in a virtual event that will be moving and memorable. Nevertheless, I think our damaged, pandering New York State governor had no business announcing that limited live ceremonies could be permitted even though it’s now too late to actually plan and implement them. His tease only adds to the frustration and the sadness. I sit in my office in Lewisohn Hall and, in between Zoom meetings, for the second year in a row, I see graduates in their caps and gowns posing for photos on the steps of Low Library and showing their families the campus “live” on FaceTime. The graduates look happy, and a few are actually visiting with their parents, showing them around. I don’t think I’m projecting too much to see the pride on the faces of parents and grandparents. But instead of thousands of happy faces, this year there are only a precious few.
The worst COVID-19 impacts are death and illness, but a bit behind that on the grief scale must be these disrupted rites of passage: the weddings, bar mitzvahs, communions, and graduations that are canceled, delayed, or held in cyberspace. James Taylor sings that “the secret to life is enjoying the passage of time.” And I think his definition of time requires it to be punctuated by rites of passage, holiday gatherings, and seasons that signify nature’s dominion over humankind. But the passage of time during a pandemic is something very different. It is time waiting to be over, so we can resume the lives we want to lead. The trees in Morningside and Riverside Parks are turning from gray to green again, and the feeling of life resuming is all around us, but so too is a pandemic that just won’t quit.
Columbia’s commencement, like most university graduations, features a week-long celebration by the university’s many schools that culminates in a large university-wide outdoor event attended by about 30,000 people. While we have guest speakers at our school ceremonies at the main ceremony, the president symbolically responds to deans, confers degrees and then gives the graduation address himself. President Bollinger’s commencement address is always a well-crafted and principled interpretation of critical issues facing our society and nation. I expect a great address from our president and from all the notables speaking at school events. But I’m certain that watching it on a computer doesn’t compare to hearing it with your classmates and family.
Last year, graduation was pieced together in a hurry with the technology at hand. This year, it is characterized by professional-quality video production. Our standards for virtual events seem to be getting higher. The other morning, I needed to alter the route to my office because President Bollinger was standing in front of Low Library, the symbolic center of campus, being professionally videotaped under bright lights, delivering his commencement address. I also participated in some professional videotaping of my own small role in graduation at the two schools I work in. Last year, I set up my iPhone on my fireplace to record my brief remarks. This year I was on campus with a professional video crew reading my talk from a teleprompter. I’m glad we are getting better at this, but I’d be much happier if we could gather in a huge crowd and conduct graduation in person.
I know that on the scale of tragedies in the world, lost commencements can’t rank very high. This sadness I feel is a little self-indulgent, but then I am not the one graduating. I’m not the one who has saved money, borrowed from family and banks, and struggled long days and nights to learn in order to earn a degree. These students and their families deserve to celebrate their accomplishments. As a community, the mutual celebration of a graduation ceremony is an emotional, moving, living event that is etched into memory. That memory is warped, although not stolen, by virtual ceremonies. It will still be a wonderful and well-produced event, but it will be a little like watching a first-run movie in your living room instead of a theater. It may be convenient, but I miss the smell of popcorn and the sound of strangers laughing. When we went into lockdown in March 2020, none of us thought we would still be dealing with COVID-19 thirteen months later. But while three million American vaccinations a day provide some light at the end of the tunnel, somehow the tunnel keeps getting longer.
There is a value in stepping back from the hectic frenzy of our daily routine, and I know for me, being forced to do this is probably the only way I would take the time to reflect as I have this year. I know I am not alone. For many of us, the broken routine of the pandemic holds many lessons about what is important. We have gained a deeper appreciation of our need to experience family, friends, events, travel and even the causal greeting of strangers on the street. Masks and social distance must continue until the virus has been substantially reduced from the current level of 60,000 new infections a day. But let’s acknowledge how difficult all of this has been and continues to be. We humans are social creatures, and as wonderful as the media technologies can be, we miss life in three dimensions. When the pandemic is behind us, I will look around at the crowds attending theatrical, musical and sporting events with gratitude and joy. When our graduates, family and friends gather in May 2022, I believe it will be in the open air of Columbia’s campus. We will remember these two pandemic graduations and appreciate how fortunate we are to finally gather together in person.
Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.