Beyond Civility

Dean Gillian Lester shares a message with the Columbia Law community.

Dear members of the Columbia Law School community,

As the semester enters its final months, I want to acknowledge what a difficult year this has been for so many of us. I have been moved, time and again, by the many, many acts of grace, generosity, and compassion I have witnessed, and by the sparks of fellowship, learning, and humanity that have come from within our halls.

And yet, too many in our community—particularly those who identify as Arab, Israeli, Muslim, Jewish, or Palestinian—have felt pain, not only as geopolitical events have unfolded but also as we have interacted with one another. Some have expressed to me their feelings of discomfort, fear, and isolation as interpersonal interactions, events in the Law School, or activities in other parts of the University have made them feel hurt, excluded, or the target of or witness to bigotry or even hate.  

Antisemitism, Islamophobia, and any other forms of bias, stereotyping, or discrimination certainly violate our University policies. But beyond that, they are also starkly violative of our shared project of nurturing a learning environment rooted in kindness and empathy—one in which we are able to take emotional and intellectual risks, reveal our uncertainty, and trust one another to extend the benefit of the doubt.

As legal professionals and leaders, society looks to us to model an ethos of civility and professionalism; as colleagues and classmates, we must look to each other for that and more. Civility, to be sure, is essential: We can't function as a healthy learning community without it. But we must also reach, in our classrooms, conversations, and encounters, for a standard beyond civility. We must aspire to a standard of caring for one another, of showing forbearance as a gesture of respect: to listen before we speak, and to question our certitude before we make assertions lest there be more to understand. These are the elements of a learning community in which we strive to be the most humane version of ourselves. We must persist in this even as we fiercely protect the values of free speech and free expression, and our rights and freedoms of assembly, of worship, and of working through our political and moral disagreements. It can be an exquisitely difficult undertaking, but no less essential, to find the Archimedean point—the fine balance—among these imperatives.

A final word. I am acutely sensitive to the imperfection of public statements. So, too, I fear that these words will fail adequately to describe, locate, or acknowledge a particular point of pain, anger, or view, or will frustrate those who wish me to end with a crisp and tailored remedy. If this is the case, I am truly sorry that my words have fallen short. My aim, limited but heartfelt, is to acknowledge the collective weight and responsibility we carry; the feelings experienced by those of multiple vantage points across our School, all worthy of being seen and heard; and my hope and optimism that our community—drawing upon our deep well of character, wisdom, and goodwill—will find its way forward. I hope my message is received in this spirit, one that I will carry with me as I rejoin the faculty later this year.

In community,

Gillian Lester
Dean and Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law