Graduation 2020: Highlights of the Day

J.D., LL.M., J.S.D., and Executive LL.M. students celebrate graduation, with Joseph R. Biden Jr., the 47th vice president of the United States, delivering the keynote address during the online graduation ceremony on May 20, 2020.

Gathered in spirit and online, the Class of 2020 graduated from Columbia Law School on May 20. Family, friends, and the Law School community joined more than 700 graduates for the virtual celebration. The ceremony included wisdom, advice, and exhortations from faculty, students, and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the keynote speaker, who challenged the graduates to “rewrite the social contract that’s been scrambled by nature’s fury and human failures.”

Welcoming Graduates 

Graduation Committee Co-chair Udoka Okafor ’20 welcomed graduates and families to the virtual ceremony which, she noted, was unanticipated but nonetheless meaningful. “Take this as the joyful occasion that it should be,” she told her classmates. Student Senate President Elizabeth Rivera Cruz ’20, introduced Dean Gillian Lester, the Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law, who “has shown us time and time again what it looks like to effectively and compassionately lead under unpredictable circumstances.”

The COVID-19 crisis has brought losses profound and quotidian, and with them, “the gift of perceiving with greater clarity who and what we are grateful for,” Dean Lester said. “Don’t ignore this perception. Act upon it. For to know what you are grateful for—and to express it freely—is one of life’s greatest sources of joy.” 

Dean Lester also cited Theodore Roosevelt—“one of Columbia Law School’s greatest dropouts”—and a line from his autobiography: “Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.” 

“I have never seen a more full-hearted display of character of the kind Roosevelt so prized than by you, our graduates, over these past weeks,” she said. “Coming into 2020, we had already seen your brilliance. But these recent months have shown us also your courage, your compassion, your wisdom, and your humility.” 

Student Speakers: ‘Lead With Empathy’

Graduation Committee Co-chairs Maria Acosta ’20 and Lucas Caiado ’20 LL.M. introduced the student speakers—Caleb King ’20, a Davis Polk Leadership Fellow, and Manel Chibane ’20 LL.M.—who were chosen by popular vote of their classmates. 

“It is time for us to lead with a spirit full of empathy. Over the years, I’ve seen so much frustration and so much pain within so many of our communities because of issues that have become even more critical during this pandemic,” King said. “As attorneys, we all know we have a responsibility to uphold a standard of excellence. But I believe that we all have an even greater call to be civic leaders in our community. And that, that is done by living a life full of compassion and empathy for others. Compassion and empathy for those who might have different experiences, who might have different stories from ourselves.”

“Our Columbia degree is a key that opens doors to political and influential spaces—spaces that matter most when disinformation is rampant and inequality systemic,” Chibane said. “Our world is currently such that the same words uttered by different mouths are not heard equally. Ours are heard, and yes, we earned it, but this is called privilege. Let’s use it well and own these spaces, to restore trust in knowledge while highlighting our narrative.”

Bert Huang Awarded Willis L.M. Reese Prize for Excellence in Teaching 

Okafor presented the Willis L.M. Reese Prize for Excellence in Teaching, which is awarded by the graduating class, to Bert Huang, Vice Dean for Intellectual Life and Michael I. Sovern Professor of Law. Huang also received the 2020 Columbia University Presidential Teaching Award. Okafor praised Huang for his commitment “to not only the highest standards of learning, but also kindness and fun,” and noted his work to connect with students outside the classroom particularly at affinity group functions.

Huang in turn praised and thanked his own teachers, from his first grade teacher who helped him overcome his shyness to Harvard Law professor Lani Guinier, who could “evaporate that ‘fourth wall’ in the theater of the classroom.” All, including his parents, were “teachers who press with their whole beings against ignorance. Teachers who lead with their compassion, knowledge, conscience, decency.”

Huang urged graduates to thank their own teachers and others “who hold you upright in your most crushing moments,” and to ask who they, in turn, would thank. “Think of it like you’re tracing a family tree, a ‘genealogy of thanks,’” he said. “Today I have you to thank, not just for choosing to recognize me, but because you were there with me in that classroom, as my students and teaching assistants, making it all happen. And so you are now branches in my genealogy of thanks.”

Joe Biden Tells Graduates, ‘Remember, a Good Life Is Not Perfect’

Rivera Cruz introduced the day’s keynote speaker, former Vice President Biden, the grandfather of classmate Naomi Biden ’20.

Speaking to a class graduating into a pandemic and an uncertain economy, Biden told the Class of 2020 to remember, “There’s a purpose for you and for your generation: to turn trauma, chaos, and cruelty into a greater measure of healing, progress, and hope for the future.”

“From this pandemic, you can remake the world as it should be,” Biden said. “To see COVID-19 as a force majeure that compels us to rewrite the social contract that’s been scrambled by nature’s fury and human failures.”

He compared the Class of 2020 to his own law school class of 1968, when the country was “deeply divided by war, by race, by class, by politics, by culture,” and to the classes of the Depression, when Franklin D. Roosevelt told graduates, “Yours is not the task of making your way in the world, but the task of remaking the world which you will find before you.”

Biden noted that Roosevelt turned to Columbia Law graduates to build his New Deal administration and urged the Class of 2020 also to rise to the challenge of this time. 

“No matter your differences of opinion, protect the very foundations of democracy. Trust in self-governance because right now it’s under attack. The very people tasked with enforcing the rule of law are abusing their powers, protecting their friends, weakening the very principles that make our country work,” he said. “Yes, our legal system is adversarial by design, but it depends on rules, norms, and ethics. Our democracy is messy. But a free press and checks and balances hold that democratic project together. And as we know, power corrupts and democracy doesn’t just happen. We have to earn it. Defend it. Forge consensus. That’s a tradition you’re part of, not just of a school or profession, but of this country.” 

Congratulations to the Class of 2020!

“Class of 2020, thanks for standing strong. We are unique to the history of this university.” —Graduation Committee Co-chair Lucas Caiado ’20 LL.M.

Learn more about this year’s graduation celebration.

Yadira Ramos-Herbert

Commencement is an iconic moment in the life of our students. We were motivated and inspired to capture the spirit that the in-person graduation ceremonies offer. Our online ceremony, filled with deeply moving remarks from our wonderful community, and the graduation gift box allowed us to honor our graduates until the time we are able to celebrate in person.

— Dean of Students Yadira Ramos-Herbert