Staying Anchored to Our Purpose As We End the Year

A message from Gillian Lester, Dean and the Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law.

Dear Members of the Columbia Law School Community, 

A few weeks ago, I began to think about the email I would write to the community to mark the semester’s end. When I envisaged its content, I had imagined a message that would acknowledge the difficulty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and express gratitude for all the ways we have supported one another through this unexpected and far-reaching crisis. But just as the dawn of a post-COVID world was beginning to emerge over the horizon, the fabric of our nation—already ravaged and weary—began to tear apart even further. 

The murder last week of George Floyd by a uniformed police officer, captured on video, following the equally senseless and violent killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, have reopened a deep vein of hurt, anger, and fear, not only across the country but also in our Columbia Law School community. That these events are only the most recent of a long history of anti-Black racism and violence in our country—and at a time when Black and Brown communities are reeling disproportionately from the deadly impact (itself rooted in that history) of the coronavirus pandemic—has left many members of our community, myself included, feeling deep distress as we reckon with the state of the country and the world. I write today to say that we recognize and acknowledge these feelings that so many among us, particularly African American and Black members of our community, are experiencing. 

Speaking personally, I have often found myself searching for clarity in the wake of these crises. Searching for meaning and optimism amid the death and despair. Searching for ways to mend the societal divisions that have been so starkly exposed. Searching for creative solutions to unanticipated and wrenching challenges we face. Even searching for the words, the basic language, to express the complex range of feelings I have on any given day—a combination of compassion, sadness, empathy, solidarity, determination, humility, gratitude, purpose, and hope.

We draw this academic year to a close without having celebrated in the usual ways—no galas or symposia, banquets or awards ceremonies, law revue performances or the graduation procession. And even though we have pressed onward through it all, the absence of these meaningful signposts and gatherings can leave us feeling distanced from one another, unanchored from the linkages and relationships that we hold so dear. 

In these turbulent times, we must turn to each other for strength and look to our mission for purpose. So I ask you, in that spirit, to offer your care and empathy to those among us who are struggling with the emotional strain of the moment, now and in the weeks ahead. Check in with each other. Ask friends and colleagues how they are feeling, listen well, and let them know that you hear them and that you see them. And don’t be afraid to share how you yourself are feeling, too. 

Our community is durable and resolute—evident in the way we have come together to support one another, time after time, for generations. We share a common commitment to the basic ideals of human dignity and freedom and remain committed to the things that we do best—advancing knowledge, seeking justice and, as I said to the Class of 2020 on graduation day, pursuing the purpose and passions that brought each of us to Columbia Law School in the first place.

In community, and with abiding gratitude, admiration, and hope,

Gillian Lester
Dean and the Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law