Welcome Back—Fall 2020

Dean Lester welcomes the Columbia Law School community for the Fall 2020 semester. 

Dear Students, 

Today marks the first full day of law classes for the Fall 2020 semester. Last spring, when the pandemic engulfed New York and the transition to virtual instruction commanded our undivided attention, this day seemed little more than a distant glimmer. But the rhythm of the academic year—notwithstanding the strangeness of our circumstances—has a faithful persistence, steady as the turn of the leaves, that grounds us once again in a common intellectual purpose as it has for generations of Columbians.

It has become commonplace—even cliché—to comment on how different things are now than they were just a few short months ago. Our community is physically scattered—a diaspora of teaching, learning, and research stretching across the world. Classrooms are now equipped with sophisticated technology to facilitate hybrid instruction. Faculty and staff have worked tirelessly through the summer to prepare for an entirely novel way of institutional life—from mastering the hybrid learning environment, to implementing public health measures on our campus, to pursuing scholarship and advocacy on the most urgent issues of our time.

Although this semester will be far from typical, it is also true that the core elements of the Columbia Law School experience—scholarly curiosity, ambition, and drive; the craft of skilled and attentive pedagogy; friendship, community, and a striving towards the fullest measure of acceptance and belonging for all who make Columbia Law School their home—are stronger and more deeply rooted than ever. We remain firmly moored to our purpose and stand ready to take on the sharp and ever-changing challenges that our world presents, and to do so with determination, creativity, and a sense of the possible. 

Our challenges are many: to protect our democracy and the rule of law; to dismantle the structural forces that create and reinforce inequality and discriminatory hierarchy; to combat climate change; to interrogate our economic structure under the strain of upheaval; to reimagine global cooperation, digital governance and security, and the conditions of work; to confront the daunting project of restoring social cohesion in a time of isolation and deep societal division. We must rise to meet these challenges, shouldering the responsibility for leadership that we, as lawyers and legal thinkers, are specially equipped to solve. This is what we do. It is what we’ve always done. It is why we are here. 

But how will we do this work, when on some days it feels as though we are running on an empty tank? When many of us enter the fall without the benefit of a restorative summer? When we have faced all manner of personal and professional obstacles, seen and unseen, just to reach this point?

We have been tested. Over the past several months, we have, in many respects, had to remake ourselves. But witnessing our generative transformation has given me a new and awesome sense of what we are capable of. Even more, we begin this year with a sense of renewal as we welcome new classes of J.D. and LL.M. students, as well as three outstanding new full-time faculty members.

I close with some advice. Be generous with your patience and empathy; you may not fathom the burdens that others are carrying. Be generous before making assumptions; let your first impulse be compassion. These values—the way we treat one another—are as much a part of the fabric of the Columbia experience as any aspect of the pedagogical, intellectual, and publicly engaged work we do. 

And, finally, be sure to care for yourself. Be intentional about sleep and exercise. Cultivate interests that bring you joy and relaxation. Nurture your friendships and stay close with your family and those you love.

Thus, it is with equal measures of sober reflection, conviction in our purpose, and unwavering support that I welcome you, in this most constant of seasons, to reaffirm the proud, fiercely committed, and deeply collective project that is Columbia Law.

With all good wishes,

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