The crystal sparkled, the champagne flowed, and the students, faculty, and alumni of Columbia College stepped out in their best at Wednesday's black tie John Jay Awards Dinner at the Plaza Hotel.
The event is held annually to bring the College community together in recognizing distinguished alumni for their professional achievements, as well as to raise money for the College's John Jay Scholars Program for undergraduates. This year's dinner also provided administrators and honorees with an opportunity for reflection: both nostalgically on their own days in college, and critically on the current challenges the University faces.
University President Lee Bollinger, one of the evening's first speakers, addressed the most contentious of these challenges up front in his opening remarks. Though he did not refer to the MEALAC controversy by name, Bollinger declared that "we are embroiled in a controversy, and we must get through it based on the principles we live by. We will be committed, dedicated, and patient in seeing this issue through to its resolution."
He outlined the University's three-pronged stance on the issue, saying that Columbia was committed to protecting general academic freedom, exploring the full complexity of issues and ranges of perspectives, and to rigorously protecting the rights of students to fully pursue even controversial topics. "We can do three things at once, and we will," Bollinger said.
Dean of Columbia College Austin Quigley introduced the night's honorees by discussing the importance of a well-lived life. Addressing the faculty and alumni in the audience, Quigley said that "the best example we can set for the young is not that we've cracked all of life's mysteries or solved all its riddles, but that we have lived our lives well and done things we can be proud of."
Quigley inferred that each of the night's honorees has something to be proud of, having impacted such diverse fields as chemistry, business, public service, and finance, all while continuing to contribute to various charitable causes and give back to the Columbia community.
Mark Kingdon, CC '71 and former Spectator sports and features editor, was honored for his financial entrepreneurship in the investment management field, and spoke of the tension of his college days. During his tenure at Columbia, classes were cancelled for two of his four spring semesters due to student protests over the expansion of the Vietnam War. "We weren't just learning history then, we were living it," Kingdon said. "But even in the worst of times, Columbia was still a great place to learn and live."
Kingdon, a member of the Board of Trustees, acknowledged the vast improvement in the facilities and morale at Columbia since the early '70s, but he highlighted an area of the University that could be improved. For the past several years, he and several other members of the board have been working towards expanding the breadth of coverage in the MEALAC department. Kingdon used his acceptance speech as a platform to announce the funding he and others have produced for a new professorship and visiting professorship in modern Israeli studies. He said that a faculty search committee has been formed to search for senior scholars to fill these positions, and the audience responded with thunderous applause.
Award winner Allison Butts, CC '64, also pointed to a weakness of the University that he would seek to improve. Butts was captain of the baseball and football teams as an undergraduate, and reminisced ruefully on his teams' poor seasons. Butts said that he and his teammates made excuses for their poor performances, and implied that a similar state of affairs exists in regards to athletics today. "At Columbia, we're not an athletic powerhouse; we're still trying to be quiet and hope if we don't talk about athletics, no one will notice them," Butts said. "But excellence in athletics is an important part of Columbia's status as a university." He commended the recent hiring of Athletic Director M. Dianne Murphy and coaches Bob Shoop in football and Joe Jones in basketball, and said that he was optimistic that Columbia was moving in the right direction.
"I'm proud to be a Lion," concluded Butts.
The ceremony was also a night of firsts. Honoree Virginia Cornish, CC '91, is the first College alumna hired to a full-time faculty position in the Arts and Sciences. A summa cum laude graduate of Columbia College, Cornish is now an assistant professor teaching sophomore organic chemistry, and recently received tenure. Reflecting on the unique experience of teaching with the very professors who taught her, Cornish said that "some other institutions have fancier buildings than Columbia and simpler surroundings than Manhattan, but nowhere else has the same caliber of people with the same sense of humor about themselves."
Fernando Ortiz, CC '79, represented another kind of first: prior to the start of his freshman year, Ortiz was required to attend Camp Columbia, a retreat in which students work on fundamentals to ready themselves for college. Ortiz said that the experience helped him to overcome his fear of academic failure, and that throughout college he consistently made the Dean's List. He proudly proclaimed himself the first Camp Columbia alum to receive a John Jay Award. Ortiz was honored for his work in the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations.
Though the event focused on the professional contributions of College graduates, the night's final speaker was Gwyneth McClendon, CC '05 and a current John Jay Scholar, who called the program's students outstanding. "Some of the most dynamic, inspiring, and intelligent people I've met at Columbia have been in this program," McClendon said.
And these individuals were the focus of the night's events. Quigley spoke of the need to honor such people, saying that "extraordinary people aren't born so, they become so, and it is the extraordinary achievements of ordinary people that make us proud to be in the Columbia family."