Tough times forced Columbia to reduce the number of annual faculty award recipients this year, but the dinner celebration of Tuesday was not shy on lavish dishes and congratulatory speeches.
The Distinguished Columbia Faculty Awards—given to seven professors this year instead of 10 as in prior years—were the 2004 brainchild of trustee Gerry Lenfest and Nicholas Dirks, vice president of arts and sciences, who wanted a tangible way to acknowledge professors’ work in the classroom.
“We met at the first trustee meeting I ever attended in fall of 2004,” Dirks said in a speech, indicating Lenfest. “I was talking about the fine, committed faculty of Columbia and how they get plucked off, how they’re not recognized for their teaching until they get offered a job somewhere else.”
Dirks said they decided they needed a special way to recognize these professors’ commitments.
Lenfest said, “Columbia has a tradition of great teachers, and although it’s important how many books they publish, what’s more important is the connections they establish with their students.”
So, six years later, seven professors received $25,000 awards each, which come from the $12 million endowment gift from Lenfest.
This year’s winners were Stefan Andriopolos, associate professor of Germanic languages and literature; Harmen Bussemaker, associate professor of biological sciences; Julie Crawford, associate professor of English and comparative literature; Lydia Goehr, professor of philosophy; Steven Goldstein, professor of earth and environmental sciences; Ruben Gonzalez, assistant professor of chemistry; and David Scott, professor of anthropology.
Although the award sponsors, due to a shrinking endowment in the financial crisis, had to cut back their numbers from 10 to seven—and in 2008, it was 11—speakers said this did not impact the importance of the award this year.
Still, Dirks said, “My favorite activity of the year is when … I get to inform the winners.”
Chairs of departments nominate candidates and the Faculty of Arts and Science decide the final winner. Students can also submit testimonies for professors who have been nominated.
“The Awards are a gesture of gratitude for a love of educating,” Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean Henry Pinkham said in an interview.
Aileen Forbes, an advising dean at Columbia College, coached students who made introductory speeches for the winning professors. She said in an interview she considers their remarks one of the most important parts of the evening.
“The students’ giving testimony about the impact that teaching had on their lives, for anyone who has taught, will be the most special part,” she said.
Student testimony ranged from acknowledgments of academic support in thesis writing and major selection to lighter anecdotes of out-of-classroom bonding.
Daniel Schwartz, CC ’11, commemorated Professor Goehr for her unconventional teaching style and ability to keep him awake during a 9 a.m. lecture twice a week.
“She asked us if the Louvre were on fire and we could only save one thing, whether would we save the Mona Lisa or its security guard,” Schwartz remembered. “Once she even helped me complete a New York Times crossword puzzle. I would walk out of there with my head spinning, and that’s why I decided to become a philosophy major.”
Others recalled their professors’ pluck and spunk as what caused them to fall in love with their field of study.
Lisa Weber, CC ’11, said she explored her passion for earth and environmental sciences through Professor Goldstein’s real-life approach to teaching.
“On the windiest day in early April, my class and I made it to the top of Bear Mountain, after 11 other geologically significant stops,” Wever said.
Lenfest said in his final remarks, “I can’t think of anything else we’ve done for Columbia that gives me more pleasure than this. We all remember the teacher that saw some promise in us, and what you saw tonight was the living expression of that.”