Honorary Degree Recipients for 2011 Announced

Media contact:  Nick Obourn, 212-854-8336, no2201@columbia.edu
NEW YORK, April 11, 2011—Columbia University will confer five honorary degrees and recognize the recipient of its University Medal for Excellence at commencement exercises on Wednesday, May 18. The Medal for Excellence is awarded annually to an outstanding Columbia graduate under the age of 45. The recipients are:
Ornette Coleman, Doctor of Music   A revolutionary jazz artist, Coleman taught himself how to play the saxophone and read music at the age of 14. His 50-year career has been a celebration of a ground-breaking marriage of harmony, rhythm and melody, and he has paved the way for generations of artists who long to break the bonds of conformity and the status quo. From acoustic works and string quartets to full orchestras and ballets, his influence has stretched across multiple genres and schooled countless musicians in the art of “free jazz.” His unique work has been recognized by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Jazz Hall of Fame at Lincoln Center, and he is the recipient of the Miles Davis Award, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, a MacArthur Fellowship and the Pulitzer Prize.
Martin Meisel, Doctor of Letters   The Brander Matthews Professor Emeritus of Dramatic Literature here at Columbia, Meisel made English and comparative literature his academic home in college and after because he thought it could help him evade specialization. The field has accommodated his broad interests in literature, history, philosophy, the sister arts and science. He is the author of the critically acclaimed How Plays Work: Reading and Performance and numerous essays on narrative and dramatic literature and the visual arts. He has taught at Rutgers, Dartmouth, the University of Wisconsin, and Columbia, where he chaired the Department of English and Comparative Literature. From 1989 to 1993, he was the university’s vice president for the arts and sciences. He is the recipient of two Guggenheim Fellowships, a National Humanities Center Fellowship, a Woodrow Wilson International Center Fellowship, a Bancroft Faculty Award and Columbia’s Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching.
Eleanor Jackson Piel, Doctor of Laws   With a decades-long legal career that has defied convention and left an indelible mark on our nation’s civil rights and social justice legacies, Piel has been a champion for the rights of minorities, women, and prisoners, and has helped generations of Americans raise their voices above the din of discrimination. As today’s female lawyers achieve the highest levels of success, their accomplishments are a resounding testament to the perseverance of Piel and her contemporaries. She has sought justice for Japanese internment victims during World War II, defended the rights of the accused, argued ground-breaking discrimination cases, and worked to free innocent prisoners sitting on death row. She is a member of the Fortune Society Board, counsel to the Women’s City Club and a life trustee of the NYU Langone Medical Center.
Lydia Polgreen, University Medal for Excellence   A foreign correspondent for The New York Times based in New Delhi, Polgreen and her colleagues cover India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan and the Maldives. From 2005 to 2009, she was the West Africa correspondent for the Times, covering Africa’s deadliest and most complex conflicts, from the widening crisis in Darfur, Chad and Central African Republic to the continuing chaos in Congo. Her work has been recognized with the George Polk Award for Foreign Reporting, an Overseas Press Club award, the Livingston Award for International Reporting, and she was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. She attended Saint Johns College in Annapolis, Maryland, and Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Joan A. Steitz, Doctor of Science   With work that has helped transform our understanding of the molecular basis of inheritance, Steitz has been at the forefront of DNA research and potentially life-changing advances in the diagnosis and treatment of disease. She was the first female graduate student to work in the laboratory of James Watson, the co-discoverer DNA’s structure. After postdoctoral studies at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, she joined the faculty at Yale where she is now Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale School of Medicine, and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine. Her many honors include the U.S. Steel Foundation Award in Molecular Biology, the National Medal of Science, the RNA Society Lifetime Achievement Award and the Gairdner Foundation International Award.
Keith Thomas, Doctor of Letters   Owing to his decades-long associations and appointments at the highest levels at Oxford and Oxford University Press, Thomas is a towering authority on the social, cultural and intellectual history of England between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. His books include Religion and the Decline of Magic, Man and the Natural World and The Ends of Life. He has edited and supervised the writing of several important books and multi-volume works including The Oxford Book of Work, the Press’s Past Masters series, Oxford Studies in Social History and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. His numerous articles and reviews relate to many aspects of early modern England, from literacy and numeracy to children and jokes. A fellow of the British Academy since 1979, he was its president from 1993 to 1997. He is a foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the Academia Europaea and an honorary member of the Japan Academy. He has served as a trustee of the National Gallery and of the British Museum. In 1988, he was knighted for services to history.
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