Leading the Charge in Educating Military Veterans and Future Leaders

In recognition of his role in bringing back Naval ROTC and welcoming former service members to the university, President Bollinger receives a lifetime service award from the School of General Studies at its annual Military Ball. 

December 23, 2022

The scene at New York’s Chelsea Piers brought Veterans Day to a festive close. Nearly 400 current student veterans, alumni veterans, supporters, donors, and special guests dressed in uniforms, gowns, and black tie crowded into Pier Sixty on November 11 for the annual Military Ball hosted by Columbia’s School of General Studies.

Five men dressed in uniform or black tie at the annual Military Ball hosted by Columbia’s School of General Studies.

Established in 2010, the ball is a charitable event and the proceeds help underwrite academic and career transition programming for all veterans and military family members nationwide, financial aid for veteran students at Columbia, and veteran student and alumni programming. This year, the Peter J. Awn Lifetime Service Award was given to Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger for his work in support of veterans and service members. In addition to this recognition, General Studies Dean Lisa Rosen-Metsch (GS'90) announced the creation of a scholarship in President Bollinger’s name. The goal is for the fund to meet the full cost of tuition and fees for student veterans attending the School of General Studies.

A glass, tear-shaped trophy: the Peter J. Awn Lifetime Service Award inscribed with Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger's name.

In accepting the award, Bollinger spoke movingly of his father, who served in the military and died last year at the age of nearly 97. He also talked about his pride in Columbia as an institution that reflects the values of its veterans, “everything from that patriotism to having people with vastly different experiences populate our classrooms, help us in our research, and really help us serve the world,” he said. “Thank you for reflecting and manifesting the values that we respect.”   

Looking back over his 20 years as president, Bollinger’s commitment to educating military veterans and re-establishing Naval ROTC on Columbia’s campus has been extraordinary. 

Throughout history, Columbians served in all of the nation’s major military conflicts. In the years following World War II, around half of Columbia’s students were veterans, and they were enrolled, for the most part, in what was then called the extension program. The program was reorganized in 1947 into an undergraduate college: the School of General Studies. Relations between Columbia and the military became strained during the Vietnam era and the events of 1968, and Naval ROTC was phased out.

But, decades later, as more and more young people began volunteering for service in the aftermath of 9/11, Bollinger realized that relations with the military needed to be repaired. He worked with the School of General Studies, especially the late Dean Peter Awn, to recruit veterans and address the military-civilian divide.

Under Bollinger’s watch, the university went from welcoming dozens of veterans each year to hundreds. In 2010, Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Columbia as part of a public outreach campaign. Later that year, Congress repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the policy that barred openly gay Americans from serving in the military. That landmark move led the university to vote overwhelmingly in favor of re-establishing Naval ROTC on campus. The following year, Bollinger signed an official agreement with Navy Secretary Ray Mabus on the deck of the Intrepid in New York Harbor. Referring to his late father, Bollinger said: “The return of ROTC to the Columbia campus was a great victory for him.”

In a fitting tribute to his years of service to Columbia and the Navy, on December 8, 2022, President Bollinger was presented with the Navy’s Distinguished Public Service Award by The Honorable Carlos Del Toro, Secretary of the Navy. The citation, which was conferred in a small, private ceremony at Bollinger’s Morningside Heights residence during a day-long visit to Columbia by the secretary, noted that Bollinger's “leadership was key to bridging the civilian-military divide on campus and bringing a diversity of views to the classroom.” It also bestowed the Navy’s “grateful appreciation for his 21 years of public service to the nation.” Read the full text of the citation.

Secretary of the U.S. Navy Carlos Del Toro presents President Lee C. Bollinger with the Naval citation.

Veterans Have a Home at Columbia

The veterans who have come to Columbia have participated actively in the academic and social life of the institution. They have helped change the fabric and outlook of the university. Columbia now has about 600 student veterans enrolled across its colleges and schools. The School of General Studies has also built a nationally recognized model for reintegrating veterans in higher education. Thanks to General Studies, Columbia has more veteran students than the rest of the Ivy League combined.

And all of this is a credit to President Lee C. Bollinger’s vision and the example he has set for peer institutions. As he said in his acceptance speech to the military people gathered last Friday: “You add so much to the institution. People don’t think of Columbia and veterans and it's delightful to be able to tell them about you.”