University trustee Jonathan Schiller has argued more than a few high-profile court cases, from a defense of the Bank of New York Mellon against the Russian government to a $1 billion class action suit, in which he helped expose illegal price-fixing by vitamin producers.
But on Thursday night, at an extravagant Low Library awards dinner attended by nearly 350 administrators, professors, students, and alumni, Schiller said he was feeling self-conscious.
“Usually, I stand next to the subject of interest, professionally, as a lawyer,” Schiller said before the dinner. “Usually I’m not the subject of interest myself.”
Schiller, CC ’69, Law ’73, was honored with this year’s Alexander Hamilton Medal, the highest award given by Columbia College. Schiller endowed a scholarship fund for CC students last year, and he is also a member of the Law School’s Dean’s Council.
Schiller came to Columbia as an athlete—he was a member of the Ivy League champion basketball team in 1968—and he said it was the community he found here that has kept him involved over the years.
“Columbia—from the time I first walked through the gates, past the majestic architecture, and into my first Lit Hum class—has excited me and challenged me,” he said.
Joining Schiller at the Alexander Hamilton Dinner was his longtime legal partner David Boies, who famously argued on behalf of then-Vice President Al Gore in the Supreme Court case Bush v. Gore. Boies called Schiller “a great lawyer, a great friend.”
“Most of all, he’s a great advocate for people who do not have other advocates,” Boies said after the dinner.
University President Lee Bollinger told attendees that “every time you talk to Jonathan, you’re impressed.”
“If you have to be a client in life—and nobody wants to be a client—you should have Jonathan Schiller as your lawyer, and as your friend,” Bollinger said.
Columbia College Dean James Valentini emphasized Schiller’s legal prowess as well. In a typically idiosyncratic speech—he discussed the film “Mad Max,” late Columbia provost Jacques Barzun, and the second law of thermodynamics—Valentini praised Schiller as an “exceptional lawyer” who has tried challenging cases around the world.
Draped across the podium from which Valentini spoke was a Columbia basketball jersey bearing the number 25—Schiller’s number when he played for the Lions. Valentini didn’t let the jersey go unnoticed, comparing Schiller to the fictional high school basketball player Jimmy Chitwood, who makes a dramatic game-winning shot during the finale of the film “Hoosiers.”
“Jonathan Schiller has made that shot in important situations many times, for Columbia and beyond,” Valentini said.
Valentini also pointed out that the official shade of Columbia blue on the jersey—“Pantone 292, for those of you in the printing business”—is used by more than 100 high schools, colleges, and professional sports teams.
“This is probably the most famous color in the world, and it is ours,” he said.
Schiller was a junior at Columbia during the tumultuous 1968 protests, which he discussed in his speech Thursday night. While he said he hoped at first that Columbia would be a shelter from “external storms” like the Vietnam War and unrest over civil rights, he ultimately participated in the protests, discovering that “there was no escaping the intrusion” of those storms.
And just a month before the protests, the basketball team made it to the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Division I tournament—losing by four points to Davidson College, which went on to lose by four points to the University of North Carolina in the semifinal.
“I know this is a debatable point, but I will always believe that only eight points separated us from facing Lew Alcindor and UCLA” in the championship game, Schiller said.
Asked if Schiller talks about Columbia often, Boies grinned.
“Mostly about basketball,” he said.