A 17-year-old first year once snuck into Columbia College Dean Austin Quigley's senior seminar. On Tuesday evening over 10 years later, that student, actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, CC '99, returned to her alma mater to join four other alumni in receiving the John Jay Award for "distinguished professional achievement." break At the Awards Dinner Columbia pride flowed as freely as the wine. Donors, alumni, and administrators rubbed elbows with celebrities at the ritzy event in Low rotunda as the honorees gathered to praise Alma Mater. The 2009 award-winners included Gyllenhaal, NAACP president Benjamin Jealous, CC '94, medical researcher Paul Maddon, CC '81, Thomas Francis Marano, CC '83, and sculptor Gregory Wyatt, CC '71. The evening's speeches focused largely on transition and leadership in the administration of the first U.S. president to graduate from the College. The annual dinner, which in prior years was held in other city venues, benefited the John Jay National Scholarship Program and raised between six and seven hundred thousand dollars. After cocktail hour and appetizers, Quigley told the room that applications to the College are up 11 percent this year, "so don't believe all that bad news you read." Quigley noted that, as frequently occurs during economic downturn, many are questioning the value of a liberal arts education. But he said that the humanities remain essential because they teach how to "think outside the box"—a trait Quigley said was exemplified by the honorees. University President Lee Bollinger, decked out in a tuxedo with a blue bow tie, took to the podium to elaborate on the theme of transitions, particularly that of Quigley's stepping down as dean. To a room full of College alumni, Bollinger praised Quigley and Vice President for Arts and Sciences Nicholas Dirks for working to integrate the College into the framework of the University. "For many years, many decades, it has been the effort of the University, of the College, to ... accept the College as the core of the University," adding that the University's prime responsibility is "to the youngest amongst us." In an interview during the event, Provost Alan Brinkley explained that Columbia's legacy as one of the first modern American universities has led to "tensions between the College and the University." During the ceremony, awardees were introduced by John Jay scholars, before they spoke and received their plaques. Gyllenhaal, known for her roles in Stranger Than Fiction and Batman, kicked off the speeches. "I've been trying to think about what it really means to learn something," she said. "I was raised to feel like I had to be amazing all the time... It's not the way to learn anything." She said she realized that learning requires a "living, breathing experience," as exemplified by her Columbia education, which taught her to "acknowledge that I really know nothing." Jealous, on the other hand, recalled a different academic life. As a student, Jealous was known as a community organizer and campus activist who worked to save full-need financial aid. After fighting with the University over environmental justice, Jealous was suspended, and returned in 1997 to complete his degree. After receiving a Rhodes scholarship and committing years to advocacy, he became NAACP president. In his acceptance speech, Jealous mentioned a recent visit to the office of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, CC '73, Law '76, where he saw photographs of Holder and President Barack Obama, CC '83. "We have a lot to be proud of in this country right now," Jealous said. "We have a lot to be proud of in this college right now." Next, Maddon—a trustee who earned his M.D. and molecular biophysics Ph.D. at Columbia—said "my college career is still unfolding 30 years later." Maddon has made important discoveries regarding the molecular biology of HIV/AIDS, and said "my first steps as a researcher were in the labs here." He thanked his mentor, Richard Axel, CC '67, who was also in attendance. Marano, chief officer of Residential Capital—the mortgage subsidiary of GMAC LLC—was the next recipient. Marano worked at Bear Stearns for over 25 years. In his speech, he recalled his bond with advisor Roger Lehecka, who once served as Columbia College dean. Finally, Quigley introduced Wyatt, saying the sculptor's innovations in cast bronze produced a "character of arrested motion" and "a variety of stories intertwined." In 2004, Wyatt contributed the Scholars' Lion, now displayed outside of Dodge, in honor of Columbia's 250th anniversary. Wyatt said that Core books have inspired his works. The evening ended with a performance of Sans Souci by the Clefhangers.
Joey Shemuel / Senior Staff Photographer