Honors and Prizes

Honors and Prizes

Each year at Commencement the University bestows honorary degrees on several esteemed individuals who exemplify the ideals of the University through their significant scholarly, artistic, or societal achievements or contributions. This is the highest honor the University can bestow on an individual, and the Trustees endeavor to ensure recognition for achievements across all of the various areas of study and fields of academia.

Honorary degrees are awarded in the following categories.

  • The Arts
  • The Humanities and Social Sciences
  • The Natural, Applied and Pure Sciences
  • Public Life and Government
  • Professor Emeritus/Emerita

Honorees do not need to be graduates of Columbia.

The University Medal for Excellence is also awarded at Commencement to an alumnus or alumna under 45 years of age whose record in scholarship, public service, and/or professional life is outstanding. Graduates from all divisions of the University, including Barnard College and Teachers College, are eligible for the Medal.

Please note that no honorary degree or University Medal for Excellence will be awarded to any person who is a full-time regular officer of the University. Neither the University Medal for Excellence nor honorary degrees are awarded in absentia.

(Review and download a PDF of all previous honorees.)

Recent Honorees

  • Yo-Yo Ma’s multi-faceted career is a testament to his enduring belief in culture’s power to generate trust and understanding. Whether performing new or familiar works from the cello repertoire, collaborating with communities and institutions to explore culture’s role in society, or engaging unexpected musical forms, Ma strives to foster connections that stimulate the imagination and reinforce our humanity.

    In August 2018, Ma began a new journey to perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s six suites for solo cello in one sitting in 36 locations around the world, iconic venues that encompass our cultural heritage, our current creativity, and the challenges of peace and understanding that will shape our future. 

    The Bach Project continues his lifelong commitment to stretching the boundaries of genre and tradition to explore music as a means not only to share and express meaning, but also as his contribution to a conversation about how culture can help us imagine a stronger society and build a better future.

    It was this belief that inspired Ma to establish Silkroad, a collective of artists from around the world who create music that engages their many traditions. Through his work with Silkroad, as well as throughout his career, he has sought to expand the classical cello repertoire, frequently performing lesser-known music of the 20th century and commissions of new concertos and recital pieces. He has premiered works by a diverse group of composers, among them Osvaldo Golijov, Leon Kirchner, Zhao Lin, Christopher Rouse, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Giovanni Sollima, Bright Sheng, Tan Dun, and John Williams.

    In addition to his work as a performing artist, Ma partners with communities and institutions from Chicago to Guangzhou developing programs that champion culture’s power to transform lives and forge a more connected world. Among his many roles, Ma is as a UN Messenger of Peace, the first artist ever appointed to the World Economic Forum’s board of trustees, and a member of the board of Nia Tero, the US-based nonprofit working in solidarity with Indigenous peoples and movements worldwide.

    Ma’s discography of over 100 albums (including 18 Grammy Award winners) reflects his wide-ranging interests. In addition to his many iconic renditions of the Western classical canon, he has made several recordings that defy categorization, among them “Appalachia Waltz” and “Appalachian Journey” with Mark O’Connor and Edgar Meyer, and two Grammy-winning tributes to the music of Brazil, “Obrigado Brazil” and “Obrigado Brazil — Live in Concert.” His recent recordings include: “Sing Me Home,” with the Silkroad Ensemble, which won the 2016 Grammy for Best World Music Album; “Brahms: The Piano Trios,” with Emanuel Ax and Leonidas Kavakos; “Six Evolutions — Bach: Cello Suites;” and “Not Our First Goat Rodeo,” with Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, and Chris Thile. His latest album is “Beethoven for Three: Symphonies Nos. 2 & 5” recorded with Emanuel Ax and Leonidas Kavakos.

    Ma was born in 1955 to Chinese parents living in Paris. He began to study the cello with his father at age four and three years later moved with his family to New York City, where he continued his cello studies with Leonard Rose at the Juilliard School. After his conservatory training, he sought out a liberal arts education, graduating from Harvard University in 1976. He has received numerous awards, including the Avery Fisher Prize (1978), the Glenn Gould Prize (1999), the National Medal of the Arts (2001), the Dan David Prize (2006), the World Economic Forum’s Crystal Award (2008), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2010), Kennedy Center Honors (2011), the Polar Music Prize (2012), and the J. Paul Getty Medal Award (2016). Furthermore, he has performed for nine American presidents, most recently on the occasion of President Biden’s inauguration. 

    Ma and his wife have two children. He plays three instruments, a 2003 instrument made by Moes & Moes, a 1733 Montagnana cello from Venice, and the 1712 Davidoff Stradivarius.

  • William Kentridge is internationally acclaimed for his drawings, films, theatre, and opera productions.

    His method combines drawing, writing, film, performance, music, theatre, and collaborative practices to create works of art that are grounded in politics, science, literature and history, all the while maintaining a space for contradiction and uncertainty. His aesthetics are drawn from the medium of film’s own history, from stop-motion animation to early special effects. Kentridge’s drawing, specifically the dynamism of an erased and redrawn mark, is an integral part of his expanded animation and filmmaking practice, where the meanings of his films are developed during the process of their making. 

    Kentridge’s work has been seen in museums and galleries around the world since the 1990s, including Documenta in Kassel, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Albertina Museum in Vienna, Musée du Louvre in Paris, Whitechapel Gallery in London, Louisiana Museum in Copenhagen, the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid, and the Kunstmuseum in Basel. 

    Opera productions include Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Shostakovich’s The Nose, and Alban Berg’s operas Lulu and Wozzeck, and have been seen at opera houses including the Metropolitan Opera in New York, La Scala in Milan, English National Opera in London, Opera de Lyon, Amsterdam opera, and the Salzburg Festival.

    The Head & the Load, with music by composer Philip Miller and Thuthuka Sibisi and choreography by Gregory Maqoma, interweaves music, dance, projection, shadow-play, and sculpture. It premiered at the Tate Turbine Hall in July 2018 and went on to the Park Avenue Armory in New York and the Holland Festival in Amsterdam. 

    Kentridge is the recipient of honorary doctorates from several universities including Yale University and the University of London. In 2010, he received the Kyoto Prize. In 2012, he presented the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University. In 2015, he was appointed an Honorary Academician of the Royal Academy in London. In 2017, he received the Princesa de Asturias Award for the Arts, and in 2018, the Antonio Feltrinelli International Prize. In 2019, he received the Praemium Imperiale Award in Painting in Tokyo.

  • Patti Smith is a writer, performer and visual artist. She gained recognition in the 1970s for her revolutionary merging of poetry and rock. She has released 12 albums, including Horses, which has been hailed as one of the top 100 albums of all time by Rolling Stone.

    Smith had her first exhibit of drawings at the Gotham Book Mart in 1973 and was represented by the Robert Miller Gallery for three decades. Her retrospective exhibitions include the Andy Warhol Museum, the Fondation Cartier, and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. Her books include Just Kids, winner of the National Book Award in 2010, Witt, Babel, Woolgathering, The Coral Sea, Auguries of Innocence, M Train, and Devotion.

    In 2005, the French Ministry of Culture awarded Smith the title of Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres, the highest honor given to an artist by the French Republic. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.

  • Jodi Kantor is a prize-winning investigative reporter and best-selling author whose work has revealed hidden truths about power, gender, technology, politics and culture.

    In October 2017, she and Megan Twohey broke the story of decades of sexual abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein. Their work helped ignite the #MeToo movement, shift attitudes, and spur new laws, policies and standards of accountability around the globe. Together with a team of colleagues who exposed harassment across industries, they were awarded the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service , journalism’s highest award, and also received or shared in numerous other honors, including a  2017 George Polk Award.

    She Said, Kantor and Twohey’s book recounting the Weinstein investigation, was called “an instant classic of investigative journalism” by The Washington Post and one of the best books of the year by the New York Public Library, NPR, The New York TimesTime, and many other publications.

    Before then, Ms. Kantor’s article about the havoc caused by automated scheduling systems in Starbucks workers’ lives spurred changes at the company and helped begin a national fair-scheduling movement. After she and David Streitfeld investigated punishing practices at Amazon’s corporate headquarters, the company changed its human resources policies, introducing paternity leave and eliminating its employee ranking system. Ms. Kantor’s report on working mothers and breastfeeding inspired two readers to create the first free-standing lactation suites for nursing mothers, now available in hundreds of airports and stadiums.

    For six years, Ms. Kantor wrote about Barack and Michelle Obama, delving into their ideas, biographies, family, marriage, faith, and approach to the White House, and covering the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. Ms. Kantor’s best-selling book The Obamas, about their behind-the-scenes adjustment to the jobs of president and first lady, was published in 2012. 

    Ms. Kantor, a contributor to "This Morning" on CBS, lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Ron Lieber, and their two daughters. Please follow her work on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

  • James Stewart Polshek’s distinguished career is in its sixth decade. As an architect, educator, and public advocate, he has created buildings whose designs exemplify elegance in problem-solving and spring from critical precepts of humanism. Having defined academic and practice models built on the values of collaboration and diversity, he has inspired generations of architecture students and professionals.

    Polshek was Dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation for fifteen years. Appointed by University President William McGill in 1972–a tumultuous period marked by the threat of nuclear weapons and the continuing Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, the aftermath of the 1960s upheavals on college campuses, and the oil crisis–Polshek led the architecture school’s resurrection. He assembled an ideologically diverse faculty, with whom he developed a socially relevant curriculum, created degree-granting programs in planning and preservation, and established the interdisciplinary Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture. Polshek served as Special Adviser for Design and Planning to the University President, and in that capacity, he assured stewardship of the historic campus and had a critical role in reviewing designs for contemporary interventions. 

    In 1964, Polshek completed his first two major commissions for Teijin Institute in Tokyo, Japan. Upon his return to the United States, Polshek founded his own firm.  Over the next several decades this firm evolved into Polshek Partnership winning the American Institute of Architects’ Firm Award in 1992. In concert with his office, Polshek completed numerous projects of international significance, including: Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History, New York; Santa Fe Opera, Santa Fe, New Mexico; the restoration and expansion of Carnegie Hall, New York;  the renovation and expansion of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York; the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Center, Little Rock, Arkansas; and the National Museum of American Jewish History, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

    Emblematic of his belief in the power of design to shape the public realm and by extension to improve public life are activities complementary to professional practice. In 2006, Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed Polshek to the New York City Public Design Commission, the body charged with ensuring excellence and innovation in designs for city-owned properties.  In 2005, Polshek became the interpretive consultant for the realization of Louis I. Kahn’s 1973 design for Franklin Delano Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island. In 1981, he co-founded Architects / Designers / Planners for Social Responsibility; in 1993, the non-profit received a national award from the American Institute of Architects for “its strong resounding voice for social and political justice.” 

    In 2018, Polshek received the American Institute of Architects’ highest honor, the Gold Medal, and a year later, he received the Fulbright Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Polshek published two books on his work, Context and Responsibility (Rizzoli, 1988) and Build, Memory (Monacelli Press, 2014).

    Polshek has received many honors, including the Municipal Art Society’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Medal, the Brooklyn Museum's Augustus Graham Medal for excellence in architecture, election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the William Bernoudy Residency in Architecture at the American Academy in Rome. He has been awarded honorary degrees from Pratt Institute, Parsons, the New School for Design, and New Jersey Institute of Technology. 

    Polshek is a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects and holds an MArch from Yale University and a BS from Case Western Reserve University.

  • Hillary Rodham Clinton has spent four decades in public service as an advocate, attorney, First Lady, U.S. Senator, U.S. Secretary of State, and presidential candidate. After graduating from Wellesley College and Yale Law School, she began her life-long work on behalf of children and families by joining the Children’s Defense Fund.  As First Lady of the United States, she championed healthcare reform and led successful bipartisan efforts to improve the adoption and foster care systems, reduce teen pregnancy, and create the Children's Health Insurance Program. As Senator from New York, she worked to expand economic opportunity and access to quality, affordable health care. After September 11, 2001, she helped to rebuild New York and provide health care for first responders.

    As Secretary of State, she led the effort to restore America’s leadership in the world. She negotiated a cease-fire in Gaza that defended Israel’s security and headed off-war in the Middle East. Furthermore, she mobilized an international coalition to impose sanctions against Iran, and championed human rights. 

    In 2016, Clinton became the first woman nominated for U.S. president by a major U.S. political party. As the Democratic candidate, she campaigned for a vision of America that is “stronger together” and an agenda to make our economy work for everyone, earning the support of nearly 66 million Americans.

  • Carla D. Hayden was sworn in as the 14th Librarian of Congress on September 14, 2016. Hayden, the first woman and the first African American to lead the national library, was nominated to the position by President Barack Obama on February 24, 2016, and her nomination was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on July 13, 2016. 

    Prior to her latest post she served, since 1993, as CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, Maryland. Hayden was nominated by President Obama to be a member of the National Museum and Library Services Board in January 2010 and was confirmed to that post by the Senate in June 2010. Prior to joining the Pratt Library, Hayden was deputy commissioner and chief librarian of the Chicago Public Library from 1991 to 1993. She was an assistant professor for Library and Information Science at the University of Pittsburgh from 1987 to 1991. Hayden was library services coordinator for the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago from 1982 to 1987. She began her career with the Chicago Public Library as the young adult services coordinator from 1979 to 1982 and as a library associate and children’s librarian from 1973 to 1979. 

    Hayden was President of the American Library Association from 2003 to 2004. In 1995, she was the first African American to receive Library Journal’s Librarian of the Year Award in recognition of her outreach services at the Pratt Library, which included an after-school center for Baltimore teens offering homework assistance and college and career counseling. Hayden received a BA from Roosevelt University and an MA and PhD from the Graduate Library School of the University of Chicago.

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