Peter Awn

The singular life of Peter Awn recalls Michel de Montaigne’s famous observation that “every movement reveals us.” For Peter, the movements were vibrant, the revelations profound. The path he chose illuminated a passionate devotion to serving others, to creating a legacy that would endure in the University community he called home. His gifts as a scholar, teacher, and mentor were legendary. His achievements as Dean of Columbia’s School of General Studies were transformational. Peter found his way to a life of scholarship through an early fascination with religion and the classics. Born in Brooklyn to Lebanese Christian parents, he studied theology and philosophy and was ordained a Jesuit priest before earning his PhD in Islamic religion from Harvard University. He came to Columbia in 1978 and, for two decades, he dazzled with his wit, his warmth, and his deeply felt interest in the wellbeing of his students. Upon being named Dean of the School of General Studies in 1997, Peter found another calling. He would carry forward the work of his predecessors and fulfill the promise of a special undergraduate school created to realize the vast potential of its nontraditional students. He elevated and simplified the academic requirements. He created dual-degree programs with Sciences Po, the City University of Hong Kong, and Trinity College Dublin. He strengthened the oldest and largest post baccalaureate premedical program in the country. He embraced what was distinctive about the School, recognizing that the experiences of students who had lived in the world would add invaluable richness in the classroom. He understood the power of discussing the Iliad with an army veteran or of reading Medea with a mother of two. He recruited military veterans and helped bring Naval ROTC back to Columbia, working tirelessly to heal longstanding rifts between universities and the women and men of the armed forces. In all that he did, he changed forever the character of the University he loved, creating a new model for the future of elite higher education. It is with a heavy heart that Columbia honors a cherished leader of the University who left us too soon. In all his movements, this uncommon Dean revealed a curious intellect, an open heart, an infectious enthusiasm for our mission, and an irrepressible determination to lift up those in his charge. With his indelible presence still very much enveloping us, we posthumously honor Peter J. Awn with the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.