Two Outstanding Graduates Receive Medals of Excellence

Two alumni who are longtime leaders in the public and private spheres each received Columbia Law School’s highest award, the Medal of Excellence, at a celebratory luncheon Oct. 28.

Gillian Lester, Dean and Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law, awarded the medals to Ellen V. Futter BC ’71, LAW ’74, President of the American Museum of Natural History and former President of Barnard College, and Brad Smith’ 84, vice president and president of Microsoft.

“This year, we honor two graduates who have demonstrated immense skills as empathetic, intelligent and sensitive leaders, who have demonstrated an unwavering commitment to advancing the public good, Lester said. “They have led grassroots institutions, public and private, to advance discovery and knowledge and have used their platform as leaders to show the world how the advancement of knowledge – especially scientific knowledge – is essential to the advancement of humanity itself.”

Lester presented the awards at Cipriani 42nd Street in New York City before an audience of 250 law school alumni, faculty and friends. Inaugurated in 1964, the Medal of Excellence is awarded to alumni and faculty members who exemplify the qualities of character, intellect, and social and professional responsibility that the law school seeks to instill in its students.

Shaping two-tier institutions

Ellen V. Futter ’74 accepts the Medal of Excellence.

During his nearly three decades at the Museum of Natural History, Futter’s mission has been to “reinvigorate the more than 150-year-old institution and expand its scientific and educational reach,” Lester said. Futter led the development of the museum’s graduate program; the renovation of the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life; and construction of the Rose Center for Earth and Space and the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation.

At the age of 29, Futter became the nation’s youngest major college president as a leader of Barnard College. During her tenure, she maintained Barnard’s distinct identity as a women’s college while building stronger ties with Columbia University.

“Mine has been an unexpected, unpredictable and non-linear career path,” Futter said as he accepted the award. Her legal training was “essential”, she said. “Analytical thinking; the ability to gather and interpret facts; the ability to make decisions even with incomplete information; problem-solving and consensus-seeking instincts; clear communication; and above all integrity, good judgment and strong values.These skills, she added, make law “an ideal platform and foundation for a career in almost any field and . . . says that an education at Columbia Law School can indeed give a rich and rewarding life in a number of different endeavours.

Futter, whose two daughters were the third generation of the family to attend Columbia Law, said her father, Victor Futter ’42, a World War II veteran and law professor, “would, like many of us , utterly horrified and shocked to learn now that our very democracy and the justice system on which it is based are under near unprecedented threat.

“We lawyers, practitioners or not, must be a bulwark against the winds that threaten our freedoms, perhaps too taken for granted by all of us.”

Leverage business for good

Brad Smith ’84 accepts the Medal of Excellence.

In nearly 30 years at Microsoft, Smith was instrumental in elevating the tech giant’s industry leadership “beyond its scientific dimension to also adopt a moral dimension – a voice of conscience for Big Tech”, Lester said. “He saw the critical importance of public-private cooperation in developing sound regulation of technological development at a time when conventional legislative and administrative law processes simply cannot hope to keep pace with the speed of the technological change and the rapid evolution of morals, culture, safety and ethics it presents.

Smith was a champion of Columbia Law, its students and its faculty. This year he and his wife, Kathy Surace-Smith ’84 (who is a trustee at Columbia University), endowed the Smith Family Human Rights Clinic; they are also co-chairs, with Alison S. Ressler ’83, of the successful five-year campaign for Columbia Law. In 2004, the couple established the Smith Family Opportunity Scholarship, which supports students from underrepresented countries in law school. And, in 2019, Microsoft funded TrialWatch, founded by the law school’s Human Rights Institute and the Clooney Foundation for Justice. Smith also co-founded the nonprofit Kids In Need of Defense, which provides legal representation to unaccompanied immigrant children.

(Left to right) Amal Clooney, co-chair of the Clooney Foundation for Justice; Trevor Noah, host of The daily show; and Dean Gillian Lester.

Nonprofits are essential players in solving societal problems, Smith said, forming a “three-legged stool” with business and government to innovate, incubate and scale potential solutions.

Instead of asking how much or how much government should regulate business, Smith said, the more important question is how business and government can work effectively with nonprofits. “How do we harness the power of these three different legs of this stool to bring out the best in everyone? So we each know what role we play so that we can work together to solve the great problems of our time?

“If we’re going to overcome the challenges of democracy in this decade, it’s time for us to step back and reflect on the larger nonprofit community and how we all work together,” he said. -he declares. “It’s something we should think about more. We should talk about it more. We have to cherish it, we have to nurture it. And then we should use it to move forward into the future.

See photos of the event:

Medal of Excellence Luncheon, 2022

About Marjorie C. Hudson

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