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Vol. 24, No. 19 April 2,1999

COMMENCEMENT 1999: 245th Ceremony Will Honor Ali, Chomsky, Puente and Taymor (photo of Julie Taymor, right)


Boxing legend Muhammad Ali; theater, opera and film director Julie Taymor; scholar Noam Chomsky, and musician Tito Puente are among those scheduled to receive honorary degrees at Columbia's 245th Commencement Exercises on Wednesday, May 19, 1999.

Also scheduled to receive honorary degrees are Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Brion Davis, who has written extensively on slavery; physics and engineering scholar Mildred Dresselhaus, an advocate for women in science; National Medal of Science-winner Richard Zare, who worked on the "Mars rock," and psychiatric researcher Lawrence Kolb, who established the Washington Heights Community Service.

During Commencement week across campus, individual school ceremonies will also feature an array of remarkable and influential persons. Addressing graduates of the School of International and Public Affairs will be alumnus James P. Rubin, CC'82 and SIPA'84, the US State Department's assistant secretary for public affairs, and CNN's chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour. At the Journalism School, celebrated writer and journalist Joan Didion will accept the school's top honor. Acclaimed stage actress Zoe Caldwell will deliver Barnard College's 107th Commencement address and will receive the college's Medal of Distinction along with Abby Joseph Cohen, one of the nation's leading investment strategists; Esther Dyson, writer, businesswoman and authority on the digital age, and William T. Golden, advocate of scientific research and former presidential advisor. Other notables to speak on campus during Commencement week include: NBC News White House correspondent Claire Shipman, CC'86, who will address Columbia College graduates; New York Times dance critic and Columbia alumnus Anna Kisselgoff will speak to the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences master's degree recipients; president of the Center for Gender Equity, Faye Wattleton, will speak at Columbia's Joseph L. Mailman School of Public Health, and at Teachers College, the chancellor of New York City Public Schools, Rudy Crew, will speak.

In addition to the awarding of honorary degrees, more than 9,200 Columbia students will graduate before tens of thousands of their family and friends during a ceremony that will begin at 10:30 a.m. on Low Library Plaza. President George Rupp will confer the degrees and deliver the Commencement address.

Also at Commencement, Paul Sereno, a 41-year-old paleontologist and professor of organismal biology at the University of Chicago, will receive Columbia's annual Medal for Excellence, given to an alumnus/a 45 years old or younger who has already achieved significant distinction in his or her field.

As a graduate student at Columbia, Sereno was the first American paleontologist in 60 years to gain entry to Mongolia's Gobi Desert to study fossils. His career has been marked by a string of remarkable discoveries: in 1988 in Argentina, the nearly complete remains of Herrerasaurus, the oldest known dinosaur at that time; in 1991, the skull of a 80-million-year-old horned dinosaur in Big Bend National Park in Texas; later that year in the foothills of the Andes, the complete skeleton of the most primitive dinosaur ever found. In 1997, People magazine listed Sereno in its annual "fifty most beautiful people" issue.

The following is biographical information on the honorary degree recipients:

Muhammad Ali: Generally regarded as the greatest boxer of all time and one of the best athletes of the century, Ali retired from the ring in 1981. Since then, he has committed most of his time to helping the poor and underprivileged of the world. He has promoted research on Parkinson's Disease, an ailment from which he suffers; led efforts to provide food and medicine to countries suffering from famine and other natural disasters, and contributed to such charitable organizations as the Cerebral Palsy Foundation, the American Red Cross, the Cancer Society and the American Heart Association. This past September, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan named Ali a United Nations Messenger of Peace.

Julie Taymor: Theater, opera and film director Taymor had worked almost exclusively in the field of not-for-profit theater until she directed, contributed to the book and score, and designed the costumes, masks and puppetry for the widely acclaimed production of Walt Disney's The Lion King in 1997. Taymor's many honors include two Tony Awards, a MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Taymor directed, designed and co-wrote with Elliot Goldenthal Juan Darien : A Carnival Mass (1996). Her production of Carlo Gozzi's The Green Bird comes to Broadway next year, and her most recent project has been directing Titus, a film adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy Titus Andronicus starring Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange, to be released this year.

Noam Chomsky: Linguistics scholar and philosopher Chomsky has been a faculty member at M.I.T. since 1955. His books on linguistics have transformed the field, developing a philosophical concept of language that has helped make language central to the way philosophy is studied. Chomsky's political writings have been the voice of conscience against injustices in many countries, and his activism has helped galvanize support for many of his causes.

Tito Puente: Raised in Spanish Harlem, Puente, a composer, arranger and performer, is known as the "King of Latin Music" and has appeared in concert at all the major jazz festivals including Montreaux, Monterey, Munich and the North Sea. He has recorded works with Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, George Shearing and Woody Herman and has played with such music legends as pianist-composer Noro Morales and Afro-Cuban jazz master Machito. Puente has won four Grammy awards, and in 1980 he established the Tito Puente Scholarship Fund, which has given more than 50 scholarships and other awards.

David Brion Davis: Davis is the Sterling Professor of History at Yale. His book, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, won the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction and the Anisfield-Wolf Award for the promotion of race relations. A second volume, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823, won the National Book Award for history in 1976. Davis, who was a consultant to Steven Spielberg on the film "Amistad," is currently completing the final two volumes of his study of slavery, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation.

Mildred Dresselhaus: Physicist and champion for women in science, Dresselhaus has been an institute professor at M.I.T. since 1985, an appointment held by no more than 12 active M.I.T. professors. She has researched extensively on the electron structures of graphite, carbon, semiconductors and thermoelectricity, and has served on the board of governors at Argonne National Laboratory and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Richard Zare: The Marguerite Blake Wilbur Professor of Chemistry at Stanford, Zare has focused his research on inventing and applying laser techniques in chemistry. His best-known work was the analysis of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons buried in a meteorite from Mars found in Antarctica; the analysis is evidence in partial support of the claim for early life on Mars. His many awards include the National Medal of Science, the nation's highest award in science.

Lawrence Kolb: Professor emeritus at Columbia's College of Physicians and Surgeons since 1975, Kolb joined the Columbia faculty in 1954 as chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and director of the New York State Psychiatric Institute. He committed the Institute to serving community needs by establishing the Washington Heights Community Service, and he developed and oversaw the construction of a research building at the Institute which bears his name. His research included a systematic evaluation of prefrontal lobotomy as therapy and investigations of phantom limb phenomenon among amputees and the mechanism of disturbed body image.