Feb. 15, 2008
The Man Behind the Lenfest Awards
Special from The Record
H.F. (Gerry) Lenfest is accustomed to honoring others and spotlighting a worthy cause. But when the tables are turned, the Columbia University trustee, alumnus (LAW’58) and benefactor is quick to say he does not deserve the recognition.
On Jan. 25, Columbia Law School presented Lenfest with its most prestigious award, the Medal for Excellence, given annually to a law school graduate or faculty member. At this year’s awards luncheon, the law school also honored six former deans, as well as alumni who now are judges.
“I am very honored,” said Lenfest, “but I’m not sure I belong in the same group; everyone is so distinguished. Sure I’ve been successful in business, but I’m not distinguished.”
Anyone on the receiving end of his generosity would differ. Over the years, Lenfest and his wife, Marguerite, have given $33 million to the Law School through their Lenfest Foundation, including more than $15 million to help fund Lenfest Hall, the school’s main residence building, which opened in 2003.
Lenfest has supported the Earth Institute with gifts totaling $23 million toward climate change research, two professorships, the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy and the Global Roundtable on Climate Change, as well as support for the new Comer Geochemistry Building at the Lamont- Doherty Geochemistry Building.
And in 2006, Lenfest pledged $48 million to endow faculty chairs—$37.5 million to support professorships in the arts and sciences and $10.5 million for law school professorships. Called the Lenfest Challenge, donors can establish endowed professorships with matching gifts of $1.5 million. “I created that to support the strength in arts and sciences … and encourage
others to come and broaden the curriculum,” he said.
Last month, recipients of the Distinguished Columbia Faculty Awards were announced—a category of awards Lenfest created with a $12 million gift to honor exceptional teaching and promote research in the arts and sciences. The idea behind that gift came to him after a board of trustees meeting about faculty retention, he said, especially concerning professors being
wooed by competing universities. “I wanted to make sure [the gift] recognizes teachers of exceptional quality, but I also wanted to attach a stipend to it,” he added (see related article).
Now retired, Lenfest began his legal career at the New York firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell, and later became corporate counsel to Walter Annenberg’s Triangle Publications. In 1974, he bought two cable-television companies from Annenberg and launched Lenfest Communications, which he built into the Philadelphia region’s largest cable operator. In 2000, he sold the cable-TV operations to Comcast Corp.
Lenfest, a former member of the Law School’s board of visitors, also chairs the boards of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Curtis Institute of Music. He and his wife sponsor a college scholarship program for students in rural areas of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.
Asked how he decides how to structure a gift, Lenfest simply says, “I just give to things I’ve enjoyed. I’ve become very involved in the arts and in education and I’ve enjoyed it.”
- Story by Melanie Farmer. Photograph by Anthony B. Wood.