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Professor and alumnus Wm. Theodore de Bary receives National Humanities Medal

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Wm. Theodore de Bary CC’41, GSAS’53, the John Mitchell Mason Professor Emeritus and Provost Emeritus who has spent his entire career at Columbia, was named by President Barack Obama CC’83 as one of 10 recipients of the 2013 National Humanities Medal for his pioneering work in East Asian studies. The award honors individuals and groups who have furthered America’s understanding of the humanities, especially in the fields of history, cultural studies, filmmaking, cultural commentary and historic preservation.Photo:  Natalie KeyssarPhoto: Natalie Keyssar

De Bary began developing Columbia’s program in East Asian studies in 1949 while a student in the Ph.D. program, recruiting translators for classic Chinese, Japanese and South Asian works in order to create a core reading list for students wishing to learn more about Asian cultures. After helping form the basis of the program, de Bary became head of the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures in 1960.

Since that time, he has held many prestigious positions at Columbia aside from Provost, including Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs, and has been recognized with numerous awards for his dedication to teaching and commitment to bettering Columbia, including the Lionel Trilling Book Award, the Mark Van Doren Award for Great Teaching and the Alexander Hamilton Medal. De Bary has left his mark on the humanities at Columbia, founding a number of programs to improve the University’s cultural offerings, including the Alumni Colloquia in the Humanities and The Lionel Trilling Seminar. He is also responsible for the founding of The Heyman Center for the Humanities, the Society of Fellows in the Humanities and the Society of Senior Scholars.

“Ted de Bary is a Columbia icon,” said Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger.  “As a scholar, teacher, mentor and citizen his influence has been felt not only on our own campus and in his field of East Asian studies, but across higher education and our society at large. For many decades, there’s been no more compelling voice for the transformative power of the liberal arts and humanities as a guide to meaningful life than Ted. So it is entirely appropriate that he be honored by our nation, and by our Columbia-educated President, with the National Humanities Medal.”

“Ted de Bary first stepped into Hamilton Hall as an 18-year-old freshman from Leonia, New Jersey; studied Contemporary Civilization with the future College Dean Harry J. Carman, who encouraged him to incorporate Asia in his studies; began planning and directing core courses in Asian Humanities and Civilization as a graduate student; and still teaches in the Core today, at age 94," added James J. Valentini, dean of Columbia College and Vice President for Undergraduate Education. "We are so proud of Ted’s accomplishments and congratulate him on this this great award.”
The National Humanities Medal award announcement cited de Bary’s work as an East Asian scholar: “Dr. de Bary’s efforts to foster a global conversation have underscored how the common values and experiences shared by Eastern and Western cultures can be used to bridge our differences and build trust.”

The 2013 National Humanities Medals presentation ceremony took place at the White House on July 28. Click here to watch a video of the ceremony.

Read more about de Bary’s career and life in the Fall 2013 Columbia College Today.