Peter Awn, Dean Emeritus of the School of General Studies, passed away yesterday following a car accident last month.

Dean Awn served for twenty years as Dean before stepping down in 2017, though he continued to serve as a professor of Islamic and Comparative Religion in Columbia’s Religion Department. Throughout his time at Columbia, he has also served as Director of the Middle East Institute, Acting Dean of the School of Continuing Education (since renamed to the School of Professional Studies), chair of the Department of Religion, and several other prestigious positions.

Having earned a ‘silver nugget’ on CULPA, Dean Awn was beloved by his students for his famously intensive course on Islam, his Literature Humanities section, and his charisma, humor, and spirit while lecturing. He is an acclaimed lecturer in Islamic religions, having been a visiting professor at Princeton University and a recipient of first Phillip and Ruth Hettleman Award for distinguished teaching and research.

In total, Dean Awn has spent over forty years working for Columbia. Our deepest condolences go to Dean Awn’s family and friends.

President Bollinger’s full statement on Dean Awn’s passing, sent in an email to students early this morning, is included below.

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community:

It is with immense sadness that I share with you that Peter Awn, Dean Emeritus of the School of General Studies, passed away yesterday from injuries sustained when he was struck by a car last month.

Since his arrival on the Columbia campus more than four decades ago, no one has been a more beloved member of our community than Peter. The grief we feel at his loss is overwhelming.

This heartbreak is especially palpable for the General Studies community where, during his 20-year tenure as Dean, Peter came to personify the School’s character, its values, and its mission. In every way that mattered, he and the School were one. This unmatched legacy, in addition to his remarkable scholarship and teaching as Professor of Islamic and Comparative Religion, made Peter, without question, one of the essential leaders of Columbia University’s modern era.

The rare gift he was able to bestow upon generations of General Studies students was his unconditional belief that Columbia was better for their presence and his insistence that they believe this as fervently as he did. Peter recognized that General Studies represented the “cutting edge of undergraduate education,” as he put it, and under his stewardship the School has been able to fulfill its promise. For him, that meant a student body comprised heavily of student veterans, first-generation students, and international students, whose age and life experiences would further diversify and enrich our undergraduate classrooms. It meant, also, establishing partnerships with Sciences Po in Paris, the City University of Hong Kong, and Trinity College Dublin. And it meant embracing both the nation’s oldest and largest certificate program for individuals holding an undergraduate degree and seeking admission to medical school and the School’s long-held relationship with the Jewish Theological Seminary.

In the difficult days since Peter was injured he received world-class care from the doctors, nurses, and staff at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center/New York-Presbyterian Hospital. During this time, I have been able to meet several of his family members and friends who loved and admired him so deeply. They have learned over these past few weeks the very special place he holds in the Columbia community. On behalf of the entire University, I extend our deepest condolences to Peter’s sisters, Claudette Maraziti and Louise Crowley, his many nieces and nephews, and his lifelong friends Norman Laurila and Rob Westerberg.

In the months ahead, we will have opportunities to celebrate Peter’s extraordinary life and reflect on his many contributions to Columbia. For now, I can only convey this stunningly sad news and ask that—in the spirit of Peter himself—we commit to helping each other as we grieve this enormous loss. Please do not hesitate to seek support from Counseling and Psychological Services, the Office of the University Chaplain, and the Office of University Life.

Peter will always remain in Columbia’s heart.


Lee C. Bollinger

Photo via Columbia University