Two Distinguished Alumni Awarded the 2024 Medal for Excellence

Rolando T. Acosta ’82 and Alia Tutor ’00 receive the Law School’s highest honor at the annual Winter Luncheon.

Three women and one man in business attire

From left to right: Columbia Law School Dean Gillian Lester, Columbia University President Minouche Shafik, Rolando T. Acosta ’82, and Alia Tutor ’00.

More than 350 members of the Columbia Law community gathered on February 23 at Cipriani 42nd Street in New York as Gillian Lester, Dean and Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law, presented the Medal for Excellence to two alumni who exemplify the qualities of character, intellect, and social and professional responsibility that the Law School seeks to instill in its students: Rolando T. Acosta CC '79, LAW ’82 and Alia Tutor ’00.

“Awarding the Medal for Excellence is a singular annual ritual in the life of the Law School,” said Dean Lester in her introduction. “It’s an opportunity for us to come together and reaffirm our highest ideals of what our graduates should strive for and to celebrate those who best embody these values.”

Acosta served for a quarter century as an innovative and community-minded New York trial and appellate judge, presiding over hundreds of bench and jury trials and thousands of appeals in civil and criminal cases. Most notably, he served on the New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, First Department for 15 years, including six years as presiding justice. He retired from the bench in March 2023 and is now a partner at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. He is also a trustee emeritus of Columbia University.

Tutor is president of the Alia Tutor Family Foundation. Her philanthropy is driven by projects where she can make a significant impact, particularly in medicine, higher education, and the arts. In 2022, Tutor, through the foundation, made a transformational $17.5 million gift to Columbia Law School—the largest single commitment in the Law School’s history—for the reimagined Law School Library, which will bear her name when it opens in 2025. 

The event began with welcoming remarks by G. Wade Leak ’89, president of the Columbia Law School Association, followed by Columbia University President Minouche Shafik. “Since I became president, I've been making my way around the university community, meeting people, and learning about what makes Columbia special,” President Shafik said. “It will come as no surprise to all of you that the Law School has come up as a huge point of pride. I won’t quite say that all roads lead to the Law School, but I would say that both personally and institutionally, in so many of these conversations, the pride in Columbia Law School is apparent.”

Acknowledging her plans to step down as dean in 2024, Dean Lester also reflected appreciatively on the numerous contributions to society and the legal profession made by the Law School’s alumni, faculty, and students. “We Columbians are called upon to lead, to build, to solve the hardest problems, to give back, to inspire others to action,” she said. “And as I look out into this room, I see those qualities in every corner. And I am filled with pride.”

A Well-Lived Life
Rolando T. Acosta ’82 accepts the Medal for Excellence.

Presenting the Medal for Excellence to Acosta, Dean Lester said he had “distinguished himself as a jurist, public servant, community leader, and Columbia University citizen” during a career spanning more than four decades. 

Dean Lester cited his numerous accomplishments, including his election as the first Dominican American to serve on the New York State Supreme Court in New York County and his role in establishing the Harlem Community Justice Center, which addresses the root causes of crime and provides holistic support to at-risk youth. “We pay tribute to Rolando not only to honor his remarkable achievements but also the values he embodies—integrity, compassion, and an unwavering commitment to justice,” she said.

Accepting the award, Acosta paid homage to his immigrant parents who, despite living in poverty and its “resulting despair,” believed that “a life well-lived necessarily includes the value of education, excellence, and service to others,” he said, adding that receiving the Medal for Excellence not only honors him but also “my parents’ sacrifice and vision of a better future for their six children in a place where justice is not swayed by the caprice of those in power, and the rule of law is not just an abstract or empty concept but a living principle that structures our lives and undergirds our democracy.”

Acosta also spoke movingly about the influence of his alma mater on his life. “Columbia Law School gave me the tools to make a difference not only in bolstering the socioeconomic and political aspirations of my growing Latino community, but in my broader and loftier goals to do justice in our wonderful society under the rule of law,” he said. “So Columbia gave meaning to what I often heard: that the goal of law school is not only to safeguard rights, prevent abuses, and deter wrongdoing but also to create the conditions in which the talents and energies of a diverse citizenry can thrive.”

A Visionary Philanthropist
Alia Tutor ’00 accepts the Medal for Excellence.

“As president of the Alia Tutor Family Foundation, Alia embodies the spirit of altruism and service, with a keen sense of purpose and a deep understanding of the power of collective action,” said Dean Lester before presenting the Medal for Excellence to Tutor. 

Dean Lester shared how Tutor’s deep and abiding personal affection for Columbia Law inspired her to establish the Sidney J. Feltenstein 1926 Scholarship Fund, named for her grandfather, as well as her leadership gift to support the library renovation. “Recognizing the vital role that the library played in her own academic journey, she saw an opportunity to pay it forward and ensure that others would have access to our world-class resources and facilities, and we knew her leadership would inspire others to participate,” Dean Lester said. “Working with Alia has been a joy. She is brilliant. She is funny. She is empathic, and she’s very wise.”

The Dean also lauded Tutor for her volunteer support in her home city, Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband and children. She cited Tutor’s service on the board of directors for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA) and the CHLA Foundation Board of Trustees, as well as on the USC president’s council and as an inaugural member of the Keck Medicine of USC Board of Councilors. 

Accepting the Medal for Excellence, Tutor explained why the library renovation project is so meaningful. “As a young law student, I felt most invigorated in the library, surrounded by decades of living knowledge, the warmth and collegiality of my classmates, and the openness to new ideas and other points of view,” she said. “To me, that is what this landmark project is all about: providing a modern and reimagined venue for new generations of law students to convene, to expand, to provoke, and to be inspired.”

In closing, Tutor expressed appreciation for her family, particularly her mother, Lisa, her aunt, Ellen, and her grandmother, Marie. “Through their strength, their perseverance, their love and kindness, they showed me what it truly means to be a strong woman,” she said, “and I will forever be grateful.”