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James Wolfensohn: A True Jewel in the Intellectual Firmament

By Kelly Devine Thomas Published 2007

Courtesy of the Institute for Advanced Study Archives

For the last twenty-one years, James D. Wolfensohn has served as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Institute for Advanced Study. The longest serving Chairman in the Institute’s history thus far, he is pictured above at a Trustee dinner at Olden Farm in 1988, two years into his Chairmanship. At the time of the photograph, physicist Marvin L. Goldberger was Director of the Institute; since joining the Board in 1979, Wolfensohn has worked with four of the Institute’s eight Directors, Harry Woolf, Goldberger, Phillip Griffiths, and the current Director, Peter Goddard.

As of October 27, Wolfensohn will step down as Chairman of the Institute, becoming Chairman Emeritus. He will be succeeded for one year by Board Vice Chairman Martin L. Leibowitz, who will serve as Chairman before Charles Simonyi, current President of the Corporation, officially begins his appointment as Chairman in October 2008.

Over the past quarter century, Wolfensohn, former president of the World Bank and current chairman of Wolfensohn & Company, L.L.C., has helped the Institute sustain and enhance its standing as one of the world’s leading centers for intellectual inquiry. In addition to stewarding the growth of the Institute’s endowment, which has more than quadrupled since his appointment as Chairman, Wolfensohn has taken a particularly active interest in extending the Institute’s global impact and profile. He played an instrumental role in creating the Albert O. Hirschman Professorship in the School of Social Science in 2000, currently held by economist Eric S. Maskin, which acknowledges Professor Hirschman’s unparalleled leadership in the field of economics. With Griffiths, Wolfensohn also spearheaded the creation of the Millennium Science Initiative, a program that aims to create and nurture world- class science and scientific talent in the developing world.

“Over many years, Jim Wolfensohn has been an essential force in the development of the Institute, deeply committed to its mission of the disinterested pursuit of knowledge,” commented Director Peter Goddard. “Despite his many other formidable responsibilities, Jim’s loyalty and commitment to the Institute have never wavered. He is much loved by the whole Institute community and we owe him an inestimable debt.”


James Wolfensohn first joined the Institute for Advanced Study’s Board of Trustees in 1979 under Chairman Howard C. Petersen, a former presidential adviser and chairman and chief executive officer of Fidelity Bank. At the time, Wolfensohn was a general partner of Salomon Brothers. Previously, he had served as executive deputy chairman and managing director of Schroeder’s Ltd. in London.

“I remember I felt tremendously privileged,” Wolfensohn recalled of his Trustee appointment during a recent interview with The Institute Letter. “I felt like I had been elected to something way beyond either my capacity or my intellect. I was anxious to do the preparation so that people would not find me out too quickly.” 

Wolfensohn was born in Sydney, Australia, in December 1933, the same year Abraham Flexner opened the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. An officer in the Royal Australian Air Force and a member of the 1956 Australian Olympic Fencing Team, Wolfensohn obtained his B.A. and LL.B. from the University of Sydney. He was admitted to the Bar of the Supreme Court of Australia and joined the Sydney law firm of Allen Allen & Hemsley. It was only in 1957, when he was accepted into the Harvard Graduate School of Business, where he earned his M.B.A., that he left Australia for the first time.

“I think I was very lucky to be born in Australia,” said Wolfensohn. “I think I had a much better chance to innovate and to test myself. It was a human enough pace that when you did fail you had a chance to get back up and try again. The support of my parents and my sister when I did fall down was essential to my development.”

Courtesy of the Institute for Advanced Study Archives

James Wolfensohn with former Chairman J. Richardson Dilworth (left) and former Trustee Amartya Sen

Upon joining the Board, Wolfensohn set out to improve the Institute’s finances. He also reached out to Faculty members to better understand their research as well as their expectations and aspirations. “I loved, as I still do, talking to the scientists. I have adopted the practice of trying to look very intelligent, nodding at all the right times, and remembering a few key phrases that can indicate that I followed the explanations in some way,” said Wolfensohn. “Now that I am retiring as Chairman, I can say that I didn’t understand a word of the scientific explanations, but I was in such awe of the intellect and of the achievements that I hope I have always managed to give the appearance of in- depth understanding and great support of the intellectual efforts.”

Over the years, Wolfensohn’s astute vision has guided the Institute’s growth and evolution as an institution. In 1984, he agreed to chair the Planning and Review Committee, the driving force of a decadal review set up to appraise the structure, operation, and intellectual direction of the Institute, and to consider its future. “A lot of my thinking was formed during the decadal review,” said Wolfensohn. “It allowed me to dig much deeper into the history of the Institute and into the aspirations and hopes of the members of the Faculty.” 

In 1986, Wolfensohn was elected Chairman of the Board, succeeding J. Richardson Dilworth, former senior financial officer to the Rockefeller family and chairman of Rockefeller Center. At the time, Wolfensohn was president of James D. Wolfensohn, Inc., an advisory and investment firm he had established in 1981. He was also serving as chairman of the board of Carnegie Hall, which underwent a renowned transformation under his eleven- year leadership, ending in 1991. 

Having participated in a wide range of cultural and volunteer activities throughout his life, including serving as chairman of the board of trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts from 1990 to 1995, Wolfensohn encouraged performance at the Institute. “I found a very ready and willing Faculty to embrace new initiatives, which years later was to lead to artists in residence and regular performances at the Institute,” said Wolfensohn.

Reflecting Wolfensohn’s long- standing commitment to the Institute and his dedication to the arts, the Institute named its lecture and performance hall, Wolfensohn Hall, in his honor in 1993. Wolfensohn, who studied the cello with Jacqueline du Pré in his forties, performed at Carnegie Hall with Isaac Stern and Vladimir Ashkenazy for his fiftieth birthday.

In 1995, when Wolfensohn became the ninth president of the World Bank, a position he held for ten years, he relinquished all of his charitable positions and other obligations save one: his role as Chairman of the Institute’s Board. “In the academic field, the Institute is not like any other place,” said Wolfensohn. “It is not a university. It is not just some research institution. It is a place with a history and integrity that I think adds tremendously not just to the body of knowledge but to the structure of thought and research in this century.”

“I have always felt it a tremendous privilege as a non- academic to have a chance to support the scholarship that exists at the Schools. It has never occurred to me, as I have gone in and out of other organizations, to question why I should be at the Institute.”

Cliff Moore

Elaine and James Wolfensohn

Together with his wife Elaine, Wolfensohn has been an energetic supporter of the Institute’s IAS/Park City Mathematics Institute (PCMI), and has also facilitated new construction on campus such as Simonyi Hall (1993) and Bloomberg Hall (2002), which respectively house the Institute’s Schools of Mathematics and Natural Sciences.

“I think that having now really had a chance to look at the world because of the good luck of my recent professional work, I am even more convinced that centers of excellence are essential for the future of mankind. I think that they are constantly under challenge for financial and political reasons and that the Institute is a very, very important part of our history and our future,” said Wolfensohn. “I am not trying to idealize its Professors or its Board or its physical attributes, but a place that can support twenty or more of the finest minds that the world has produced and allow them in turn to influence both their colleagues and, in particular, the next generation, with no pressure for degrees, no pressure for formal recognition, but solely to advance scholarship, is a true jewel in the intellectual firmament.”

As for the change in leadership now underway, Wolfensohn observed with characteristic charm, “I think Marty Leibowitz and Charles Simonyi are a big improvement in the leadership. After all, I was a not very accomplished Olympian and Charles is an astronaut supported by a brilliant mathematician. I see a great future for the Institute.”

 

Kelly Devine Thomas is Editorial Director at the Institute for Advanced Study.

Published in The Institute Letter Fall 2007