Sir James D. Wolfensohn, Who Led the World Bank and Chaired the IAS Board, Dies at 86

A Global Champion of Human Rights, Economic Justice, Scholarship, and the Arts

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Lee Sandberg

Sir James D. Wolfensohn, Chairman of Wolfensohn & Company, L.L.C. and a global champion of human rights, economic justice, scholarship, and the arts, died on Wednesday, November 25 at his home in Manhattan at the age of 86.

Wolfensohn was the ninth president of the World Bank, sworn into office on June 1, 1995, after being nominated by President Bill Clinton. A transformative and hands-on leader, Wolfensohn re-envisioned the Bank’s commitment to alleviating poverty, investing in sustainable development, and promoting social justice globally.

In 1979, Wolfensohn joined the Institute for Advanced Study’s Board of Trustees and became the Board’s longest-serving Chair (1986–2007). Wolfensohn had a passionate commitment to the Institute’s mission of enabling the world’s foremost scholars to conduct breakthrough research at the highest levels of academia.

“Jim embraced the world and everything in it—its challenges, the arts, science, politics, and people most of all,” stated Robbert Dijkgraaf, IAS Director and Leon Levy Professor. “A man of no excuses and a boundless diversity of interests, Jim believed in and harnessed the enormous potential of the human spirit for the common good. We are eternally grateful for the wisdom and generosity he brought to the Institute and world for which he cared so deeply.”

James David Wolfensohn was born on December 1, 1933, in Sydney, Australia. He was a veteran of the Royal Australian Air Force and a member of the 1956 Australian Olympic fencing team. Educated at the University of Sydney, he received a B.A. and LL.B. in 1954 and 1957, respectively. He worked as a lawyer at an Australian law firm and went on to earn an M.B.A. from Harvard University in 1959.

“Jim was larger than life, hard-working, and compassionate,” stated Charles Simonyi, IAS Board Chair. “His moral vision spanned the globe, complemented by a gift for connecting with individuals. Passionate about music and sciences, he was an inspiration to all who knew him. The Institute for Advanced Study will always treasure the memory of his extraordinary leadership.”

After launching his career as an investment banker, Wolfensohn worked for several different institutions in Australia, including Darling & Co., before joining the London-based investment bank J. Henry Schroder & Co. This position led Wolfensohn to return to the U.S. to become the managing director of the bank’s New York City office from 1970 to ’76. In 1979, as a senior executive at Salomon Brothers, he oversaw the emergency restructuring of Chrysler Corporation, working with then CEO Lee Iacocca and then President of the New York Federal Reserve Bank Paul A. Volcker. Wolfensohn spent another fourteen years in investment banking as President and CEO of James D. Wolfensohn, Inc. Wolfensohn became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1980.

As the longest-serving Chair in the Institute’s history, Wolfensohn stewarded the growth of the Institute’s endowment, which more than doubled in real terms under his leadership. His many accomplishments as Chair included overseeing the endowment of six Professorships across the Institute’s four Schools. Wolfensohn also took a particularly active interest in extending the global impact and profile of the Institute, reaffirming and strengthening its reputation as an international center for scholarship.

Having served as Chairman of the Boards of Carnegie Hall (1980–91) and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (1990–95), Wolfensohn, who was an accomplished cellist himself, encouraged musical performance at the Institute, contributing to the establishment of the Artist-in-Residence program and regular concerts. 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 was the third World Bank president to serve more than one five-year term. During his tenure, which extended from 1995 to 2005, Wolfensohn visited more than 120 countries, often accompanied by his wife and partner Elaine. Wolfensohn implemented an agenda to fight corruption, fund education, and support global health and HIV/AIDS programs. His efforts were also transformative in bringing more transparency to the organization.

In 2005, Wolfensohn’s experience as an investment banker and international advocate for human rights led him to found Wolfensohn & Company, LLC. The firm provides strategic consulting advice to governments and large corporations doing business in emerging market economies.

Among his numerous awards, Wolfensohn was made an honorary officer of the Order of Australia (1987), received an honorary knighthood of the Order of the British Empire (1995) for his service to the arts and the Leo Baeck Medal (2006) for his humanitarian work promoting tolerance and social justice. In 2020, Wolfensohn was recognized with the IAS Bamberger Medal for his extraordinary service in fortifying IAS for the twenty-first century and his unwavering commitment to the pursuit of new knowledge.

Wolfensohn was a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.

Wolfensohn was predeceased by his beloved wife Elaine, and is survived by children Sara, Naomi, and Adam; and seven grandchildren.

About the Institute
The Institute for Advanced Study is one of the world's foremost centers for theoretical research and intellectual inquiry. Located in Princeton, N.J., the IAS is dedicated to independent study across the sciences and humanities. Founded in 1930, the Institute is devoted to advancing the frontiers of knowledge without concern for immediate application. From founding IAS Professor Albert Einstein to the foremost thinkers of today, the IAS enables bold, curiosity-driven innovation to enrich society in unexpected ways.

Each year, the Institute welcomes more than 200 of the world's most promising post-doctoral researchers and scholars who are selected and mentored by a permanent Faculty, each of whom are preeminent leaders in their fields. Among present and past Faculty and Members there have been 35 Nobel Laureates, 42 of the 60 Fields Medalists, and 19 of the 22 Abel Prize Laureates, as well as many MacArthur Fellows and Wolf Prize winners.