David Nirenberg Named 10th Director of IAS

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Lee Sandberg

The Institute for Advanced Study has appointed David Nirenberg as its 10th Director and Leon Levy Professor, effective July 1, 2022. Currently dean of the Divinity School at the University of Chicago and professor of medieval history, Nirenberg will assume leadership of one of the world’s preeminent centers for theoretical research in the sciences and humanities.

A seasoned administrator and innovator, Nirenberg was founding director of the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society (2011–14), Dean of the Social Sciences (2014-17), and Executive Vice Provost at the University of Chicago (2017–18).

“David’s administrative accomplishments, like the Institute itself, transcend cultural and disciplinary boundaries, providing new frameworks of knowledge to understand society and to realize the power of collective curiosity,” said Nancy Peretsman, IAS Board Vice Chair and Chair of the eight-member director search committee. “David offers the leadership qualities to ensure that IAS remains a significant center for basic research as it approaches its centennial. We are thrilled to welcome David as our next director.”

Serving as Deborah R. and Edgar D. Jannotta Distinguished Service Professor of Social Thought, History, Divinity, Romance Languages and Literatures, and the College at the University of Chicago, Nirenberg explores a wide-range of ideas about communication, exchange, and social relations.

“The appointment of a humanities scholar is a bold choice, which departs from several decades of directors trained in science and mathematics, but reaffirms in the strongest sense the importance of cross-disciplinary collaboration at IAS,” said Charles Simonyi, IAS Board Chair. “An energetic and astute leader, David understands that the Institute is a public good in service of society: to be a haven for scholars with a long view ready to share the fruits of their curiosity.”

As founding director of the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society at the University of Chicago, Nirenberg championed a program that afforded both funding and space to catalyze collaborations across every division, school, and affiliated laboratory at the university. By uniting practitioners across fields, the collegium enables novel investigations and new forms of thinking based on the cross-pollination of ideas.

“Since the Institute’s creation in 1930, discoveries by its faculty have transformed fields from mathematics and physics to anthropology and art history. The Institute has also served the nation and the world through the constant performance of its founding values: that discriminations by gender and race are inimical to excellence, that scholars and ideas must move freely if fundamental knowledge is to flourish, and that when knowledge flourishes, humanity benefits” said Nirenberg. “Both these tasks—discovery and the defense of these values—feel as urgent today as they were at the founding of this marvelous institution that I am so proud to be joining.”

While dean of the Division of the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago, Nirenberg led efforts to create the Computational Social Science program and to establish the Center for International Social Science Research and the Committee on Quantitative Social Science. These endeavors shared the goal of accelerating the diffusion of new methodologies across disciplinary boundaries and expanding possibilities for discovery.

“I grew up in a Spanish-speaking household in upstate New York, sparking my lifelong attraction to conversations across languages and cultures. As a Visitor at the Institute in 1996, I remember feeling as if I had suddenly found home. My experience was typical: the Institute’s polyglot conversations change every scholar who enters them, creating new connections and enabling discovery” said Nirenberg. “Are there ways to give the global scholarly community more access to that transformative power? Can we extend those conversations to new publics? Those are questions that the Institute has been and will be thinking a great deal about.”

Nirenberg was born to immigrant parents from Argentina who eventually settled in Albany, NY. He graduated with an A.B. (1986) from Yale University and earned his M.A. (1989) and Ph.D. (1992) from Princeton University’s Department of History. Nirenberg was a visiting scholar in the IAS School of Historical Studies (1996–97).

“David is obviously a world-renowned historian, whose incredible range of expertise includes religions in medieval Europe, the history of race, and most recently the history of math and physics,” said Myles Jackson, Professor in the School of Historical Studies. “His expansive breadth of knowledge of numerous fields and topics, many of which are directly relevant to the IAS, greatly impressed all of us on the committee. His erudition and his extensive administrative experience make him the perfect scholar to be the Institute’s next director.”

Nirenberg is the author of numerous books and articles on Christians, Jews, and Muslims of medieval Europe and the Mediterranean. His wide-ranging scholarship has informed the work of social scientists and historians, providing deep insights into present-day challenges of racism, Anti-Semitism, hate speech, and inequality.

In his first book, Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages (Princeton University Press, 1996), Nirenberg explores the concept of religious violence in the Middle Ages. Drawing on research from fourteenth-century France and the Crown of Aragon (now part of eastern Spain), he reveals the “associative and dissociative” effects of religious violence and the ways in which such conflict has shaped coexistence among medieval communities.

With a more macro focus in Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition (W.W. Norton, 2013), Nirenberg considers how foundational anti-Judaism is to the history of the West. In Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, Medieval and Modern (University of Chicago Press, 2014), Nirenberg draws a direct link between the history of Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the Middle Ages and their relations in the present.

With a mathematician (Ricardo Nirenberg) for a father, David learned early on how to consider subjects from the perspective of different disciplines. The pair jointly authored the book Uncountable: A Philosophical History of Number and Humanity from Antiquity to the Present (University of Chicago Press, 2021), which explores the claims that underpin different forms of knowledge and seeks to understand the powers and limits of the sciences and the humanities.

“I couldn't think of a better choice to hand over the baton. I have come to know David as an eminent scholar, creative thinker, and thoughtful academic leader with an impressive track record of success. He has a deep connection to the core values of IAS of joining together excellence, diverse perspectives, and the limitless possibilities of the shared pursuit of knowledge,” said Robbert Dijkgraaf, current IAS Director and Leon Levy Professor. “This appointment will add many new dimensions to the intellectual life at the Institute that I hope to enjoy personally for many years to come. It is thanks to the tremendous effort of Trustees and Faculty that we can look forward to welcoming David as our next Director.”

Nirenberg has held academic positions at institutions including Rice University (1992–2000); Johns Hopkins University (2000–06) where he founded the Stulman Center for Jewish Studies in (2001–02); and the University of Chicago (2006–present). As a faculty member, center director, executive vice provost, and dean, Nirenberg played a leading role in successful solicitation of approximately $275 million.

His Board appointments include the Argonne National Laboratory (2017–2020), a multidisciplinary science and engineering research center dedicated to sustainable energy solutions and research with a positive global impact, and the National Opinion Research Center (2014–present), an independent research institution delivering reliable data and rigorous analysis to public and private entities.  He is also an Associate of the Human Sciences section of the German Max-Planck-Gesellschaft for the Advancement of Science.

In addition to winning excellence-in-teaching awards at Johns Hopkins and Rice University, Nirenberg has received various prizes and honors, including the Historikerpreis from the city of Münster and the Laing Prize from University of Chicago Press in 2017, an honorary doctorate from the University of Haifa (2016), the Ralph Waldo Emerson Prize from Phi Beta Kappa (2014), the John Nicholas Brown Prize from the Medieval Academy of America (2000), and the Herbert Baxter Adams Prize (1999) and Premio del Rey Prize (1997) from the American Historical Association.

He received visiting fellowships from numerous institutions, including the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin; the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Palo Alto, CA; the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales; the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas; and the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ.

Nirenberg is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, History and Philosophy/Religion sections (2016) and the Medieval Academy of America (2015).

Nirenberg is married to Sofía Torallas Tovar, a professor of Classics and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and member of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago.  He has a son, Alexander Nirenberg, and stepdaughter, Eira Nylander Torallas.

The eight-member director search committee included four IAS Trustees (Nancy Peretsman, Chair; Mark Heising; John Overdeck; Shirley Tilghman) and four Faculty (Didier Fassin; Myles Jackson; Juan Maldacena; and Akshay Venkatesh), representing each of the IAS Schools. A ratification vote of Nirenberg’s directorship took place on Saturday, October 30, 2021, during a meeting of the full Board of Trustees.

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 21 of the 24 Abel Prize Laureates, as well as many MacArthur Fellows and Wolf Prize winners.