Sir James D. Wolfensohn (1933-2020): Led the World Bank, Chaired the IAS Board and Was Deeply Reverential of Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, Calling Him an Icon of Action

Introduced by MALIK MERCHANT
Publisher-Editor, Simerg, Barakah and Simergphotos

It is with deep sadness and a heavy heart that we announce the death of James D. Wolfensohn on Wednesday, November 25 2020 at his home in Manhattan at the age of 86.

I reached out to the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), where Mr. Wolfensohn served as the past chair of the board, to allow Simerg to reproduce the obituary that has been posted on its website. We sincerely thank Lee Sandberg the press contact at IAS for the permission. For the information of our readers, 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 ninety years ago, 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.

His Highness the Aga Khan at a Press Conference announcing the launch of the new Aga Khan Agency for Microfinance (AKAM) in the company of James Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank (3rd left) and John Fergusson, AKDN Head of the Department of Public Affairs (2nd left). AKDN / Jean-Luc Ray
His Highness the Aga Khan (left) at a Press Conference on February 22, 2005 in Geneva, Switzerland, announcing the launch of the new Aga Khan Agency for Microfinance (AKAM) to help some of the world’s most vulnerable populations through innovative services including micro-insurance, small housing loans, savings, education and health accounts, and support for small entrepreneurs seeking to develop businesses related to restored cultural assets. The Aga Khan was joined at the news conference by Jim Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank (right) and John Fergusson, AKDN Head of the Department of Public Affairs. Photo: AKDN/Jean-Luc Ray.

On a personal note, I was present on January 25, 2005 at the National Building Museum in Washington D.C. when Mr. Wolfensohn introduced Mawlana Hazar Imam as the recipient of the Vincent Scully Prize. As an Ismaili, the tribute I heard is perhaps one of the finest and most touching I have ever heard or read during Mawlana Hazar Imam’s entire Imamat. Here is an excerpt from the tribute. The link to the complete tribute follows the obituary.

“In my 10 years at the bank, I’ve had the opportunity of meeting many people in the so-called development business. People that are concerned with the issues of poverty, people that in various ways display their interest in humanity, their concern for history, their concern for hope and for the future. And in that 10 years, I can tell you that there is one person who stands out in my mind as an icon of not only thought and philosophy but of action. And I have to say this in front of His Highness, that I don’t say this about everybody in the development business. He has truly done the most amazing job not only for the Ismaili community throughout the world, but really for all the communities that he serves.”


The following obituary and accompanying portrait photograph is reproduced with the permission of the Institute for Advanced Study where Mr. Wolfensohn had served as the chair of the Board. Please click James D. Wolfensohn to read the obituary at source, and to learn more about the work of the organization.

JDW portrait
James D. Wolfensohn (December 1, 1933 – November 25, 2020)

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.

Date posted: November 26, 2020.
Last updated: December 3, 2020 (typo).


To read James Wolfensohn’s tribute to His Highness the Aga Khan, please click The Aga Khan stands out as an icon of action

Featured photo at top of post: James Wolfensohn speaking on January 25, 2005 in Washington DC when the National Building Museum presented its sixth prestigious Vincent Scully Prize to His Highness the Aga Khan in recognition of his contributions to promoting design excellence and improving the built environment in the Muslim world.


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