Remembering Ari Zolberg

On September 19, 2013, Jonathan  and others gathered at The New School to pay tribute to the life and career of Ari Zolberg. These are Jonathan’s remarks.

September 19, 2013

Aristide Zolberg


The last conversation I had with Ary was about the draft of his memoir, which was an affirmation of the Living Spirit.  Ary’s personal history resonated with the values and intellectual heritage of the University in Exile.

As I read the moving and inspiring story of his journey from statelessness to his thirty year commitment to the New School for Social Research, I understood more fully what he has meant to us.

Ira Katznelson and I faced a daunting challenge when we arrived at the New School in 1982.  The State had suspended the PhD programs in several departments, and the very existence of the Graduate Faculty was at risk.

We knew dramatic action was needed to signal the New School’s ability and commitment to rebuild.  The recruitment of Ary Zolberg from Chicago was a hire heard around the world:  The New School could attract stellar scholars and teachers like Ary and Vera Zolberg.  Confidence grew, morale lifted, financial support flowed from trustees.   And others followed Ary and Vera, Charles and Louise Tilly, Richard Bernstein, Agnes Heller, Eric Hobsbawm and more.

Our first appointment made a statement about the future:   We were not building a conventional social science faculty, but rather were drawing on the Graduate Faculty’s European roots which honored history and philosophy, transcended disciplinary boundaries, and sought deeper understanding.  Ary put it well in his article “Notes from an Intruder:”

“I am persuaded that our most valuable contributions consist of elucidating “patterns;” that is, dynamics of certain situations under certain historical circumstances.  My overall objective is to promote the understanding of socio-political configurations as unique, but not accidental.”

Ary came to embody the history and future of the Graduate Faculty.  In 1984, we journeyed to Berlin to mark the 50th Anniversary of the University in Exile.  The City of Berlin made an endowment gift to establish a University in Exile Professorship.   As I accepted the gift, I said:

“A university is a community of thinking, study, discourse and collaboration which rises above disciplines, methods, languages and nationalities.  The University in Exile reminds us that we are all part of that greater community, of one university.  It can be removed from one locale to exile in another, but it can never be exiled from our hearts and minds.”

There was no question Ary Zolberg should be the first incumbent of the new University in Exile Professorship.  No one reflected those values better than he.

But he was also emblematic of the future of the New School, determined to make social science scholarship useful to understanding and addressing contemporary problems.  He took on big issues, tough ethical problems, analyzing them deeply, but with an eye to practical solutions.  Ary’s Center for Migration, Ethnicity and Citizenship was a model for the new Graduate Faculty.  It placed immigration in global perspective, focused on both movement and incorporation into new societies, and looked at the positive outcomes of migration.

In this as in many topics, Ary Zolberg was my mentor.  Lessons learned from Ary made me a better President of the MacArthur Foundation, where I started a program on migration and mobility to address questions raised at Ary’s Center.  And his deep understanding of West Africa guided my work in Nigeria.  His own pioneering initiative to strengthen African universities like Makerere in Uganda was a model for MacArthur’s commitment to the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa.

So I owe a double debt to Ary Zolberg, who enriched my work at both the New School and MacArthur.  But we were more than professional colleagues.  We were friends.  I enjoyed our travels through Europe, his warm and wonderful humor, his kindness and respect for people of diverse backgrounds, his compassion and caring, and his belief that working together we could build a more just and humane world at peace.

I close with a reflection from William Sloane Coffin.  “The only way to have a good death is to lead a good life.  Lead a good one full of curiosity, generosity and compassion, and there is no need at the close of the day to rage against the dying of the light.  We can go gently into that good night.”

Ary lived a good life and has gone gently into that good night.  Rest well, our loquacious Penguin.

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