In Conversation with Elizabeth McCormack

On March 12, 2014, Jonathan sat down with Elizabeth McCormack to discuss her long career as both an academic administrator and as philanthropic adviser to the Rockefeller family. The conversation lasts 55 minutes, followed by a Q&A session with members of the audience. Video of the event can be viewed here.

Elizabeth McCormack

March 12, 2014

Good evening.  I am Jonathan Fanton, Interim Director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute and it is my pleasure to welcome you to a very special evening.  Many of you have been here before to enjoy book discussions like Jeffery Sachs’ To Move the World or to hear world leaders like UNDP head Helen Clark.  And next week we encourage you to attend our conference on “John Lindsay, New York, and the American Dream,” a fresh look at lessons from his time as Mayor.

But tonight is different.  I have long wanted to have a series of conversations with the most interesting people I know personally.  Ed Koch was my first guest, followed by former MoMa President Agnes Gund, James Lipton of Inside the Actor’s Studio, Vartan Gregorian of the Carnegie Foundation, Judy Collins, and most recently, Joseph Califano.

My guest tonight is my good friend and mentor Elizabeth McCormack.  We first met when she was working for John D. Rockefeller and I for Yale President Kingman Brewster.   As our two bosses talked about establishing a center at Yale for the study of the not-for-profit sector, Elizabeth and I chatted in her office in Room 5600 at 30 Rock.  We clicked immediately; the chemistry was magic.  And years later when I returned to New York as President of the New School, she tutored me on the art of being a college President.

Fast forward 17 years when she was on the search committee for a new President of the MacArthur Foundation.  She was my advocate.  No surprise I was offered the job.  For nearly four decades she has been my most trusted advisor.  I never consider an important move without seeking her advice.  And we continue to make common cause on the Board of the Asian Cultural Council.  Together with my wife Cynthia, and Elizabeth’s late husband Jerry Aron, we have had a wonderful and deep friendship.

She earned her B.A. at Manhattanville College and a Ph.D in philosophy at Fordham.  In her senior year at Manhattanville, Elizabeth joined the Order of the Sacred Heart and soon began teaching at its schools, Kenwood in Albany and later in Greenwich.  In 1962, she became Dean at Manhattanville.  Appointed President in 1966, she led its transformation from an elite Catholic women’s institution into a non-denominational co-ed college.  After Manhattanville, she became Director of the Rockefeller Philanthropy offices and remains a philanthropic advisor to members of the family.

She has had about as active of a civic life as anyone I know.  She chaired the Asian Cultural Council for 20 years; was vice chair of the MacArthur Board; a key member of the Board of the Atlantic Philanthropies; a member of the  boards of Manhattanville, Spellman, Marlboro and Hamilton Colleges, as well as the Juilliard School.  She has also been on the boards of the Population Council, The Trust for Mutual Understanding, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and recently she started the Partnership for Palliative Care which is her current major interest.

Bill Moyers described her life beautifully when he said, Elizabeth McCormack “reminds us of the things that last, that transcend the tumult of the hour and the news of the day.  Her life is about connections and continuities between past and present, between now and future, between the natural world and the world we make together.”

Those qualities I saw close up at the MacArthur Foundation where she has the surest instinct for philanthropy, a laser insight into people, an ability to visualize a grant strategy in fields like population, conservation and education.

I said this at the conclusion of her term at MacArthur:

“She loves to build institutions, strengthen their governance, clarify their purpose, improve their quality and extend their influence in pursuit of a more just and humane world at peace.  We have benefitted from her deep experience in how things really work.  Her impatience with fuzzy thinking have lifted our standards, saved us from not a few mis-steps and made this a better foundation.”

Elizabeth and I will have a conversation for 40 minutes or so, then open up to your questions and end about 7:15.  Please welcome Elizabeth McCormack.