CEU Mourns Death of Yehuda Elkana

September 24, 2012

Yehuda Elkana, the third President and Rector of Central European University (1999-2009), died in Jerusalem on September 21, 2012, after a battle with cancer bravely borne. He was 78. Elkana was an Auschwitz survivor who became an international scholar and public intellectual with a deep commitment to open society.

Yehuda Elkana was an academic pioneer, leading CEU for nearly half the life of the University. During his stewardship, CEU grew in size, stature, and intellectual scope, and was transformed from a regional experiment in post-Communist education into a major graduate institution of the social sciences and humanities. By 2009 CEU had emerged as a research-intensive institution with global reach. "We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Yehuda for leading CEU through a decade of intellectual transformation that set the stage for the University to become the unique and dynamic institution that it is today," said John Shattuck, CEU's current President and Rector. 

Elkana's central accomplishments at CEU included developing the University into a major center of intellectual life in Central and Eastern Europe, educating thousands of students from the region and beyond to contribute to the building of open societies and establishing CEU as a strong academic institution with a unique mission and a commitment to innovative teaching and cutting-edge research. “Yehuda Elkana achieved a great deal during his tenure,” said CEU Founder and Honorary Chairman of the Board George Soros,” reformulating the University and its mission for the challenges of the 21st century and leaving CEU fully and uniquely equipped to engage with the social and economic challenges of our time. I want to express my deepest appreciation for all he accomplished. I admire the courage with which he faced his illness and, eventually, his death.”

During Elkana’s 10-year tenure, various departments, interdisciplinary programs, and research centers were started, including the departments of Mathematics and of Sociology and Social Anthropology and the centers of Network Science, Cognitive Science, Policy Studies, and EU Enlargement Studies. CEU's intellectual focus and the scope of its recruitment were widened dramatically under his leadership, as students and faculty began to arrive from across Europe, Central Asia, North America, and—increasingly—around the globe. CEU's unique status as an American, Hungarian, and European university is the result of successful initiatives undertaken by Elkana to obtain accreditation for the University from the U.S. Middle States Commission for Higher Education as well as from the Hungarian Higher Education and Science Committee, with the approval and support of the Hungarian Accreditation Committee. The latter accreditation opened the door for CEU to be recognized officially by the European Union and the European Commission as a European university. It also made CEU eligible for EU competitive research funding and student scholarship support. Elkana was also able to institute a system of long-range financial and academic planning as a result of the generous endowment established during his tenure by founder George Soros.

“Yehuda Elkana pursued, with relentless integrity and energy, the idea that life of the mind holds the key to human dignity,” said Leon Botstein, CEU Chairman of the Board of Trustees. “CEU was shaped in its formative years by his commitment to excellence in inquiry and scholarship, his love of the arts, and his profound belief, rooted in his own survival from the cruelty and barbarism of the Holocaust, that by realizing the promise inherent in the modern university, freedom and justice can be realized in modern times. He was a charismatic teacher and leader. CEU owes a deep debt of gratitude to Yehuda Elkana. During his tenure as President and Rector the University began truly to fulfill its unique mission—the integration of theory and practice. We will miss him as a friend and colleague. The Board of Trustees extends its deepest condolences to his family.”

During his academic career, Elkana was a distinguished historian and philosopher of science who taught at Harvard University and served as a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University (1973-1974) and a Visiting Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford (1977-1978). He served as Director of both the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute (1968-1993) and the Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas, Tel Aviv University (1981-1991). From 1995 to 1999 he was professor of Theory of Science at ETH Zurich. He was a Fellow Emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, Berlin (Wissenschaftskolleg, Berlin). Elkana was also a corresponding member of the International Academy for the History of Science and, beginning in 1997, a member of the Science Board of Advisors of the Collegium Helveticum in Zurich. He was co-founder and editor of the scientific journal Science in Context and author of the book Essays on the Cognitive and Political Organization of Science (1994).  

After leaving CEU in 2009, Elkana went on to oversee a program that began work on a global initiative to reform undergraduate university curricula in order to tackle the problems he had outlined in earlier public discussions. The initiative resulted in the establishment of the Curriculum Reform Forum (2009-2010). Elkana also co-authored The University in the 21st Century: Teaching at the Dawn of the Digital Age with Hannes Klopper (2011).  

In early 2012, Yehuda Elkana received an honorary doctorate from Central European University in a ceremony that highlighted his research work on the topic of universities in the 21st century. In his written body of work he leaves behind a legacy of powerful ideas that many will continue to contemplate and, as he had encouraged, contest in years to come.

He is mourned by his family, his innumerable colleagues and friends around the world, and by the University that he steered in the crucial years of his leadership.