Mr James Wolfensohn KBE AO, BA Syd. MA Harv. PhD Syd. PhD UNSW – or Jim, as he was known – was born on 1 December 1933 in Sydney. He attended Sydney Boys High School and enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws (LLB) at the University of Sydney in 1950, aged 16.
Upon graduating in 1957, Mr Wolfensohn interned as a lawyer at Allen, Allen & Hemsley before moving to the USA and undertaking a Master of Business Administration at Harvard University. He became a naturalised citizen of the US in 1980, and in 1995, was nominated by President Bill Clinton for the presidency of the World Bank, which he undertook for two terms, until 2005.
Having grown up in financial insecurity and then worked travelling the world, he was acutely aware of the inequalities that existed socially and economically. He wrote of his global travels, “the inequity was so striking that I could hardly absorb what was in front of me. I had known what to expect intellectually, but, the reality was a shock. It left an indelible mark that would influence my later life.” The James Wolfensohn Travelling Scholarship was established in his name in 1997 at the University of Sydney to allow future generations of students to experience this same awareness through travel, with an emphasis on personal development.
During his decade as the ninth World Bank president, Mr Wolfensohn earned a reputation as a ‘banker to the world’s poor’ through his focus on poverty alleviation and a reconsideration of development financing. The World Bank became one of the largest funders of global primary education and health programs including HIV/AIDS. He also implemented advanced debt release programs for many African and Latin American countries. Mr Wolfensohn was awarded as an honorary officer of the Order of Australia for distinguished service of a high degree to Australia or humanity at large.
While at the University, Mr Wolfensohn was elected to the University of Sydney Union board and joined the fencing team. He went on to compete in the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games and remained an active member of the Olympic community for life. One of the initiatives he spearheaded was a collaboration with International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch, that saw Olympians travel to refugee camps to demonstrate the value of sport to those that are displaced.
The Sydney University Graduate Union of North America (SUGUNA) was founded in 1990 by William Lew, Warwick Harvey-Smith and Clifford Kwan-Gett for University of Sydney graduates living in the United States and has been holding annual conferences since 1991. Mr Wolfensohn was an active member and beneficiary of SUGUNA, with the James D Wolfensohn Award being given annually in his honour since 1993. This prestigious award of a sterling silver plate is presented to a graduate of the University of Sydney who is a resident in Canada, the USA, or Mexico, and who has made a significant contribution for the betterment of society generally or to his or her profession or business (including academia).
From 2006, Mr Wolfensohn was an Honorary Trustee of the University of Sydney USA Foundation, which is a non-profit organisation established in 1994 and aims to promote, encourage and provide financial support for research and education in the USA and Australia.
Mr Wolfensohn was also an avid and committed philanthropist throughout his life. He founded the Wolfensohn Center for Development at the Brookings Institution, a think-tank which aims to solve global problems such as sustainable development, youth exclusion in the Middle East and anti-poverty programs on a global scale. As a result of his efforts in this area, he was awarded the Leo Baeck Medal for humanitarian work promoting tolerance and social justice.
His greatest love was the arts. Mr Wolfensohn grew up loving symphonies and participating in operettas at school. Later in life, he learned to play the cello from world-renowned cellist Jacqueline Du Pre, and performed at Carnegie Hall on his 50th, 60th and 70th birthdays, including performances alongside YoYo Ma and Bono. He continued this love through multiple chairmanships, including for the Kennedy Center of the Performing Arts and Carnegie Hall, to which he donated $60 million for a rebuild. He was awarded an honorary knighthood of the Order of the British Empire in 1995 for service to the arts, and the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy in 2017.
Mr Wolfensohn was awarded the Degree of Doctor of Science in Economics, honoris causa in 1997 by the University of Sydney. He died in Manhattan on 25 November 2020, aged 86, just three months after the death of his wife Elaine.