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April 17, 2014

L. Jay Oliva, RIP

It is with great sadness that I report the passing today of L. Jay Oliva, who served as the 14th President of New York University, from 1991 through 2002, and whose tenure overlapped my years as a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Politics. But I knew Oliva for many years as author and editor of numerous works on Russian and European History. I had received my B.A. in economics, politics, and history with honors, and had many occasions to interact with him as I completed my undergraduate honors thesis in the Department of History. As a perennial student of the University, a recipient of an NYU BA (in the triple major), MA (in politics) and Ph.D. in political theory, philosophy, and methodology, I like Oliva simply bled violet, and he knew this. He was especially enthusiastic about the work I had planned and commenced in my post-doctoral years on Ayn Rand's early education during one of the most tumultuous times in Russian history, and expressed serious interest in the book that eventually became Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, whose first edition I inscribed to him as a gift. He had already given me gifts of support and encouragement that were incalculable. I knew him as a man with a remarkable sense of humor and a humane, hugely benvolent sense of life. I deeply mourn his passing.

Here's more on Oliva from Martin Lipton, Chair of the NYU Board of Trustees and John Sexton, current President of the University, in a memorandum sent to the friends and fellow members of the NYU community this evening:

We share with you this evening the sad news that L. Jay Oliva -- who served NYU for 42 years as faculty member, dean, vice president, chancellor, and president -- has died.
The NYU we know today -- the NYU that attracts the finest students from all over the world, that can go head-to-head to recruit scholars at the top of their fields, that sends more students to study abroad than any other, that is a member of the University Athletic Association -- would not have been possible without Jay Oliva. He was a key engineer of the transformation of NYU.
Jay sometimes referred to himself as the person who lowered the NYU flag for the last time at the University Heights campus in the Bronx. But where others would have seen only reason for discouragement, he saw opportunity. From that difficult and humbling moment, he emerged as one of the leaders of the generation of faculty, trustees, and administrators who charted a steady upward trajectory for NYU.
He knew our future lay in joining the top ranks of national research universities. Under his leadership, NYU began recruiting top scholars and building areas of academic strength. He oversaw the expansion of student housing that allowed us to welcome students from across the country and throughout the world. He parlayed the seemingly unlikely gift of an estate in Florence into the foundation of a new approach to global learning. He knew that NYU’s vision must be matched by resources, and during his presidency, NYU completed the first $1 billion fundraising campaign in higher education. He believed that athletics had an important role in a university setting, but that the ideal of the true student-athlete was too often not embraced; so he, along with a group of like-minded presidents intent on keeping academic life front and center, formed the University Athletic Association conference.
In short, he sensed when NYU's moment had arrived, and did everything possible to achieve and sustain that success. All the while, he made everyone -- students, faculty members, administrators, and staff -- feel a part of it.
With the reflexes and instincts of the long-time classroom teacher he was, he had a strong focus on students: he believed in high academic standards, and emphasized adhering to those standards in the students we admitted and graduated. Recognizing the diversity of ways in which NYU students succeed, he also cheered on our athletes -- he was a frequent presence at sporting events -- our performing artists -- in whose company he was an occasional presence on stage -- and our student community service volunteers -- with whom he worked on service projects.
Since retiring from the presidency, he has helped keep downtown a vibrant hub for culture through his leadership of the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, which has hosted not only NYU productions but performing artists from throughout the world.
He was a wise man, a good friend to both of us, a wonderful colleague, and, in many ways, our community’s first citizen. He spent his entire professional life at NYU, part of a generation that saw the University through some of its most profound challenges and went on to take it to unprecedented heights. NYU owes Jay Oliva a debt of gratitude that cannot be repaid.
His death came too soon and too suddenly. We grieve with his family today, and on behalf of the NYU community, offer them our deepest sympathies. He helped build a great institution, and he did so with love, devotion, and energy. It is hard to think of a way a life could be better spent. The greatest way to honor him is to carry on his work -- to strive each and every day to sustain the academic momentum he did so much to help initiate.

Amen.