Photo credit: The New School Archives Digital Collections
One of the great honors of my life was to be named the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology in May of 1999. At the time, I was very pleased because it recognized the value of my scholarship, teaching and service to the New School and the broader public. But I did not then realize that the promotion would take on a more personal significance as I embarked on a personal relationship with an extraordinary man.
Michael E. Gellert was born in Prague. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1938, and was educated at Harvard and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He became a very successful businessman, and a leading, generous, member of The New School’s Board of Trustees. Gellert was one of an incredible group of New School supporters that included Walter Eberstadt and Henry Arnhold, all refugees from Nazi Europe, and brought together by then-president Jonathan Fanton.
Michael donated generously to The New School, including major gifts toward the construction of the new University Center and, of course, endowing the named professorship held by Alan Wolfe and Louse Tilly held before me. The history of this distinctive university, the legacies of its founding in 1919 and its creation of the University in Exile, and its Mannes School (lover of music that he was), made it a special place for Michael. In more recent years, as our friendship and working relationship developed, he also was a major supporter of Public Seminar, The Democracy Seminar and the activities at The Transregional Center for Democratic Studies. Without Michael’s support, the many public engagement projects I have developed over the past three decades around the world would not have been possible.
As the years passed, we became closer, initially not because of Michael’s generosity, but because we had a great deal to talk about. Initially, our discussions were about his native land, Czechoslovakia, and its neighbors, but also about The New School’s evolution as an institution.
Michael was an astute analyst and investor in institutions. We shared a vision: that for what was then called the Graduate Faculty of the Social and Political Sciences (now The New School for Social Research) to survive, it needed to develop a closer working relationship with our undergraduate liberal arts division, Eugene Lang College. I committed myself to this vision, even becoming for a time an Acting Associate Provost for the Liberal Arts, working with President Fanton. During this time, I often sought Michael’s advice.
Subsequently, we started talking about my adventures in publishing. Michael was intrigued by and generously supported Public Seminar, understanding its potential political and cultural significance as a vehicle for getting scholarly ideas to a general audience. He also supported the Democracy Seminar, as a global network of scholars imagining the democracies they wished to live and work in.
These conversations benefitted from informality and wide-ranging debates that Michael loved. During his tenure as president, Fanton organized weekly dinners in his house to discuss pressing problems of the day and the enduring challenges of higher education, the arts, design and the sciences. These discussions, among board members, journalists, and professors, were passionate and informed. In the late 1980s and the early ‘90s, a frequent topic was the democratic promise and transformations in Central Europe. The faculty present were expected to say something smart, to ask a crucial question, to make a wise comment. We were charged to be talk provokers, civilizing differences of opinion, and subverting too easy commonsense. The group generally included colleagues who also were expert in that part of the world; Elżbieta Matynia, Andrew Arato, Jose Casanova were regulars.
We all learned a lot, enjoyed listening and talking, as we made our points and learned from the guests. Michael distinguished himself by the way he listened, and then on rare occasions, asked telling questions, quietly, and compactly formulated. He revealed a sharp intelligence, combining a genuine desire to learn something with his own deep commitments to democracy, social justice, and cultural excellence.
The most characteristic, and least well known, gifts Michael made to the New School emerged from these discussions. For example, Jan Urban, a leading Czech public intellectual and journalist, and brave democratic oppositionist during the Communist period in Czechoslovakia, was the guest one evening. He impressed Michael. And when he realized that Jan needed some distance from the extreme pressures of the post-communist transition, Michael funded a year’s sabbatical for Jan at The New School.
There were many others who benefited from similar, unobtrusive, gifts. At one point, at the suggestion of Vaclav Havel’s brother, Ivan, Michael was introduced to a series of promising young scholars from Czechoslovakia. They had played a crucial role in the Velvet Revolution, and Michael funded their time at The New School too. Two such students studied with me and are now distinguished scholars, Radim Marada at Masaryk University in Brno, and Hana Cervinkova, who has held posts in the Czech Republic, Poland and now Ireland.
Michael didn’t just give money, he launched relationships, mentoring these students, both while they were at the New School and after. And over the years, our friendship deepened as well. Michael and I met in his office over coffee, at the Harvard Club, in his apartment in the city and at his home in Greenwich, Connecticut. We mostly talked shop, but we also discussed the state of the world and our families. It was clear how important Michael’s family was to him.
Michael E. Gellert was a remarkably well educated and creative investor, citizen, and person, in a cosmopolitan, very Central European, fashion. He was a man with special qualities of a kind that is now passing. The last few years have been difficult for him as illness made it ever harder for this already quiet man to talk and navigate the world. But we still managed to have wonderful lunches together. He still listened with wise understanding and revealed this not just in his words, but when words failed, in his facial gestures and his smiling eyes.
Because listening, as Michael Gellert knew, is the most democratic of activities.
Jeffrey C. Goldfarb is the Founding Editor of Public Seminar, Senior Fellow at the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies, and chair of the Democracy Seminar