Campus Superstar to honor Cohon, remember Kander

Campus Superstar to honor Cohon, remember Kander

Jared L. Cohon
Jared L. Cohon

Jared L. Cohon, president of Carnegie Mellon University, will be honored, and Ellen Weiss Kander remembered, at this year’s Campus Superstar.

The American Idol-like competition, which benefits The Edward and Rose Berman Hillel Jewish University Centerm features 10 students from Pittsburgh-area universities coached and directed by Jill Machen. Each student will perform a song of his or her choice in competing for a $5,000 prize at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland on Thursday, March 21.

Cohon, who has served as the president of CMU for 16 years, is being honored for his work as he prepares to leave office, particularly his efforts to make the school more diverse.

One of the university’s most recent steps to make it more welcoming is the establishment of The Pomegranate, a dining facility in the school’s student union offering kosher food that meets the dietary requirements of the vast majority of CMU’s observant Jews.

Cohon’s diversity initiatives date back to 1999 when he established the Diversity Advisory Council (DAC) to identify issues that CMU has with diversity and to craft strategies aimed at making progress on solving those issues. He has been the chair of the DAC throughout its entirety.

Through the DAC, Cohon established the Carnegie Mellon Leadership Academy, which helps to ensure that women and underrepresented minorities have the training and opportunities necessary to move into senior leadership positions at the university through various initiatives. In addition, science and technology programs at CMU are aimed at strengthening the diversity of the student body.

Under Cohon, CMU has become one of the country’s 10 most internationally diverse campuses.  About 35 percent of the students are from 115 different countries.

The Hillel JUC chose to honor the memory of Kander at this year’s event for her leadership and involvement in Pittsburgh’s Jewish and non-profit communities.

“Ellen was very passionate about helping talented young people strive for and achieve their dreams – hopefully in Pittsburgh.” Gregg Kander said of his late wife. “That is why she previously co-chaired the Campus Superstar event and co-founded a non-profit, Steeltown Entertainment, specifically for that purpose.” 

In 2003, Kander, along with her childhood friend, Maxine Lapiduss, a television producer, writer and comedian, and Karl Kurlander, a television writer, producer and screenwriter, founded the Steeltown Entertainment Project. The organization’s mission is to cultivate Pittsburgh’s homegrown talent and make Pittsburgh a premier location for movie production and a significant economic force in the region, much like steelmaking used to be. The Steeltown Entertainment Project gives The Ellen Weiss Kander Award, a $30,000 prize, to the region’s emerging filmmakers.

In addition to her leadership in Pittsburgh’s growing entertainment industry, Kander was active in the Jewish community.

“I have seen Ellen make such a difference in every Jewish programming event she touched, including Big Night, the JCC’s annual fundraiser and gala, JFilm [formerly the Jewish Israeli Film Festival], Community Day School, the Hebrew Free Loan Association, and the Wexner Leadership Program.“ said Greg Kander. “My kids could not have a better role model on how one person can make a difference.“

Outside of the Jewish community, Kander, who died in June 2012 after battling liver cancer for more than a year, also co-founded a website called Cancer Be Glammed It gives style advice and promotes fashionable clothing and accessories to women in the midst of cancer treatments.

Co-chairs of this year’s Campus Superstar are Linda Safyan Holber and Katie Whitlach.

“Ellen lit up every stage and brought so much love to everything,” said Ms. Safyan Holber, whose close friendship with Kander began on a trip to Israel more than 35 years ago. “She touched so many lives in countless ways. It is an honor to keep her light shining bright, especially in something as spectacular as Campus Superstar, but it is heartbreaking as well.”

Now in its seventh year, Campus Superstar is produced by the Hillel JUC and is the sole beneficiary of proceeds from the event. The Hillel JUC serves more than 5,500 18-29 year-olds in Pittsburgh’s university and young adult communities.

The ten Campus Superstar finalists were chosen from a group of 29 semi-finalists who auditioned at the Hillel JUC last month. Nearly 150 students participated in the initial try-out last fall. Six of the ten finalists are from CMU. The others attend Duquesne University, Point Park University and The University of Pittsburgh.

(Sam Lapin can be reached at