Former CMU President Jared Cohon dies at 76
News obituaryPresident of CMU from 1997 to 2013

Former CMU President Jared Cohon dies at 76

“I’ve never known anyone who was as comfortable in his own skin as Jerry Cohon. Or in doing what he felt to be the right thing — no matter the consequences to him personally.”

Jared Leigh Cohon (Photo courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University)
Jared Leigh Cohon (Photo courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University)

Attorney Mary Jo Dively remembers how former Carnegie Mellon University President Jared L. “Jerry” Cohon, an influential academic and Pittsburgh Jew who died March 16, used to talk about legal matters.

“He typically started our frequent discussions about legal matters with one question: ‘What’s the right thing to do, Mary Jo?’ — not, the expedient thing, or the thing that would be least risky, but the right thing,” said Dively, who Cohon hired in 2002 and who today is the Oakland-based university’s vice president, general counsel and secretary of the corporation.

“For a lawyer, this was a dream client,” Dively said. “I’ve never known anyone who was as comfortable in his own skin as Jerry Cohon. Or in doing what he felt to be the right thing — no matter the consequences to him personally.”

Cohon, who served from 1997 to 2013 as CMU’s eighth president, died peacefully in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, with his wife by his side, his family said. He was 76.

Cohon’s tenure at CMU was transformational, as the university, which industrialist Andrew Carnegie endowed with $1 million and founded in November 1900, arguably became one of the world’s preeminent institutions of higher education.

Blossoming from 157 acres, part of which sits on the lip of Schenley Park, CMU went global under Cohon’s leadership, opening satellite campuses and programs in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

Cohon served on the Atomic Energy Commission, the Homeland Security Council, the Carnegie Foundation, the American Association of Universities board and on multiple national and international corporate boards, CMU officials said in an obituary.

Cohon was a distinguished member of the National Academy of Engineering.

But Cohon’s eyes always faced Pittsburgh, those who worked with him said.

CMU President Farnam Jahanian called Cohon a mensch and stressed his death is “a devastating loss for the CMU community, for Pittsburgh and for the nation” in an email sent to students on March 16.

“His brilliant mind, unyielding energy and unimpeachable integrity have made our institution — and our society — better in innumerable ways,” Jahanian said.

“For all of us grieving this loss, let us find solace in the realization that President Emeritus Jerry Cohon’s extraordinary legacy is already inextricably threaded throughout our institution and will continue to be so for generations to come,” he added.

Cohon was born on Oct. 7, 1947, in the Cleveland suburb of Beachwood, Ohio, to Delbert and Ruth Cohon.

When Cohon was a 7-year-old second grader, he met the love of his life, Maureen “Bunny” Cohon. “Bunny” and Jerry met on a field trip to see the Cleveland Philharmonic Orchestra, when Cohon helped her with her coat.

Cohon was a drummer in his Ohio high school and played defensive lineman on the school’s football team, said Rabbi Daniel Fellman in a March 19 eulogy at Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill.

Cohon left Ohio and pursued an undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania, which he received in 1969, and a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1973. Both degrees were in civil engineering.

After joining the Johns Hopkins University faculty, Cohon climbed the ranks to become vice provost for research.

While at Johns Hopkins, Cohon also played in a faculty-driven rock band; Cohon — on drums — went by the name “Clive-us Jive-us” in the band The New Crusty Nostrils, Fellman said.

He later served as dean of Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies before relocating to Pittsburgh to take CMU’s top job in 1997.

“Jerry possessed extraordinary gifts,” Fellman said. “A brilliant mind, a gifted engineer, a loved teacher, an effective leader, a visionary, a loving husband and father and grandfather. And maybe most of all, a holy ability to share with others, to connect with others, to create with others.”
After retiring from the presidency in 2013, Cohon continued to serve on the school’s faculty. But, his 16 years at the helm of CMU constitute the second-longest tenure of any president in the university’s 124-year history. (The late Richard Cyert served 18 years, from 1972 to 1990.)

Rabbi James Gibson, Temple Sinai’s spiritual leader from 1988 to 2020, met Cohon some 20 years ago.

He married Cohon’s daughter, Hallie, to Joshua Donner, and named Nathan and Solomon, the couple’s children.

“[Cohon] didn’t regularly attend synagogue, but he had an incredibly Jewish heart,” Gibson told the Chronicle.

Jewish values informed Cohon’s takes on fairness and equity in his work, Gibson, said, adding that “he never failed to look at the individual in front of him.”

Gibson said Cohon “was delighted to be part of CMU” but didn’t brag about the influence he had in the CMU role in shaping Pittsburgh and its economy.

“He was so self-effacing, he never gave himself much credit,” Gibson said. “He was a truly engaging man.”

He also was quite persuasive, Dively, the CMU attorney, said.

She remembered going to meet Cohon to talk about the position. The two had not met before.

“A friend who did know him called me and said, ‘Don’t take the meeting if you’re not sure you want the job, because Jerry Cohon is the most persuasive man on the planet,’” Dively said.

“And, it turned out that he was,” she added. “Not in some obvious, hard-sell kind of way, but rather by listening deeply, and asking a few questions which just seemed to unlock for you exactly what you should do.”

“Jerry Cohon’s life came to an end far too soon,” Fellman said in his Temple Sinai eulogy. “One who had done so much for others deserved to enjoy and celebrate more. Jerry leaves us a beautiful and rich legacy — a life lived helping others, encouraging others, always striving for what is best for everyone.”

“Jerry lived the motto of CMU as fully as anyone could: ‘My heart is in the work.’”

Cohon is survived by his daughter, Hallie; grandsons Nathan and Solomon; and sisters Cindy Lowenkamp and Shelia Nathanson. PJC

Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.

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