Salzburg Global Seminar Mourns the Passing of Olin C. Robison

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Oct 31, 2018
by Salzburg Global Seminar
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Salzburg Global Seminar Mourns the Passing of Olin C. Robison

Seventh president of Salzburg Global Seminar (1991-2005), friend, and supporter Olin C. Robison pictured in the Meierhof Café in 2003

Olin C. Robison, seventh president and chief executive officer of Salzburg Global Seminar, died on October 22 at the age of 82. Surrounded by family, he succumbed following a long illness.  

Robison’s presidency, 1991 – 2005, saw the Salzburg Seminar accelerate its transition from a Trans-Atlantic institution defined by the Cold War to one global in outlook, reach, and impact. He placed a particular emphasis on programs that emphasized education’s role in social and economic development and that cut across sectors.

“Olin was a unique and important president in the history of Salzburg Global Seminar,” said Benjamin Glahn, who joined Salzburg Global as an intern under Robison and since 2015 has served as Vice President for Development and Operations with the organization. “During a period of unprecedented transition, from 1991 to 2005, he brought a combination of university leadership, foreign policy experience, and a keen understanding of the role of higher education and university partnerships in expanding international collaboration and achieving more just, democratic and open societies. Olin’s legacy continues to be felt by all of us at Salzburg Global Seminar, and he will be missed by the whole Salzburg family.”

Higher education focus

Olin (as he was known to colleagues and friends alike) came to the organization from the presidency of Middlebury College in Vermont and was determined to leverage his experience in higher education and international connections. With his encouragement and stewardship, Salzburg Seminar launched a series of higher education partnerships involving leading universities across the world. These programs included the Universities Project, the Visiting Advisors Program, and the Russian Higher Education Program.

The Universities Project attracted support from the Hewlett Foundation and worked with more than 60 universities to drive educational reform in dozens of countries in Central and Eastern Europe as well as the Russian Federation. The Visiting Advisors Program, developed in parallel and supported by the Carnegie Corporation, offered strategic and practical on-site consultations on subjects from curriculum reform to financial management and governance.

In 2003, Robison initiated the Russian Higher Education Program. In cooperation with the Russian Ministry of Education, the Seminar became a trusted purveyor of knowledge and best practices among university leaders in Russia, Europe, and the United States. These undertakings capitalized on Robison’s insights and relationships gained in establishing the American Collegiate Consortium for East-West Cultural and Academic Exchange (1987), which pioneered in bringing Soviet undergraduates to study in the United States. He also drew on his experience as a personal representative for Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in negotiations with Moscow.

Prior to his Salzburg and Middlebury presidencies, Robison served as Dean of the Faculty and Provost at Bowdoin College, and before that was for two years associate provost at Wesleyan University. Early in his career, he gained government experience, moving to Washington in 1964 to join President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration as director of university relations for the Peace Corps and then serving as a special assistant to the deputy undersecretary at the State Department.

Robison believed education was a great equalizer in democracy - a belief instilled in him through academic studies at Baylor University, Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary, and Oxford University. In addition, he saw the need to instill in individuals a sense of ethical leadership and citizenship. Great emphasis was placed on these values and related leadership skills in Salzburg programs such as the Kellogg Global Leadership Program and later, the Global Citizenship Program developed with his support.  

Salzburg Global’s relationship with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation was particularly impressive, training and inspiring hundreds of rising leaders in Latin America, Africa, and other regions. In 1995, Kellogg awarded Salzburg Seminar $10 million for its endowment, the largest grant ever received by the institution and more than doubling its permanent endowment fund.  

Global expansion

Through the 1990s the organization’s global expansion continued apace, with participation by East Asians increasing especially rapidly. Between 1998 and 2012, Salzburg Global hosted 15 annual Freeman Foundation Symposia to advance high-level exchange on issues of mutual relevance to younger East Asian and American academics.  

Participation from the Latin American region and attention to environmental issues was boosted through an ambitious partnership with EARTH University. Focused on Sustainability, Education, and Management of Change in the Tropics, this partnership established EARTH as a leader in understanding problems facing the tropics, and as a pioneer in educating a new generation of creative environmental change makers.

Inheriting a historic campus badly in need of physical renewal, Robison rallied support for preserving the Salzburg Global’s home of Schloss Leopoldskron. Of particular note was his role in assembling a large package of loans from the Austrian government to save the Meierhof building, which was sinking into the swamp on which it had been constructed 300 years earlier.

Robison oversaw the organization’s 50th-anniversary celebrations in 1997, which included appearances by two of the organization’s three founders and the publication of anniversary chronicle, The Salzburg Seminar: The First Fifty Years. In a letter introducing the book he wrote:  

At the heart of these diverse activities [in Salzburg] … is a common goal that has remained constant in the course of the last half century: to facilitate dialogue among future leaders from around the world in the conviction that individuals can make a difference in their institutions, their communities, and their societies.”

This belief guided the organization then and does so to this day.

Robison is survived by three sons and two daughters-in-law: Gordon, a journalist with Al Jazeera English based in Doha, Qatar; Blake (Connan), artistic director of Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park; and Mark (Elizabeth) a professor of Clinical Education and History at the University of Southern California; as well as five grandchildren, a great-grandson, and his sister, Sandra Nabours (Bob).

A celebration of Robison’s life will take place in Middlebury, VT, at a date to be announced. In place of flowers, memorial gifts can be made to the Project on Religion and Public Policy at the Centre for Christianity and Culture at Regent’s Park College, Oxford University.

TRIBUTES AND OBITUARIES

If you would like to share a memory of Olin or provide a tribute, please leave a comment below or email fellowship@salzburgglobal.org

Tim and Mary-Louise Ryback

Tim previously served as the resident director and vice president of Salzburg Global Seminar. Mary-Louise previously served as a program director for the Holocaust Education and Genocide Initiative in 2012.

“We had the privilege of knowing Olin during his entire tenure as president and experienced first-hand the remarkable transformation the Seminar underwent in those years - from the renovations of the Schloss and Meierhof to the true globalization of the program, reaching beyond Europe and the United States into Africa, Asia, and South America.

“But even as Olin extended and deepened the Seminar’s global reach, he never lost sight of the essential humanity that lies at the heart of this great institution. Let one incident speak to this. In the 1990s, Prince Charles visited the Schloss as part of a special session co-sponsored by the Prince of Wales’s Business and Environment Program at Cambridge University. Amid all the formalities attendant to a royal visit, Olin made certain that the entire Seminar team had an opportunity to meet Prince Charles personally – an event memorably preserved in a photograph taken on the lakeside terrace of the Schloss.

“There are, of course, countless achievements that can be noted during Olin’s presidency, but what we hold most dearly in our memories is his deep humanity and commitment to an egalitarian ethic that made every member of the staff feel a part of the Seminar family.”

Marty Gecek

Marty is the symposium director of the Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association

"While Olin was President, the Seminar received a large grant from the United States Information Agency (USIA) to create the American Studies Center. Between 1994 and 2003 we organized thirty-two American Studies sessions, all with the full support and encouragement from Olin."

The Oxford Mail

OBITUARY: Dr Olin Robison of Oxford University's Regent's Park College