Leon Gordenker (1923-2020)

Professor Emeritus of Politics at Princeton University and the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Lee Gordenker died peacefully on 17 May 2020 in Middelburg, The Netherlands. His contribution as a founding member of ACUNS who helped get the fledging organization started in 1986 was linked to his deep interest in justice and global cooperation. He began his career as a journalist covering race riots in Detroit while a student at the University of Michigan and continued as a member of the UN’s Office of Public Information during the operation in Korea. He pursued an academic career after finishing his dissertation at Columbia University on the UN Secretary-General and the maintenance of peace. That became the first of numerous scholarly publications over the years, which also included such topics as the Secretariat, international development cooperation, international responses to refugees, international collaborations for the HIV/AIDS pandemic, non-governmental organizations, and many aspects of the UN system.

In the midst of the decline in academic interest in international organization, Lee Gordenker was the first chair of the ACUNS board; he joined other founders who sought to foster the career development of a new generation of teachers and scholars who would explore the broadening multilateral agenda. He spearheaded the early summer workshops, still meeting annually, and advocated the launch of the journal Global Governance, which was based on a memorandum that Gordenker had submitted to the leadership; he also compiled a retrospective evaluation of the first decade of ACUNS operation.

“Lee Gordenker was unpretentious, straightforward, and utterly genuine—three qualities that I have always particularly admired; he also had a wonderfully low-key, wry sense of humor. A relationship that began as one between a green graduate student and generous mentor, shortly and over half a century became a collegial and cherished friendship. No one contributed more to ACUNS. I am eternally grateful for the opportunity that began at Princeton in a 1970 seminar about the United Nations.”
–Thomas G. Weiss, former Chair, editor of Global Governance, and executive director

“Nearly two decades after adding Lee Gordenker’s name to my master’s thesis bibliography, I had the privilege of meeting this wise and kind man when I joined the ACUNS Board of Directors. His optimism and curiosity about people were compelling, and his wisdom came from a healthy respect for individual foibles. These qualities served ACUNS well at its founding and beyond. All of us will miss not only his clear intellect and pen, but the example he set to do our best and to be ever vigilant of our shortcomings.”
— Charlotte Ku, Texas A&M University School of Law, former Chair

“Old soldiers never die, they simply fade away: this aptly applies to professor Leon Gordenker, ACUNS founding father, colleague and long-time friend. At the generous reception in his beautiful Zeeland house on the occasion of The Hague annual meeting in 1994, Lee intimated to us his hope to live there for another decade, commuting between Princeton and Zeeland. Fortunately, his life could extend to approaching a century, leaving us a fantastic intellectual legacy, many inspiring fond memories, and sparks of hope and motivation.”
Nico Schrijver, Leiden University, former Chair

“Sharing an interest in informal processes of international cooperation, I and Roger Coate collaborated with Lee in a research project some 30 years ago on the early international response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Lee’s inside knowledge of the UN system and his personal contacts gave us unique access and insights. I came to greatly appreciate Lee’s unfailing curiosity, mastery of formulation and sense of humor. A few years ago, Lee and I were asked to revise a co-authored chapter for the second edition of The Oxford Handbook on the United Nations. Despite a generous deadline, Lee sent me his proposed revisions within weeks of accepting, explaining that ‘the deadline is far away still but not my 93rd birthday.’ He was a productive scholar to the very end. I am forever grateful to Lee for having introduced me to ACUNS and for letting me profit from his profound knowledge and loyal friendship.”
— Christer Jönsson, former Chair, professor emeritus

“Writing in the 1960s about the United Nations, its structure, functioning, achievements and shortcomings, Leon Gordenker was one of the handful of scholars who established International Organization as an important field of scholarly interest. The UN – this new, and poorly, understood entity – needed to be understood and evaluated. Such was the beginning of IO, and Lee Gordenker was one of those who laid its intellectual foundations. This has to be one of Gordenker’s most important scholarly contributions. As researcher and author, he skillfully probed into a great many aspects of the structure and functioning of the UN – the Secretary General, the Secretariat, peacekeeping, the role of NG0s, refugees, field operations, and the list goes on. In the 1960s as a graduate student and young professor I knew Gordenker through his writings, and only sometime later did I come to know Lee as colleague and friend. He had a powerful mind, yet a most cordial personality, a wry kind of humor and a deep reservoir of humanity. He was a splendid human being, and this is how I shall remember him.”
–Donald Puchala, former Chair, professor emeritus

“As an ACUNS founding member and our first Chair, Lee understood well the damage that ideological extremism and unbridled neo-nationalism/neo-conservatism could do and had done to multilateral relations and the UN system. The vision was to create a new generation of scholars and scholar practitioners to frame and guide our intellectual and policy understandings. Lee led the way with wisdom, clarity, and fastidity. Friend and invaluable colleague for over three decades, Leon Gordenker embodied what ACUNS is all about.”
–Roger Coate, ACUNS Chair, 2018–2021