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Jared Cohon

Remembering Jared Cohon: A Transformative Leader at Carnegie Mellon University

Media Inquiries
Peter Kerwin
University Communications & Marketing

by Stacey Federoff(opens in new window) and Michael Henninger(opens in new window) 

Jared Cohon, the eighth president of Carnegie Mellon University who guided the university’s expansion toward national and international excellence, died peacefully on March 16. 

During his tenure from 1997-2013(opens in new window), Carnegie Mellon grew into one of the world’s leading institutions of higher learning. But Cohon’s legacy extends beyond the development of CMU and its effect on the Pittsburgh region — Cohon is remembered as a genuine person who left his mark on all who crossed his path.

"This is a devastating loss for the CMU community, for Pittsburgh and for the nation. Jerry was widely respected and immensely beloved, and his leadership and scholarship have shaped the trajectories of an untold number of Tartans over the years,” said Carnegie Mellon President Farnam Jahanian(opens in new window). "His brilliant mind, unyielding energy and unimpeachable integrity have made our institution — and our society — better in innumerable ways."

Jared Cohon in Baker/Porter Hall.

Cohon continued his impact at Carnegie Mellon even after his time as president, serving as a University Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering and Engineering and Public Policy and director of the Wilton E. Scott Institute for Energy Innovation(opens in new window) from 2014-2017.

Considered a national authority on environmental and water resource systems analysis, Cohon was a distinguished member of the National Academy of Engineering. Throughout his career he served on several government boards including the Atomic Energy Commission and Homeland Security Advisory Council as well as on a number of corporate and nonprofit boards, including the Carnegie Foundation and the American Association of Universities, which he at one time led as chair.

"I am so very sorry to learn of Jerry’s passing," said Barbara Snyder, current president of the organization representing research universities. "He was very kind to a brand new president from Case Western Reserve in 2007, when I attended my first AAU meeting. He was an outstanding leader of AAU during his time as our board chair which began in late 2010. It was a privilege to know him, and I count myself among the many leaders who benefitted from his exceptional leadership."

Erroll B. Davis, chair of CMU’s Board of Trustees from 2000-2004, recalled becoming a new chair early in Cohon’s presidency.

"He had not been a president of a major institution and I had never been the board chair of one either. We learned together. We grew together and we laughed together. It was a period that I shall never forget," Davis said. "Most people die twice — once when they physically expire and a second time when they are forgotten. Rest assured that Jerry Cohon will never, ever be forgotten."

Cohon at the Fence.

In March of 2013, student leaders honored Cohon by painting the Fence.

"Incredible things have happened to me in my career, in my life," Cohon said in a 2008 Carnegie Mellon lecture(opens in new window) he titled "The Accidental President." When asking himself why he fit well as the president of the university, he realized his own values mirrored CMU’s interdisciplinary attitude and the search for practical solutions to otherwise daunting problems.

"That’s in my blood the same way it’s in Carnegie Mellon’s DNA," he said. "When opportunities arise, we jump at them; when the phone rings, we’re ready to say yes."

Education for Leadership

Born on Oct. 7, 1947, in Beachwood, Ohio, Cohon earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1969 and a doctoral degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1973, both in civil engineering. Later that year, he joined the faculty at Johns Hopkins University, where he went on to become assistant and associate dean of engineering and vice provost for research. From 1992 to 1997, Cohon served as dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University, before being selected for the presidency of Carnegie Mellon.

As the university’s eighth president, Cohon balanced organizational goals with economic reality. He navigated Carnegie Mellon through a challenging period of financial pressure, focused on six strategic priorities — education for leadership, globalization, research, community and regional success, financial strength, and public perception — while continuing to look to the future. 

A significant number of new academic units were established at CMU during Cohon’s presidency. These included the Machine Learning Department(opens in new window), the Language Technologies Institute(opens in new window), the Ray and Stefanie Lane Computational Biology Department(opens in new window), the Department of Biomedical Engineering(opens in new window), the Entertainment Technology Center(opens in new window) and the Integrative Design, Arts, and Technology network(opens in new window) (IDeATe). As noted by Mark Kamlet, provost and executive vice president during Cohon’s presidency, these new academic units were forward looking, seeking solutions to real-world problems in an interdisciplinary setting. "Each of these new academic units represented important ‘big bets,’ and a number of them have come to represent signature strengths of the university," Kamlet said. 

Jared Cohon

Charles J. Queenan Jr., chair of CMU’s Board of Trustees from 1997-2000 who recruited Cohon to the university, observed, "What set Jerry apart from others was his ability to listen. He would focus his attention on you completely, and then ask a few follow up nonthreatening questions which demonstrated that he had really heard what you had to say. As a result, the course of conduct became self-evident. This is a quality that is remarked upon time and again by those who interacted with him."

David S. Shapira, emeritus trustee and chair of the Board of Trustees from 2004-2009, reflected on Cohon’s style of leadership by recounting Cohon’s efforts to bring domestic partner benefits, then a contested issue, to Carnegie Mellon around 2001. Cohon took Queenan’s advice to individually meet with each trustee before a vote on the matter, and in the end, the measure passed.

Former CMU First Lady Maureen "Bunny" Cohon worked as an attorney for Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney and focused on nontraditional family law after Carnegie Mellon brought the issue to the fore.

She and Jared Cohon met in second grade on a field trip to see the Cleveland Philharmonic Orchestra when he helped her with her coat, as Jared Cohon recalled in 2008.

"There’s little question that I’m here today in large part because of her," he said in 2013 in The Piper.(opens in new window)

The two married their sophomore year of college, which he called "the smartest move of my life," crediting her guidance(opens in new window) of an otherwise "crummy" student over the more than 50 years of their partnership.

"What I hope people will say about Jerry and me, is that we made everybody feel welcome to the university and made them feel a part of it," Maureen Cohon said in 2013. "I really love the school, I love the people. I just feel so much a part of a big family. There are a lot of friends and good people here."

A Global Community

With Cohon’s leadership, the university grew from having few international programs to offering 16 degree programs in 14 countries.

"Higher education is a key to success in the global economy," Cohon said in 2011(opens in new window) when Carnegie Mellon became the first major higher education institution in the United States to offer graduate engineering degree programs in Rwanda.

David A. Coulter(opens in new window), chair of the Board of Trustees, said Cohon’s vision guided this expansion. 

"Jerry recognized that CMU’s culture of collaboration, its composition of faculty from around the world, and its expertise in the most critical emerging technologies would allow it to extend outside Pittsburgh, especially internationally," he said. "Under his leadership, the University started programs in California, New York, Australia, Qatar, Rwanda, Singapore and other places, most of which are thriving to this day, and have contributed to the extension of one of America’s most admired exports, which is its system of higher education."

Dedication to Innovation

Research and technology transfer for intellectual property flourished during his presidency through increased cross-disciplinary collaborations. In 2002, Carnegie Mellon, overhauled its policies to create a streamlined approach that doubled the rate(opens in new window) of spinout companies. 

"Jerry was a true friend to all who love Carnegie Mellon University," said Raymond J. Lane, chair of the Board of Trustees from 2009-2015. "He understood that CMU's innovative faculty and culture of invention would play an outsized role as an economic engine for the region. As he oversaw the transformation of a young Carnegie Mellon University into a global academic leader, CMU also became a leader in creating technology startups as Jerry overhauled the university’s technology transfer policies making it easier to get inventions from the academic lab to the marketplace." 

More than 300 companies were created by CMU faculty and alumni with support from the university’s startup ecosystem in the following 11 years of Cohon’s presidency.

Community and Regional Success

"Jerry was a brilliant man, but his true genius was connecting with people. He quickly recognized the role that Carnegie Mellon needed to play in the region, and jumped in," said James E. Rohr, chair of CMU’s Board of Trustees from 2015-2021. "His partnership with Mark Nordenberg was especially impactful, and showed the willingness of both men to put their egos aside and collaborate for the immense benefit of southwestern Pennsylvania."

He forged a strong collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh through his close relationship with then-Chancellor Nordenberg, leading to joint programs such as the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center(opens in new window) and the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse that have attracted billions of dollars and numerous talented researchers to the Pittsburgh region. 

"When Jerry did arrive in Pittsburgh, we started talking about partnering almost immediately. And we were driven by three basic beliefs," Nordenberg said. "The first was that our universities, like the two of us, were largely complementary. The second was that there was only one neighborhood in America — Cambridge, Massachusetts — that had more academic firepower than Oakland. And the third was if we could make partnering a priority in both universities, we would elevate each university, while also giving this region a badly needed boost."

3 images: Jared Cohon with, from left, Billy Porter, Bill Gates and Al Gore.

Cohon with, from left, Billy Porter, Bill Gates and Al Gore.

During Cohon’s presidency, Carnegie Mellon’s endowment grew from $608 million to more than $1 billion. He shepherded a doubling of faculty and almost tripled the amount of sponsored research in life sciences. After an initial eight-minute meeting with Bill Gates, in 2004, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave $20 million for what are now the Gates and Hillman Centers(opens in new window). During Cohon’s tenure, longtime CMU trustee Bill Dietrich gave a $265 million gift — at the time, the largest gift in Carnegie Mellon’s history and one of the 10 largest by an individual to a private higher education institution in the United States.

"Jerry was focused on CMU being an important part of the solution to Pittsburgh’s and the region’s future," Kamlet said. "By revamping our technology commercialization activities, enhancing our culture for startups and striving for diversity, Carnegie Mellon helped make Pittsburgh a special place for our students to live, and stay after they graduate."

A Personal Approach 

Cohon’s warm personality helped to define his leadership. 

In 2003, during the Building Virtual Worlds showcase(opens in new window) hosted by the Entertainment Technology Center for a demo called "Mamba de Amigo," Cohon donned a virtual reality headset and carried the theme into the physical world by shaking maracas as a big screen showed the gameplay. Late computer science professor Randy Pausch, co-founder of the ETC, introduced Cohon: "And now, for the first time in history anywhere, ladies and gentlemen, a university president in virtual reality."

For a fundraiser in 2002, he became Easter-Bunny-for-a-Day(opens in new window), even leaving on the pink and white get-up for a meeting with the faculty of the Department of Engineering and Public Policy.

And, Cohon was no stranger to performing, since he spent three years in the 1980s playing drums with colleagues from Johns Hopkins in a garage/novelty band called the New Crusty Nostrils featuring the Fabulous and Exotic Naselles, as he explained in his 2008 lecture:(opens in new window) "The drummer really was bad, but they carried me."

Cohon also presided over many key community moments. In 2009, Cohon also dedicated the Randy Pausch Memorial Bridge(opens in new window) in honor of Pausch, who pushed Carnegie Mellon into the national spotlight with his inspirational "Last Lecture(opens in new window)."

For his spirited personality and leadership efforts, the campus community shared its warmth and gratitude when Cohon stepped down in 2013. In March that year, student leaders painted the Fence(opens in new window) in his honor as a way to thank him. After a keynote address during commencement, Cohon was surprised with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.

In 2014, Carnegie Mellon named the Jared L. Cohon University Center in his honor(opens in new window) to recognize Cohon’s accomplishments and contributions to campus life, and the building serves as a prominent and popular meeting place for the diverse university community that he strengthened.

Cohon at the dedication of the Jared L. Cohon University Center.

Cohon receives a standing applause at the dedication.

"I happened to leap on the rocket 16 years ago … presidents are capable of making course corrections to some extent, but the university has a real head of steam up," he said in 2013. "It did when I came, and it still does. I think we’re just headed for more great things."

In a letter at the end of his presidency(opens in new window), Cohon thanked the deans and directors for their leadership, and expressed his gratitude to the faculty and staff.

"I like to think that CMU is more than the sum of its parts," Cohon wrote, "but the parts have to be excellent if the whole is to be."

My Heart is in the Work window from Baker Hall.

 Honoring the Memory of Dr. Cohon 

At a funeral service held at Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh on March 19, friends and family shared beautiful remembrances of Cohon. Speakers included longtime friend Jeff Wright, Nordenberg, Shapira; Cohon’s grandsons Nathan and Solomon; and his daughter Hallie Donner.

"On behalf of my mom, my family, myself — I want to just thank everybody for being here, both in person and those who are watching online. I know my dad would be so honored and humbled to see how many people are here to commemorate his life," Donner said. "We will miss him so much for the rest of our lives, but we all know he would be furious with us if we let sadness lead the way."

Those wishing to honor Cohon’s memory with a gift may do so via the two organizations identified by the family: Alumni Theater Company(opens in new window) and Carnegie Mellon(opens in new window). The family will join Carnegie Mellon University in a celebration of Cohon’s extraordinary life later this year, when those who loved this individual will be able to gather in Pittsburgh and share memories of his extraordinary impact.

Jared Cohon and Farnam Jahanian at Commencement in 2022.

Jared Cohon and Farnam Jahanian at Commencement in 2022.

In 2008, Cohon said even though life goals and ambitions have a place, he had never planned to become president of Carnegie Mellon.

"You can’t really plot out what your life is going to be like," he said. "Enjoy the journey and don’t worry too much about where it’s going to take you."


Jerry has given me an amazing experience and opportunities to contribute to CMU as a member of CMU's Board of Trustees. I never forget his love and friendship. Jerry, thank you. May you rest in peace. 

Yoshiaki Fuijimori, trustee

He was an incredible mentor, intimately involved in my work. He brought the best out of me and was never content with mediocrity where he was sure I could do better. I had serious doubts about my intellectual capacity while at CMU sharing a space with the most intelligent people in the world. It was ultimately Dr. Cohon who made me believe that I was on the same caliber as my Ph.D. student counterparts, and inspired me to eventually pursue one, despite me not believing that I could.

His inspiration, mentorship and leadership will endure through the countless amount of people that he has inspired.

Tyler Skidmore, master engineering and public policy, 2022

On how Cohon came to Carnegie Mellon University:

In reviewing impressions of the finalists, Jerry stood out not only for his academic
accomplishments and successful experience in handling difficult challenges but he had
the intangible qualities that fit our CMU community.

Some of the wisest heads in our community who had perspectives of great value — people
like Herb Simon, Toby Davis and Allen Meltzer — agreed with our committees by
ranking Jerry as the very best of all the finalists.

The Board of Trustees met, carefully considered what we all had learned, and voted to
invite Jerry Cohon to become the eighth president of Carnegie Mellon. And much to our
good fortune, he accepted.

For the sixteen years of his tenure as president, never was that choice questioned. Jerry
continued to knock our socks off.

Thomas McConomy, former chairman of the board

He was my professor, my adviser and my supervisor, but more than that, he was someone who helped me become the person I am today. Not only did he advise me in various ways regarding my professional career, but he also pushed me take the decisions that would shape my path towards growth in many aspects of my life.

He was a brilliant, enthusiastic, caring professor and researcher, for me and for many of the students who took his class and who were advised by him, without doubt. I have nothing but gratitude for the time I was his student and will always cherish the memories of research and class discussions with him. 

Tania Lopez-Cantu, Ph.D., environmental engineering, 2021

Thank you, Maureen and Jerry, for your support of our recreational programs. Every day I come to work with great pride to make sure everything is working as it should. I knew that any moment your friendly faces would be coming in the door for your treadmill workout. It was great seeing you be a mentor to the campus community reminding us that we need to take time for ourselves and come to work healthy but leave healthier by getting a work out in. Jerry even wrote a letter of support to supervisors encouraging them to allow their staff to use our facilities and take time to work out.

Pattye Stragar, fitness operations manager

Dr. Cohon's impact on the communities he touched, whether it be CMU, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, or truly the country as a whole, is indelibly inked in the relationships he made and the lives he helped to craft. He will be sorely missed.

Katie Warren Metosky, TPR 2003

I remember how dedicated he was to the President's Diversity and Inclusion Council that he created. Jerry wouldn’t delegate this responsibility and made sure that he was personally present to chair each of these meetings. From meeting Jerry when we both served on the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh board of directors to seeing him in action when I was a CMU trustee, Jerry Cohon was always consistent in his passion to serving CMU and the broader community. I will always be grateful to him for his encouragement and wonderful personal support. Jerry made his mark on all of us, and he will indeed be missed and remembered fondly.

— Evan Frazier, president and CEO of The Advanced Leadership Institute

He always stopped to talk to me and was generous with his time and wisdom when I consulted him. His leadership of the university was exemplary and his warmth and caring were remarkable. I am grateful to have crossed paths with him.

Marlene Behrmann, Thomas S. Baker University Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience, Emeritus

I remember when Po-Shen Loh and I were dreaming of making a scholarship program. We put a lot of thought into it and sent Jerry a proposal. He wrote back immediately and asked when we were available to meet. He picked the earliest available time, and said that he'd come over to the math department so one person would walk instead of two. He met with us for an hour, asking all the right questions. Then he helped us. He made it happen! 

That's the Jerry Cohon I remember. Humble, engaging, powerful. I loved him.

John Mackey, teaching professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences

We will all remember Jerry Cohon as a steadfast leader who put Carnegie Mellon above all else. His many duties as president at CMU required him to be frequently in front of an audience and he always appeared with a dignified, intelligent manner. His outreach to government and industry was impressive, yet he was very approachable on a personal level. Such a genuine person. We are indeed saddened by this loss too soon.

Stephanie A. Tristram-Nagle, research professor emerita, Department of Physics

Jared Cohon sporting a traditional Scottish kilt.

I was walking down Forbes Avenue in September 1999. In July 1999, I started the Learning and Development function at Carnegie Mellon, and prior to September, I had met with Jerry Cohon one time. On that September day, he stopped to say "hi." I was so impressed that he not only remembered my name, but he asked me about a project that I was working on. At that moment, I knew that I was in the right place at the right time. How fortunate to have the most senior administrator on campus interested in your work. He was a wonderful leader and a first-class person.

Ronald J. Placone, associate teaching professor, management communication

We’ve never met or likely will meet someone whose actions spoke with such gravity and yet who’s actual words were so unassumingly and softly serving others. He will be terribly missed and we’d like to think he’s watching over us asking us to act in his trademark understated and unassuming way. His loss is not only a loss to our academic community, but it's the loss of a great mentor, leader and true grandfatherly figure full of kindness and care. If we can even accomplish an iota of what Jerry has done in his rich life, we will all have lived to be great loved ones, parents, and scholars — all of which Jerry did for and empowered in others.

Nikki Ritsch, Ph.D. candidate, and Daniel Armanios, assistant professor in the Department of Engineering and Public Policy,

A black and white photo of Jared Cohon.

Part of my job duties were to issue parking violations throughout the campus. One day I happened to drive up to the Warner Hall parking lot and noticed a white four-door Cadillac parked in a regular spaces without a hang tag displayed. I issued a ticket and put it on the windshield of this vehicle, not knowing who the owner was. About two weeks later, I was told the owner of that vehicle was President Cohon. 

After I heard that, I knew for sure that I was in a lot of trouble but it was the complete opposite. About a month later, President Cohon came to our office and paid his ticket without any problems or complaints. When I heard about it, I was shocked. Then one day, he was coming out of Warner Hall heading toward his vehicle and I stopped him and explained that I was the person who issued him that ticket and had no idea it was his vehicle because it was not parked in the reserved president's space, "which he never parked in" and he just laughed about it and said, “That's okay, I paid it and I should have had my hang tag up!” And he laughed again.

That put a smile on my face and I laughed as well and also realized how humble, down to earth and just a good person President Cohon was.

Jerry Rivers, parking security officer

Jerry was not a president who wanted to be aloof or set apart from the teaching and research mission of the university. Having himself made major contributions in his own field, he made it clear that he saw the intellectual and artistic achievements of his faculty colleagues as the heart and soul and purpose of CMU. 

He was demanding, but we knew he got in earlier, stayed later, and worked harder than anyone. He was a terrific and inspiring writer — I was always a little afraid of his editorial wrath. 

Jerry was clearly in charge, but always eager to listen; impatient with whiners, but never indifferent to real injustice; pragmatic about seizing opportunities, without ever losing sight of the university's highest values.

Jerry so loved his family. I remember the day his first grandson was born, because he was positively glowing. He made it OK for us on the staff to take time for our families too — again, not that common. The breadth of his reading always impressed me, and in our last conversation, he was recommending new books.

He was an extraordinary combination of great accomplishment and great humility, a style of leadership which is rare indeed. I am honored to have known him.

Catherine Davidson, former senior director, campaign communications


Dr. Cohon, we set foot on the CMU campus in the same year in 1997. As the University President, you role-modeled for me the type of leader I aspire to be. Your smile invited people to engage with you. Your leadership set the tone for what it’s like to be humble while being extremely capable. Your vision for what is possible on a global scale continues to teach me to think big. 

My heart is in the work because of the culture you created at CMU. Thank you for your incredible legacy. You are truly missed. May you rest in peace.

Vivian Hui-Wen Cheng, MCS 2001, MCS Dean’s Advisory Council member, Alumni Association Board director

I still remember, with great fondness, my interactions with President Cohon. During my time on campus, I was privileged to serve on several student advisory councils that were convened at the direction of and chaired by President Cohon. I always found him to be thoughtful, considerate, and engaging — often going out of his way to break down whatever barriers of deference might otherwise have impeded my or other's inclination to candidly engage with him. News of his passing was received with great sadness and I wish to convey my condolences to his family. Thank you President Cohon for your immense contributions to CMU — your heart was truly in the work!

Mel Udeh, TPR 2010

A scan of a Carnegie Mellon Magazine from 2002 with a picture of Jared Cohon in a bunny suit.

For a fundraiser in 2002, Cohon dressed in a bunny suit, as seen in this 2002 issue of Carnegie Mellon Magazine.

Dr. Jerry Cohon has a deep-in-heart kindness that provides insightful suggestions for young faculty and students to stimulate opportunities for students and faculties to grow together.

Pingbo Tang, associate professor, civil and environmental engineering

Many years later, the institution which Jerry fundamentally transformed is now nurturing both our children as they pursue their engineering degrees. Judith and I couldn’t be more pleased that Jerry is — in a very real way through his legacy — still looking after our children.

Judith and Bill Meaney, master of science in industrial administration, 1986

(My wife) had just met with the chief technology officer for Baltimore city. He was the eighth CTO for Baltimore in nine years and lamented that “everybody tells me we should be a smart city, a smart city, and my daily focus is working to ensure our email system stays functioning.” The CTO went on to lament how he wished the local universities could combine with municipal leaders and businesses to renew the city the way Pittsburgh did. And then the guy said to my wife, “you know, the person that made that happen in Pittsburgh was Jerry Cohon."

K. John Holmes, director of The National Academies Board on Energy and Environmental Systems. 

Dr. Jerry Cohon was the epitome of a great leader. He made others believe that accomplishments were theirs as he guided quietly from behind. He endeared himself to the alumni in his deep caring for all CMU stakeholders. He made each individual feel valued and important to CMU. Remarkably, he did this while remaining focused on advancing CMU in capacity and reputation. I cherish the opportunity I had to work with him as he finished his presidency.

Though our hearts are in the work, they are broken.

Toni Ungaretti, MM 1970

We met at a golf event at Laurel Valley in 2001, a scene of many enjoyable days spent together in maddening frustration on the golf course, but in close enjoyment of our deep and abiding friendship.

We served together at every possible opportunity, including on the boards of Mellon Financial, the Allegheny Conference, Ingersoll Rand, and Trane Technologies. In the latter case, our board trips to Ireland afforded many opportunities for lengthy and enjoyable discussions, occasionally golf, and a variety of culinary adventures.

Jerry was gracious to invite me to visit with the Carnegie Mellon classes that he conducted after retiring as president, always preceded by a lunch at Chengdu Gourmet on Forward Avenue. We would join the class in various stages of stains and smells, but we wouldn’t miss it for the world!

And, Becky and I were privileged to enjoy Jerry’s significant barbecue talents on many occasions, ably assisted by first officer Bunny. Now I am wondering who I will spend a Sunday afternoon with at Laurel Valley or will I ever have another lunch at Chengdu Gourmet.

He was a friend for life.

He was the friend of a lifetime.

— John Surma, retired chairman and CEO, United States Steel Corporation

Cohon receives his honorary doctoral degree.