Institute for Advanced Study Draws from Humanities for New Director

David Nirenberg (Photo: Andrea Kane/Institute for Advanced Study)

Earlier this month, David Nirenberg — a professor of medieval history who had been dean of the Divinity School at the University of Chicago — is the new director of the Institute for Advanced Study. Nirenberg replaced Robbert Dijkgraaf as the head of the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS). Dijkgraaf, a mathematical physicist, had been the director and the accompanying Leon Levy Professor since 2012.

The handover to Nirenberg had been planned for July 1, but moved to February 1 shortly after Dijkgraaf was tapped to join the cabinet of Netherlands’ Prime Minister Mark Rutte as Minister of Education, Culture and Science. Dijkgraaf was sworn in by King Willem-Alexander on January 10.

This is not the first time the Princeton, New Jersey-based institute, known as a preeminent center for theoretical research, has drawn from the humanities for its leaders. Among the nine previous directors, Harry Wolf was a historian of science, Carl Kaysen was an economist and policy advisor to President John Kennedy, Frank Aydelotte was an English professor, and founding director Abraham Flexner was an educational reformer and studied classics.

Nirenberg, the Deborah R. and Edgar D. Jannotta Distinguished Service Professor of Social Thought, History, Divinity, Romance Languages and Literatures, has held various administrative titles at the University of Chicago: founding director of the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society from 2011 to 2014, dean of the Division of Social Sciences from 2014 to 2017, and the executive vice provost from 2017 to 2018. His efforts transcended cultural and disciplinary boundaries and “providing new frameworks of knowledge to understand society and to realize the power of collective curiosity,” Nancy Peretsman, IAS Board vice chair and chair of the eight-member director search committee, was quoted in a release.

As founding director of the Neubauer Collegium, he implemented a program that afforded both funding and space to champion collaborations across every division, school, and affiliated laboratory possible at the university, uniting scholars across a web of disciplines to enable “novel investigations and new forms of thinking based on the cross-pollination of ideas.” As dean of the Division of Social Sciences, he led efforts to create the Computational Social Science program and to establish the Center for International Social Science Research and the Committee on Quantitative Social Science.

Born to immigrant parents from Argentina, Nirenberg credits his “lifelong attraction to conversations across languages and cultures” as a result of growing up in a Spanish-speaking household in upstate New York. After graduating with an A.B. in 1986 from Yale University and earning his M.A. and Ph.D. from Princeton University’s Department of History (in 1989 and 1992, respectively), Nirenberg was a visiting scholar in the IAS School of Historical Studies from 1996 to 1997. He would describe his experience at the institute as if he had “suddenly found home,” saying “the institute’s polyglot conversations change every scholar who enters them, creating new connections and enabling discovery.”

The author of numerous books and articles with expertise ranging from religions in medieval Europe to the history of race and most recently the history of math and physics, Nirenberg’s scholarship offers insights into current challenges of racism, Anti-Semitism, hate speech, and inequality. His first book, 1996’s Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages, explored the concept of religious violence during the Middle Ages, revealing the “associative and dissociative” effects of religious violence and the ways in which such conflict has shaped coexistence among medieval communities. Nirenberg continued analyzing the ties between religious past and political present in later books, examining how anti-Judaism was foundational to the history of the West in his 2013 book Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, and how the history of Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the Middle Ages directly relates to their present in his 2014 book Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, Medieval and Modern. He and his mathematician father Ricardo Nirenberg jointly authored Uncountable: A Philosophical History of Number and Humanity from Antiquity to the Present, published last year.

Nirenberg has held academic positions at Rice University (from 1992 to 2000), John Hopkins University (from 2000 to 2006, where he founded the Stulman Center for Jewish Studies), and the University of Chicago, where he teaches presently since arriving in 2006. His board appointments include the Argonne National Laboratory from 2017 to 2020, as well as the National Opinion Research Center since 2014. Additionally, he is an associate of the Human Sciences section of the German Max-Planck Gesellschaft for the Advancement of Science, an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, History and Philosophy/Religion sections (2016) and the Medieval Academy of America (2015).

Including winning excellence-in-teaching awards at Johns Hopkins and Rice University, Nirenberg has received the Historikerpreis from the city of Münster and the Laing Prize from University of Chicago Press in 2017, an honorary doctorate from the University of Haifa (2016), the Ralph Waldo Emerson Prize from Phi Beta Kappa (2014), the John Nicholas Brown Prize from the Medieval Academy of America (2000), and the Herbert Baxter Adams Prize (1999) and Premio del Rey Prize (1997) from the American Historical Association. He has also received visiting fellowships from numerous institutions, including the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin; the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford; the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales; the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas; and IAS itself.

Founded in 1930, IAS aims to advance the frontiers of knowledge without concern for immediate application – Flexner set the course in his 1939 essay The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge. Each year, the institute’s permanent faculty selects more than 200 post-doctoral researchers and scholars as visiting researchers. 

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Stephanie Tom

Stephanie Tom is studying people, culture, media and technology at Cornell University. She is the social science communications intern at SAGE Publishing.

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