‘A truly great Australian’: James D. Wolfensohn remembered for generous support of public sector leaders

By Shannon Jenkins

November 27, 2020

James Wolfensohn (AAP Image/Laura Friezer)

The late Sir James David Wolfensohn was “a truly great Australian” who played a significant role in supporting Australian Public Service leaders, according to commonwealth ombudsman Michael Manthorpe.

The former World Bank president passed away this week in Manhattan, aged 86.

A philanthropist, Wolfensohn had supported the Australian public sector for a number of years through his sponsorship of the Sir James Wolfensohn Public Service Scholarship.

The scholarship was established in 2012 by the Harvard Club of Australia as a means of enabling senior public servants from federal, state and territory governments to attend the Harvard Kennedy School in the United States.

A number of past recipients continue to serve in senior APS roles, including Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary Frances Adamson, Treasury secretary Steven Kennedy, National Disability Insurance Agency CEO Martin Hoffman, and Australian Border Force commissioner Michael Outram.

Manthorpe was a 2015 recipient, and spent a month at Harvard the following year.

“It was an exceptionally beneficial experience which I am sure made me a better public servant,” he told The Mandarin.

“Senior leadership roles are rewarding but also demanding. Sometimes you just look forward to going to the beach. The Wolfensohn Scholarship gave me a new lease on my professional existence. It gave me belief that, even in your fifties, the best years may still lie ahead.”

Manthorpe recalled how he had penned Wolfensohn a thank-you letter following his time at Harvard.

“He wrote back, in the sort of hand-writing style you associate with those of a generation or two ago, expressing pleasure that it had been a good experience and suggesting we ‘catch up for lunch next time he’s in Sydney’,” he said.

“Although that never happened in person, last year the Harvard Club put on a lunch in Sydney that a number of scholarship recipients attended and he beamed in on-line from his home in Manhattan. Though elderly, his mind was as sharp as a tack.”

Of Wolfensohn’s support of the scholarship, Manthorpe said:

“I don’t think anyone has ever directed such generous assistance to such a cause.”

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