Aaron Warner (1908–2000)

Aaron W. Warner, Columbia Professor And Dean, Dies At Age 92; Led University Seminars for Quarter Century

Columbia News, Aug 30, 2000

Aaron Warner, who was associated with Columbia University for more than a half century as a professor of economics, dean of the School of General Studies during the 1970s and director until this year of the University Seminars program, died Friday (August 25) in New York City. He was 92.

The cause was prostate cancer, his family said.

Warner's commitment to the law, to the working class and to democratic ideals took him from the courthouses of Boston, where as a young Harvard Law graduate he defended the first students who protested the rise of the Nazis, to his stand against the precursors of Joseph McCarthy, who accused him of being a communist during the 1930's, and on to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, where he worked to improve workers' rights as one of the youngest regional administrators of the National Labor Relations Board.

After a decade-long career as a lawyer and in government service, he switched to academia, earning a Ph.D. in economics at age 45 and starting his more than 50-year association with Columbia.

Born May 16, 1908, Warner became an accomplished pianist at an early age and was awarded a scholarship to study music at the Damroch Institute in New York City, later the Juilliard School of Music. He earned a bachelor's degree in 1929 at New York University, a master's degree in 1931 at Harvard, and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1932, where he studied under Benjamin F. Wright and Felix Frankfurter.

He practiced law in Boston from 1933 to 1937, garnering praise for his defense of Harvard students protesting the early uncontested rise of Nazism. In 1937 at age 30, he was appointed regional director of the National Labor Relations Board in Denver and later special examiner for the board's regional offices throughout the country.

In 1941 he moved to the Rail Road Retirement Board as supervising attorney. Following the United States' entry into World War II, he was appointed chief of field operations, Enforcement Department of the Office of Price Administration. From 1943 to 1946 he was a Naval officer in the Pacific theater of war, and was involved in the liberation of islands off the coast of Japan.

He began his teaching career as a lecturer at Columbia in 1946 while working on his doctoral dissertation on trade unionism in post-war Britain. He completed the Ph.D. in 1954, receiving tenure as associate professor of economics, and devoted his scholarship over the following decades to labor-management relations, workman's compensation, salary structure in U.S. companies, industrial organization and full employment. During the 1960's, he conducted studies on labor-management problems in the East Coast maritime industry for the U.S. Commerce Department and on manpower policy for the U.S. Labor Department.

He became a full professor in 1961 and chairman of the Economics Department. He was named the Joseph Buttenwieser Professor of Human Relations in 1967 and spent a year in Geneva working with the International Labor Office.

Following student demonstrations on the Columbia campus in 1968, Warner was appointed to a special faculty committee on educational policy and planning, which was credited with improving student-faculty relations and Columbia's relations with the community. In 1969, he assumed the deanship of the School of General Studies, which offered college courses to adults, many of whom were career changers like himself.

He retired as professor and dean emeritus in 1976 and received the University's Owl Award for distinguished service. At age 68, he continued his Columbia career, serving as Dean of Continuing Education and Director of the University Seminars, a post he gave up only earlier this year. The University Seminars, founded in 1945, draw scholars, government leaders and other experts for broad discussion on topics in their fields. The University Seminars, under Warner's leadership, have served as a blueprint for the development of interdisciplinary studies at Columbia and beyond.

Warner had been secretary of the University Seminar on Labor from 1947 to 1957 and chairman for many years afterward. In 1962 he founded the Seminar on Technology and Social Change, which produced a series of books, which he edited, The Impact of Science and Technology, The Environment of Change and Technological Innovation and Society, published by the University during the 1960s. In 1983 he founded a seminar on philanthropy. Warner assisted the University of North Carolina and George Washington University in establishing University Seminars programs of their own.

His latest work, Commitment to Full Employment, a collection he edited honoring his friend and Columbia colleague, the late Nobel economist William S. Vickrey, will be published by M.E. Sharp this fall.

"He brought to our Seminars the passion, the dignity, the fairness, and the warmth that he brought to every other element in his life," said Professor Robert Belknap of the Department of Slavic Languages.

His first wife, Charlotte Rosen, died in 1970. Warner is survived by his second wife of 29 years, the former Miriam Firestone; two daughters, Rachel Warner of Washington, D.C. and Abby Myerson of Los Angeles, and a sister, Miriam Rosen of Maplewood, N.J.