September 28, 2021

john ruggie as sipa dean.gif

portrait - John Ruggie (during his time as SIPA's dean)
John Ruggie served as SIPA's dean from 1991 to 1996.

SIPA remembers John G. Ruggie, a political scientist who served as the School’s dean from 1991 to 1996 and went on to lead a seminal United Nations effort to definitively establish the responsibilities of countries and companies alike with respect to human rights.

As a scholar of international relations, Ruggie became known for his characterization of the post-World War II global economic order as one of “embedded liberalism,” in which capitalist states maintained an openness in trade and finance alongside a domestic welfare state. Colleagues praise his essays on this subject and others, including multilateralism and territoriality, for deep thinking and farsighted vision informed by extensive knowledge.

Such essential scholarship, frequently cited, secured Ruggie’s significant and enduring influence in academia. But he will be remembered equally if not moreso for his later work at the United Nations, where he developed the landmark set of guidelines concerning states, businesses, and human rights that are widely referred to as the “Ruggie Principles.”

That effort, the United Nations’ Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, provide guidelines for states to protect human rights, for companies to respect the same rights, and for both to remedy abuses and achieve tangible results for affected individuals and communities. Six years in the making, the framework was unanimously endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011. Ten years later the guidelines remain foundational for international business and human rights — truly the global standard by all accounts.

Ruggie, who died on September 16 at the age of 76, was remembered and hailed by practitioners and academics alike — Dean Merit E. Janow of SIPA among them.

“John Ruggie was a globally renowned and respected academic, policy practitioner, and dear friend to so many in our community,” Janow wrote in a message to the SIPA community. “Dean Ruggie was a transformative figure whose ideas and actions helped shape our understanding of the world and the fields of international relations and human rights, with a particular focus on the role and responsibility of businesses to advance sustainable practices and uphold human rights.”

Ruggie was a native of Austria who as a child immigrated with his family to Canada. He graduated from McMaster University and went on to earn his PhD (in 1974) and teach at the University of California, Berkeley. Ruggie first came to Columbia in 1978 and after 10 years accepted an appointment at UC San Diego, where he eventually became director of the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation. 

Ruggie returned east to take SIPA’s deanship, which he held for five years in the 1990s. During his term Ruggie advanced the mission of the School in profound and lasting ways — revamping the curricula of both the MIA and MPA programs, internationalizing SIPA’s student body, creating new academic partnerships with international schools, and expanding joint faculty appointments, among other achievements.

It was during Ruggie’s time as dean that SIPA introduced the title of professor in the practice, for the first time supplementing SIPA’s academic faculty with professors distinguished by their professional experience. In 1994 Ruggie welcomed then New York City Mayor David Dinkins (who was wrapping up his service as mayor and would remain on the SIPA faculty until his death in 2020).

When Ruggie announced his intention to step down, he said that serving as SIPA’s dean had been “the most exhilarating experience of [his] career." He planned to return to teaching, and remained at Columbia as the Burgess Professor of Political Science and the James T. Shotwell Professor of International Relations.

But just one year later, Ruggie was recruited to the United Nations by Kofi Annan, who had just become secretary general. Annan created for Ruggie a new post as assistant secretary general for strategic planning, and from 1997 to 2001 the former SIPA dean helped develop the United Nations Global Compact and the Millennium Development Goals. The Compact endures today as the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative, embracing more than 14,000 companies in 160 countries; the MDGs evolved to become the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Only a few months after Ruggie’s departure, the UN received the 2001 Nobel Prize Prize for its collective work during his tenure.

He then returned to academia, joining the Harvard faculty, before going back to the UN in 2005—this time as Annan’s special representative for business and human rights. It was in that role that Ruggie led development of the principles on business and human rights; it remained the signature achievement of his later years.

In 2011 Ruggie returned to Harvard, where he was the Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government, and an affiliated professor at Harvard Law School. In 2013 he published Just Business: Multinational Corporations and Human Rights (Norton). He also served as board chair of Shift, a New York-based nonprofit organization devoted to the guiding principles he had defined.

Ruggie was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, among many honors. A survey conducted by Foreign Policy magazine in 2005 formally ranked him among the 25 most influential international relations scholars in the United States and Canada.

SIPA Faculty Remember John Ruggie

In many ways, John Ruggie personified what SIPA aspires to: A rigorous scholar and intellectual, he also made his mark in global politics. Informed by deep reflection and vast knowledge, John shaped a whole subfield on International Relations theory while simultaneously building international institutions that reflected the increasing complexity of global society. And he never lost sight of the connection: The title of his recent paper, “The Social Construction of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights,” is an apt—and typically funny—reference to his abiding passion for theory in action.

But John was also a model in other ways. Long before work-life balance entered university vocabularies, he prominently displayed pictures of his wife and son in the dean’s office. That, too, was an enduring inspiration to everyone who visited him on the 14th floor.

Lisa Anderson, James T. Shotwell Professor Emerita of International Relations; Dean Emerita (1997-2007)

John Ruggie made landmark contributions to the study of international political economy before taking on the deanship of SIPA. But I think he would have agreed that the highlight of his distinguished career was the role he played as special adviser to and policy entrepreneur for his good friend Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General. On behalf of Annan, John pioneered the UN role in enlisting private business to protect human rights, leaving a vital legacy that today defines the UN's Global Compact with the business sector."

Michael Doyle, University Professor

Kofi Annan surrounded himself with creative minds who were helping transform the United Nations. With John Ruggie, the UN began to evolve from an organization of states which ignored the role of business to an organization that recognizes that corporations are key stakeholders and need to operate in a framework of shared principles. The UN charter is incomplete so long as it is not complemented by principles that guide corporate actors.

Jean-Marie Guéhenno, Arnold A. Saltzman Professor of Practice in International and Public Affairs; Director, Kent Global Leadership Program on Conflict Resolution

John Ruggie had an almost unique ability to combine abstract academic thinking with the ability to connect to the policy community and students of public policy. He was also a dedicated institution builder and a great colleague.

Robert Jervis, Adlai E. Stevenson Professor and Professor of International and Public Affairs