Obituary: Henry Koffler, Former Chancellor, at 95

Henry Koffler
Henry Koffler

Henry Koffler, who fled Nazi-annexed Austria at 17, became a distinguished microbiologist and biochemist and served as chancellor of the university from 1979-82, died March 10. He was 95.

From 1982 until retiring in 1991, he was president of the University of Arizona.

In his first year on the UMass Amherst campus, Koffler created the Chancellor’s Commission on Civility in Human Relations to battle anti-social behavior, and with the opening of the 1981-82 academic year he initiated the “Year Toward Civility” to improve respect and tolerance on campus.

In 1982, he released a 250-page curriculum revision plan that set in motion a number of changes, including creation of a separate journalism department and renaming of the School of Business Administration to the School of Management to reflect its widening role.

Under his leadership the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities was started. He is also credited with establishing new departments in the sciences.

Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said, “More than 35 years ago, Chancellor Henry Koffler’s strong voice for academic excellence in an atmosphere of civility and inclusion recognized the timeless goals we set for ourselves today. It is appropriate that we honor him for his vision for our campus as well as his many accomplishments as scientist and administrator.”

Born Sept. 17, 1922 in Vienna, Austria, Koffler was 5 when his father died, and his mother raised him to appreciate Vienna’s music, theater and artistic offerings. 

He came to the U.S. alone after the Nazi annexation in 1939. His mother followed two months later. At his suggestion, they settled in Prescott, Arizona, which he had read about in German writer Karl May’s Western adventure books. 

He earned a bachelor’s degree in agricultural chemistry from the University of Arizona in 1943, a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1944 and a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin in 1947. 

He joined the faculty of Purdue University and became a distinguished microbiologist and biochemist who earned a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Eli Lilly Award in Bacteriology and Immunology. One of the youngest full professors at Purdue, he became the head of the department of biological sciences and is credited with bringing the department to international renown. 

An able academic administrator, he then served as senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of Minnesota in 1975, before becoming chancellor at UMass Amherst in 1979.

Koffler’s many honors included honorary doctorates from Purdue, the University of Arizona and Amherst College. He was an officer, Ordre des Palmes Académiques, France.

He was a member of the American Society of Biological Chemists, a charter fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In 1991, the Arizona Board of Regents appointed him president emeritus. The Henry Koffler Building, a 127,000-square-foot building for teaching undergraduate chemistry and biology classes, was named for him in 2000.

After his retirement, Koffler created the Arizona Senior Academy and Academy Village, a retirement community for people interested in lifelong learning and intellectual and artistic pursuits. It has been described as a place “for people who wanted to retire from work, not life.”

In 2013, at age 90, he became a digital artist, using his iPad to create abstract paintings inspired by biology and chemistry, and he had five art shows.

Arizona President Robert C. Robbins said, “He was a superior intellect and a very sweet and caring man. … I tell people everywhere that we must instill a love of lifelong learning in our students, and I can think of no better example than the way President Koffler pursued new ideas and forms of engagement through his entire life.”

He is survived by Phyllis (Pierson) Koffler, his wife of more than 71 years. 

Donations can be made to the Henry and Phyllis Koffler Prize at the University of Arizona Foundation, or to the Koffler Memorial at the Arizona Senior Academy at 13715 E Langtry Lane, Tucson AZ 85747.