William Herbster, former Senior Vice President at Cornell University, died last Thursday at age 70. Herbster’s administrative leadership and innovative financial schemes helped the University recover from years of deficit spending, among other accomplishments in the academic community and beyond.
Herbster arrived at Cornell in 1976 after serving as Citibank’s Senior Vice President in charge of corporate responsibility. During his time at Cornell, Herbster worked closely with other administrators to balance the University budget which had exhibited nearly a decade of operational inefficiencies.
“He worked day and night to get a hold of the budget,” said Frank Rhodes, President Emeritus, remembering Herbster’s unique work ethic and determination.
Herbster’s son, David, marveled at his father’s ability to maintain amicable relationships with employees and colleagues while undertaking formidable challenges.
“He was able to get Cornell’s books to balance without antagonizing people,” he said.
Those who were close with Herbster also remember the genuine concern he exhibited for each of his career endeavors.
“He brought [to Cornell] a fine analytical and economic mind with surprising academic sensitivities,” said David Herbster.
In addition to balancing the budget, Herbster faced other substantial challenges while at Cornell. He became the subject of much scrutiny when he campaigned to continue investing in South African businesses despite the country’s policy of apartheid. Herbster, Rhodes and others who supported South African investments believed that divesting from stock holdings would prove detrimental to the country’s economy, following the elimination of the apartheid.
“We did not want to strip South Africa of its resources,” said Rhodes.
“We felt very strongly that we were not encouraging the apartheid to continue,” added former provost Keith Kennedy, a contemporary colleague of Herbster.
According to Rhodes, the Board of Trustees ultimately agreed to maintain investment relationships with South African companies that did not engage in discriminatory behavior. This policy was ultimately economically beneficial to the South African economy after the removal of apartheid.
Herbster was also a key figure in soliciting sufficient capital from New York state to fund various campus construction projects.
Following his work at Cornell, Herbster championed a number of academic and worldly causes. As a philanthropist, he established a private trust that contributed to various non-profit organizations in New York.
Following the Cold War, Herbster worked to develop economies severely affected by the fall of European communist regimes. As Chairman of the Board of the American Trust for Agriculture in Poland, he worked with farmers to establish a more stable agrarian economy.
Herbster also continued to advocate academic causes and served as a trustee of the American University in Bulgaria.
However, Herbster is remembered not only for his astute banking expertise and his contributions to university communities. He is also regarded as a charismatic colleague, father and husband. Family members and colleagues recall his charm and pleasant way with people.
“He was a good companion and [had a] great sense of humor,” remembered Rhodes.
As a family man, Herbster challenged his children and set an example of dedication and willfulness.
David Herbster remembers dinner table discussions with his father as times at which his father emphatically stated his beliefs and invited others to challenge them.
“To my Dad, an issue to discuss over was dinner was a red hanky waved at an irritable bull,” he said in a eulogy delivered at his father’s memorial service. “Bill Herbster defended his arguments like a Marine at his post. He might apologize later, but only long after you pried his fingers from the stem of his wine glass. And no one could pry that glass from his hand.”
Herbster is survived by his wife, Mary Lee, and his children, David Herbster, Michael Herbster and Talley Herbster Fulghum. His memorial service took place on Sunday in Alexandria, VA.
Archived article by Ellen Miller