Ninth president of the World Bank Group, James Wolfensohn was not one to pass up the opportunities that were presented to him early in life. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (1954) and Law (1957) from the University in Sydney, was a member of the University Union Board and the Australian Air Force Cadets. He was also a Royal Australian Air Force Reserve officer, a concert cellist and an Olympic fencer.
It was this array of commitments that former Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Professor Gavin Brown said was the root of Wolfensohn’s early academic woes when the Sydney-born former lawyer was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Science in Economics at the University in 1997. In his 2010 memoirs, Wolfensohn admitted to being a ‘late developer’, having failed several of his university classes in his first two years at the University.
Despite his patchy academic record, Wolfensohn was deeply ambitious, and as a student would lock himself in his bedroom and figure out what he had to do to become Prime Minister, a world-class banker, an Olympian and so on. He jumped at the opportunity to replace an ill member of the University Fencing Team in the National Fencing Championships in Melbourne, and while he didn’t score a single point (it was his first ever time fencing), Wolfensohn secured a mentor who would later help him get into the 1956 Olympic team.
In 1965, after having completed an MBA at Harvard University, Wolfensohn became the founder and managing director of a Sydney-based merchant bank called Darling & Co (later Schroder Darling). Following this, he moved into international banking, working at various banks in New York and London until he became president of the World Bank in 1995 after being nominated by former U.S. President Bill Clinton. Well-regarded for his philanthropic pursuits, Wolfensohn was the first World Bank president to highlight the problem of corruption in development financing.