James A. Stern

Tufts President Anthony P. Monaco awarded James A. Stern an honorary degree during the University's 158th Commencement ceremonies on Sunday, May 18, 2014.

Photo by Alonso Nichols/Tufts University

During your 31 years of service on the Tufts Board of Trustees, including a decade as its chair, you helped make this university the world leader it is today. In your own words: “Now we are in the big leagues.” You brought tremendous energy and vision to the Board and counseled four Tufts presidents on how to set their sights high and lead a complex institution. During your tenure, Tufts became one of the nation’s most selective universities. As a graduate of Tufts, you wanted to ensure that other students could have transformative experiences here. To that end, you and your wife Jane have endowed scholarships that now support 30 students each year as well as three professorships. One of your former professors, Sol Gittleman, says your intellect always made his classes better, and that you have never stopped learning, giving back, or making Tufts a better place. You worked tirelessly—and with wisdom and compassion—to propel this institution forward. For helping to build a university that has and will continue to educate world-changing leaders, Tufts is proud to present you with an honorary Doctorate of Business Administration.

In 1982, James A. Stern, E72, A07P, became the youngest person ever elected to the Tufts University Board of Trustees; he was thirty-two. Already successful on Wall Street, he was accustomed to working alongside senior decision makers. Still, he says, “it took a while to learn everything on the board. I was pretty careful to pick my spots to get involved.” 

He served on the board for the next thirty-one years, the last ten as chair, until stepping down in November 2013. He helped guide four Tufts presidents, led three major fundraising initiatives, and brought a new level of transparency to the Board of Trustees.

During Stern’s tenure, the university’s endowment grew from $45.5 million in 1982 to $1.4 billion in 2012. At the same time, Tufts became highly selective. In 1982, fewer than 10,000 prospective undergraduate students applied to the schools of Arts and Sciences and Engineering, and 35.6 percent of them were offered admission. By contrast, the class of 2017, the last admitted during his leadership of the board, was selected from the largest pool of candidates ever to seek admission—18,420 applicants—with the lowest-ever acceptance rate, 18.8 percent.

One of Stern’s priorities on the board was to provide the university with a solid financial foundation to build on its strengths. Stern spearheaded several capital campaigns that raised more than $2 billion to support Tufts, its students, and its faculty.

Stern and his wife, Jane, took an active role as philanthropists for Tufts as well. In 1998, they endowed the Arthur Stern Jr. Professorship in American History—establishing a pattern that includes three professorships and scholarships that now support more than 30 students each year. “The basis of philanthropy has always been to bet on people and the multiplier effect that people can help other people,” Stern says. 

As an undergraduate, Stern majored in civil engineering, although he says he wasn’t a natural at the subject and considered switching majors. But once he decided to stick with it, things began to click. “My engineering professors really taught me how to think,” he says.

After Tufts, he headed to Harvard Business School, where he graduated as a Baker Scholar, an honor awarded to the top five percent of the class. He then embarked on a two-decade career with Lehman Brothers, joining the firm in 1974 as an associate in investment banking. In 1982 he was named managing director, with responsibility for Lehman’s corporate financing activities. He joined the firm’s management committee in 1988, and became co-head of investment banking. He was named head of merchant banking in 1989.

In 1994, Stern founded The Cypress Group, a New York–based private equity firm that manages funds totaling more than $3.5 billion; he is currently the group’s chairman.

Stern serves or has served on the boards of a number of corporations, including Affinia, WESCO International, Lear Corporation, and Cinemark USA. He is also a board member of several charitable and philanthropic organizations, including the Jewish Museum and the Cancer Research Institute.

Sol Gittleman, the former university provost who is now the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor, remembers Stern from when he had him as a student. “His intellect made my classes better,” Gittleman says. “When he returned as a trustee, his insights made the college better. When he became board chair, his mature wisdom made the university better. He has never stopped learning, giving back, or making Tufts a better place.”

Stern will receive an honorary Doctor of Business Administration degree.