Alain Seznec, former dean and university librarian, dies at 86

By: Linda B. Glaser,  Cornell Chronicle
Thu, 02/23/2017

By Linda B. Glaser

Alain Seznec, emeritus professor of Romance studies, former dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and former University Librarian, died at home in Ithaca on Feb. 21 after a lingering illness. He was 86.

“Alain's keen-eyed Gallic wit made him a great citizen of the college and university and a wonderful friend,” said Don Randel, the Given Foundation Professor of Musicology Emeritus, former Cornell provost and former dean of Arts and Sciences. “He could deflate the inflated and represent insistently  those humanistic values that are, or ought to be, at the heart of the university. In his several roles, he was a steadfast advocate for the best in liberal education. And he was marvelously good company.”

Born March 20, 1930 in Paris, Seznec and his family fled occupied France in 1940, as he recounted in a 1989 interview with the Cornell Alumni News. Their journey to America was long and dangerous.  After landing on Ellis Island, the family settled in Cambridge, Mass., where Seznec’s father, Jean,  had a post at Harvard.

Seznec studied at a French lycee in Canada, then received two degrees from the Sorbonne in France, one in law and the other in letters. He worked as a Romance language instructor at Harvard University before arriving at Cornell in 1958 as an assistant professor of Romance studies.  His research specialty was 17th Century French literature and theater. 

"When I came to Cornell more than 30 years ago, Alain Seznec was more than a guide and mentor. He was an educator with a mission,” said David Feldshuh, professor of theater. “As an experienced actor who loved theater, Alain encouraged me and my colleagues to create productions in the new Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts that exemplified Cornell’s dedication to great plays, past and present, produced to engage a diverse and enthusiastic audience. His message to me was succinct: ‘Great plays. Well done. Fill the seats.’”

During his long tenure as a faculty member, Seznec served in numerous positions, including chairman of the Committee on Residential Colleges, member of Cornell’s Commission on Undergraduate Education, and director of undergraduate studies for the Department of Romance studies. He was also active as an amateur thespian, performing with the Cornell French Players.  As a professor and administrator Seznec was passionate about the importance of teaching and was honored with the Clark Distinguished Teaching Award.

“He was a superb teacher, admired and respected by generations of students and alumni,” said Glenn Altschuler, the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies, who co-taught a Cornell Adult University theater course with Seznec.  “In everything he said and did, Alain Seznec was a great gentleman.”

Seznec was named associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and director of Cornell’s six-year Ph.D. program in 1969, and he became dean of Arts and Sciences in 1978.

“Those who knew Alain as a marvelous teacher, a resolutely upbeat colleague and an accomplished actor may have been surprised to discover, when he took the helm of the College of Arts and Sciences, that he was also a superb administrator,” said Philip Lewis, emeritus professor of French literature and former dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “His savvy leadership enabled the college not only to emerge from a deep structural budget deficit but to launch a long-term program for rehabilitating its major buildings.  Subsequently his human qualities--great warmth coupled with firm rationality--were invaluable when he served as University Librarian during a period of rapid transition. His long career of unfailingly constructive contributions on many fronts is the stuff of which Cornell legends are made.”

As dean, Seznec  oversaw the building of the Performing Arts Center (renamed the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts in 2001). Keith Johnson '56, former chairman of the college's advisory council, noted in 1986 that “Alain was the most persistent and enthusiastic  advocate of [the Arts Center's] construction, and I think it's sort of a monument to him.”

From left, James Stirling, architect of the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts, then-President Frank H.T. Rhodes, and Alain Seznec look at plans for the center in 1984.

From left, James Stirling, architect of the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts, then-President Frank H.T. Rhodes, and Alain Seznec look at plans for the center in 1984.

After stepping down as dean in 1986, Seznec was appointed University Librarian. He told the Cornell Alumni News that a library “is a place of discovery. It's an extension of the classroom or the lab. It reaches out—through its holdings and the service and guidance of its librarians—and shows you a world you didn't know was there."

During his 10-year tenure as University Librarian – he stepped down in 1996 -- Seznec  oversaw many important developments, including the library’s first online integrated library system in 1986, the construction of the Carl A. Kroch Library in 1990, and the opening of the underground special collections library in 1992, housing the newly formed Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections and the Asia collections. During Seznec’s administration, the library’s acquisitions budget rose to more than $7.8 million a year and the library grew to more than six million volumes.

Anne Kenney, current University Librarian, said that “among other things, we have his political acumen and fundraising ability to thank for the construction of Kroch Library,” she said. “A traditionalist at heart, he nonetheless championed the Library’s investment in digital research and development.   He was also a gentleman, bon vivant, and a wonderful conversationalist.”

Seznec  was an avid fan of all things Cornell and a devoted follower of Cornell athletics, attending hundreds of football, hockey and lacrosse games.  He traveled and fundraised exhaustively for the University.

He is survived by his wife of 66 years, Janet (Grade) Seznec; five children Anne Carignani, Peter Seznec (‘74), Catherine Rentz, Dominique Lightbody (‘82) and Michael Seznec (‘85); and 11 beloved grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.  Seznec is predeceased by his parents, Jean and Simone Seznec and Genevieve Seznec, and a daughter, Caroline.  

A memorial service is being planned for the summer. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Seznec’s name to the Alain Seznec Library Fund in French Literature at Olin Library or the Tompkins County Public Library.

A version of this article appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

   Alain Seznec