Ainslie T. Embree, a specialist in Indian and South Asian history and cultural studies who served as SIPA’s acting dean in 1989-90, died on June 5 at the age of 96. A history professor by training, Embree was an active member of the Columbia faculty from 1958 to 1991 and a professor emeritus for the 26 years that followed.
After Dean Alfred Stepan of SIPA received permission to take a one-year research leave in 1989, he designated Embree as his replacement. As reported at the time by the Columbia Daily Spectator student newspaper, Stepan said he chose Embree “because of Embree's previous administrative experience and his ‘marvelous personal and intellectual qualities.’”
When he was tapped by Stepan, Embree was director of the Southern Asian (now South Asia) Institute and director of the undergraduate Contemporary Civilization program. He had previously chaired two academic departments in the Arts and Sciences — Middle East Languages and Cultures and, on a separate occasion, History — and had also been an associate dean at SIPA in the early 1970s.
Outside of Columbia, Embree served as president of the Association for Asian Studies and of the American Institute for Indian Studies; as chair of South Asian sections of the American Council of Learned Societies and of the Social Science Research Council.
From 1978 to 1980, during the Jimmy Carter administration, Embree served as the counselor for cultural affairs at the American embassy in New Delhi. Around that time he was a special advisor to Robert Goheen, the U.S. ambassador to India, and later advised Frank Wisner when he filled the same role in the 1990s.
Embree was editor-in-chief of the four-volume Encyclopedia of Asian History (1989) and editor and writer of many additional publications and chapters on India and Southern Asia.
Embree lived and taught in India before earning his PhD from Columbia in 1960. He also taught for a few years at Duke and, after retirement, at Brown and Johns Hopkins.
In sharing news of Embree’s death on behalf of the South Asia Institute, Barnard Professor John Hawley wrote that “Anyone who knew [Embree] will remember his capacious intellect, his deep belief that the past is important to know, and equally, that the present is important to live.”
Embree is survived by his wife, Sue, as well as two children and several grandchildren.
Pictured: John Ruggie, Alfred Stepan, Ainslie Embree // SIPA Archives