Remembering Tom Alexander
By Hugh Mclean
Thomas J. Alexander was deeply engaged with the entire span of education, from early childhood to tertiary education. His insistence on linking social justice with quality in education, research, and policy challenged and inspired us all. He died January 22, 2012, after a brave struggle with cancer.
Tom was involved with the Open Society Foundations for over 13 years. He was chairman of the General Education Sub-Board, trustee of the Open Society Foundation London, and on the Advisory Board of the Open Society Early Childhood Program. He was also a member of the Executive Committee of the Higher Education Sub-Board of the Open Society Institute until 2008.
Tom’s career began in the British Diplomatic Service as an Arabic linguist, serving in the Lebanon, Kuwait, Libya and the Sudan. Tom was also a specialist in multilateral economic relations with the former Communist countries. He participated in the negotiations on the framework of the Conference for Security and Co-operation in Europe and in other landmark international events.
In 1974, he joined the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development as special assistant to the secretary general and then worked as head of the Private Office of the Secretary General. In 1989 he was made director for Education, Employment, Labour and Social Affairs and director of the OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation. Tom was responsible for launching the OECD's work on International Education Indicators, the popular OECD publication "Education at a Glance" and its companion volume, "Education Policy Analysis," as well as the Programme for International Student Assessment. He instituted across the directorate a series of comparative country reviews in education, labor market, and social policy that have become major tools of policy analysis and advice for governments worldwide. He was a leading player in launching the OECD Jobs Study and the work that ensued. Tom retired from the OECD in February 2000.
Just before Tom's retirement, George Soros appointed him to the General Education Sub-Board in 1999. In the same year he was nominated senior research fellow at the Department of Educational Studies at the University of Oxford. From this time Tom consulted for numerous governments, worked with the World Bank and other international agencies, also sitting on a range of international boards and committees, too numerous to list.
Tom was a great personality and a true leader—totally non-authoritarian and unselfish. His leadership at the Open Society Foundations was consistently unobtrusive, and yet he was always available to explore solutions and provide support. Erika Dailey, deputy director of Programs at the Open Society Foundations, wrote that we have lost “a close friend, ally, inspiration, and true giant. It was a privilege to have glimpsed Tom in his glory, guiding your lively and complex discussions, with his steady hand on the tiller, a force to be reckoned with.” It’s hard to find better words.
For the Education Support Program, Tom was somehow able to combine toughness with deep humanity, flexibility with rigor, knowledge with humility and principle with an intuition for when a moment was right. He was a master of good counsel and sound strategy. We shall miss him profoundly.
Until December 2021, Hugh McLean was a senior program advisor for the Open Society Education Support Program.