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

Stirling, Rhodes and Seznec
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.

Alain Seznec, professor emeritus of Romance studies, former dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and former University Librarian, died Feb. 21 at home in Ithaca. 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 Emeritus of Musicology, 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 in Paris March 20, 1930, Seznec and his family fled occupied France in 1940, as he recounted in a 1989 interview with the Cornell Alumni News. After landing on Ellis Island, the family settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Seznec received two degrees from the Sorbonne, 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.’”

Seznec chaired the Committee on Residential Colleges, served as a member of Cornell’s Commission on Undergraduate Education and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Romance Studies, and received 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 in 1969 and became dean 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, professor emeritus of French literature and former dean 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.”

After stepping down as dean in 1986, Seznec was appointed university librarian. During his 10-year tenure, the library grew to more than six million volumes and Seznec oversaw the library’s first online integrated system in 1986 and the construction of Carl A. Kroch Library in 1990.

University Librarian Anne Kenney 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 is survived by his widow, Janet (Grade) Seznec; five children, Anne Carignani, Peter Seznec ’74, Catherine Rentz, Dominique Lightbody ’82 and Michael Seznec ’85; 11 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

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.

Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences. 

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