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Arthur M. Cohen: 1927-2020

UCLA Emeritus Professor of Education Arthur Cohen shared his decades-long research on the community college. Photo by Joanie Harmon

Arthur M. Cohen, UCLA professor emeritus of education, and a pioneering and a pre-eminent scholar of community colleges, died Friday morning, December 25th. He was 93 years old.

Born in Caldwell, New Jersey in 1927, Art was the second of four children, all of whom went on to receive doctorates. He spent his early years in the Great Depression, and when making a living became impossible, the family migrated to Miami when Art was twelve. He was often a primary provider for the family by laying concrete block in the scorching Miami sun. He volunteered for the Coast Guard in 1946, which sent him to Greenland to blow up icebergs threatening Transatlantic trade. After the war, Art went to the University of Miami, and by his early twenties was a co-owner of a construction firm that built apartment buildings and houses in the post-war Miami boom.

After long days of physical labor that began early in the morning, Art attended the University of Miami at night, one class at a time, for eleven years to get his master’s degree in history. By 1962, with a wife and four children, Art had saved enough to move the family to Tallahassee, where he attended class, wrote a dissertation, and received his Ph.D. in two years. Throughout his entire life, even as a laborer and business owner, he held education as his true goal and purpose.

UCLA Emeritus Professor of Education Arthur M. Cohen

In 1964, upon receipt of a doctorate in higher education from Florida State University, Art took his first and only professional post as professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he remained until he retired in 2004. Much has been written about his time in UCLA’s Moore Hall—indeed in 2007 an entire volume of the Community College Review was dedicated to “The Scholarly Contributions of Arthur M. Cohen”—but highlights include the establishment of the ERIC Clearinghouse for Community Colleges in 1966, the launch of Jossey-Bass’ New Directions for Community Colleges series in 1973, the creation of the Center for the Study of Community Colleges in 1974, and the numerous books and widely-cited research reports he published on the community college enterprise, both on his own and with his beloved wife and colleague, Dr. Florence B. Brawer (1923-2014).

Art Cohen was a prolific scholar: 21 books; more than 80 book chapters, journal articles, and essays in edited volumes; and still more conferences papers, journalistic pieces, and research reports for the Center for the Study of Community Colleges than is possible to count. Indeed, as his former students and community college scholars Dr. Jan Ignash (retired vice chancellor for academic and student affairs, State University System of Florida, Board of Governors), and Dr. Jim Palmer (professor emeritus at Illinois State University) wrote in 2007, “The fact that today we can even speak of ‘the field of community college studies’ is in large part due to the work of Arthur Cohen. He was interested in the community college at a time when it was finding its place within the U.S. system of higher education institutions, perceived by some as the ‘stepchild’ of higher education, by others as an extension of secondary education, and by still others as ‘career academies.’ Cohen helped shape the perception—and acceptance—of the community college as a true collegiate institution.”

Art’s most indelible mark on the field, however, was his impact on students—and he considered all of us his students, whether yours was one of the nearly 75 dissertations he chaired, or if he simply commented on your seminar paper or conference presentation. With an historian’s memory for dates and facts, and an unabashed distaste for pretentious or overly theoretical language, Art was consistently candid (occasionally gruff!), sometimes critical, yet always fair. Compliments from Dr. Cohen—for no one who had not yet earned their doctorate had the right to call him “Art”—were high praise indeed, as they were not issued unless they were earned. But when a complement was handed out… you really knew you had done something right.

Perhaps the most striking illustration of Art Cohen’s impact on the field is the number of students whose career trajectories began like Carol Kozeracki’s (dean of academic affairs at East Los Angeles College), who acknowledged that “having entered UCLA’s Graduate School of Education… I had no understanding of the significance of community colleges’ role in higher education, and certainly no interest in focusing my research or career prospects on these institutions.” Or Leslie Purdy’s, president emeritus of Coastline Community College, who wrote that “When I enrolled [in the doctoral program at UCLA]… I was not very familiar with the mission and practices of those institutions. However… it did not take me long to be drawn to Art Cohen’s teaching about, research on, and passion for community colleges. Little did I know then that I would spend my entire professional life working in community colleges, applying many of the ideas and concepts I learned from him in graduate school.”

Like Drs. Kozeracki and Purdy, who went on to become community college leaders, Art inspired several generations of UCLA graduate students to become community college administrators, university faculty, state-level education policy officers, and independent researchers. And beyond Art’s graduate students at UCLA, there are the thousands of community college faculty and administrators and higher education policymakers who read one of six editions of “The American Community College” (first published by Jossey-Bass in 1982, last published in 2014), “The Shaping of American Higher Education,” (1998 and 2010), or the many other publications by Cohen and Brawer. It is safe to say that Arthur M. Cohen will remain one of the most recognizable and respected names in higher education for many decades to come.

In addition to his professional work, Art was a proud husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather; an ardent gardener; a master mason; an Italophile; and along with his wife Florence, a passionate collector of art, particularly sculpture. Upon Florence’s death in 2014, Art donated their entire sculpture collection to the Luskin Conference Center at UCLA, where seven abstract sculptures by Minoru Niizuma, several from prominent sculpture artist Jack Zajac—with whom they became good friends—and others by Sorel Etrog and Dimitri Hadzi are on permanent display.

Arthur M. Cohen will be remembered fondly by fellow members of the Council for the Study of Community Colleges, many of whom are his former students, and all of whom hold the greatest admiration for him and the body of work he created and inspired.

“Art and I were close for more than fifty years and he was a dear friend, coach and mentor,” says Bernie Luskin, former chancellor of the Ventura County Community College District and past Chair of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). “Art was such a force and oracle in the American Community College movement that tributes are inadequate in capturing the influence of his towering presence. I think of him frequently, and still remember specifically what he said in class.”

Arthur Cohen is survived by his brothers Edward and Martin Cohen, late sister Thelma Altshuler, and his children Bill Cohen, Andrew Cohen, Ada Tomashevski (née Nancy Cohen), and Wendy Magur.

A private service was held in December 2020. The family requests that any donations to honor Art be made to either the Arthur M. Cohen & Florence Brawer Cohen Scholarship Fund at UCLA or to Jerusalem Open House in Brooklyn, NY.

The Arthur M. Cohen & Florence Brawer Cohen Scholarship Fund at UCLA supports medical students with financial need, particularly those in their fourth year of studies interested in pursuing careers in primary care at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Donations are tax deductible (Tax ID #952250801).

To give to the Arthur M. Cohen and Florence Brawer Cohen Scholarship at UCLA, visit this link.

Jerusalem Open House was founded in 1996 by Rabbi Chaim Cohen, to give aid and preserve the dignity of the poor of Jerusalem. Its programs include meals for the hungry, including schoolchildren; the distribution of coats to protect from the winter; and assistance for families in meeting expenses for Passover, weddings, and other important occasions. Contributions to the Jerusalem Open House are tax deductible (Tax ID #11-3623968).

To give to Jerusalem Open House, visit this link, or write to:

Jerusalem Open House
3016 Avenue L, Brooklyn NY 11210 
(800) 216-8905

To read or submit tributes to Arthur M. Cohen and for details on a Zoom memorial service in January 2021, visit the Beautiful Tribute website.

Above: UCLA Emeritus Professor of Education Arthur Cohen shared his decades-long research on the community college during a 2018 Community College Study Conference at UCLA.