Hans Simons

Hans Simons may best be known as a successful president of the New School rather than as a scholar. But his scholarly and administrative work in politics was typical of many of the refugee scholars who formed the University in Exile.

Born on July 1, 1893 in Velbert, Rhine Province, Germany, Hans Simons grew up during the final years of the Imperial German Reich. In 1912, Simons began studying law and political science at Friedrich-Wilhelm’s University of Berlin (today Humboldt University) and Ludwig-Maximilian’s University of Munich. In 1913, Simons studied at the Eberhard Karls University at Tübingen and one year later at the University of Bonn. The First World War interrupted his studies in 1914, as he was called to fight for Germany until 1917. After sustaining a head injury in battle, Simons worked as an administrator in the eastern territories occupied by the German empire. Following the fall of the empire in 1919, Simons’ father, Walter, secured the powerful positions of foreign minister and chief justice in the new Weimar government, a development that would grant the Simons family an important role in the governance of Germany for years to come.

Simons returned to his studies in 1920 at the University of Königsberg, where he began writing his dissertation on the League of Nations and International Law in the aftermath of the First World War. He completed his work and earned his PhD the following year, and began working as an administrator for the new federal government soon thereafter. In 1924, Simons became the director of the Deutschen Hochschule für Politik in Berlin (German Academy for Politics), and from 1925 to 1930 served there as both director and a professor of law. Simons also flirted with electoral politics during this time, with an unsuccessful run for a seat in the parliament as a member of the Social Democratic Party.

Simons was blacklisted by the increasingly powerful Nazi Party in 1933, which encouraged him to escape Germany and eventually flee to New York in 1935 after receiving a fellowship from the University in Exile program at the New School. As a member of the Graduate Faculty, Simons taught courses on political science and international relations, and conducted popular public lectures on democracy and totalitarianism at both the New School and other foreign universities. He became an American citizen in 1940.

In 1943, Simons was appointed Dean of the Graduate Faculty, a position he held until June of 1950 when he was selected to serve as the third President of the New School, following five years of tumultuous and divisive leadership under Bryn Hovde. While Simons inherited a fractured university with a host of financial issues due to the missteps of his predecessor, he managed to rebuild a strong consensus both among members of the Board of Trustees and the faculty as a widely-admired figure and popular lecturer. Under Simons’ leadership, the New School focused on the meanings of adult education and significantly expanded its student enrollment from approximately 5,000 to 8,000 students. He also began construction on the buildings that today make up the Eugene Lang College complex. Notably, President Simons also championed radical intellectual freedom and a welcoming academic environment—core values of the New School—and defended instructors’ rights to engage in political activity, however unpopular it may have been with other members of the New School. Perhaps as a political refugee himself, Simons understood the importance of preserving such freedoms. A rather blunt communication from Simons to the New School faculty on this matter is available here.

In 1960, Simons retired from the presidency at the New School to work as a consultant and director for the Ford Foundation. Following a long illness, Simons died on March 28, 1972, in his home in Yonkers, New York. Many of Simons’ personal papers and written communications are preserved in the New School Archives, many of which are digitally available here.

For more in the New School Archives on Hans Simons, see the New School Publicity Office records, 1918-1993.


Hans Simons (September 1, 1952). Website: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_Simons