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Professor James McGann.

Penn professor and senior lecturer of International Studies at the Lauder Institute James McGann died on Nov. 29 at age 66. 

McGann was also the director at the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP) and an advisor to foreign governments and organizations such as the United Nations and the World Bank. TTCSP, which is housed in the Lauder Institute at Penn, conducts research on the influence of public policy research organizations on global governments and civil societies. 

McGann had earned a master's degree in 1990 and Ph.D. in 1991 at Penn.

He dedicated most of his life’s work to the development and interconnection of think tanks on a global scale. Think tanks are organizations that perform specialized research on public policy and government areas in order to change and improve government policies around the world. TTCSP is often referred to as the “think tanks’ think tank,” according to its website.

Former TTCSP research assistant and 2020 College graduate Laura Whelan said McGann believed think tanks are an important part of the world order due to their ability to create facts and perform research to find truths, which can then influence policy.

“[McGann]’s goal was always to be a step ahead of whatever threat was coming, and to make sure that he prepared think tanks to be fully poised for whatever was bound to come,” Whelan said.

College junior and TTCSP Executive Team Co-Lead Zuha Noor said McGann’s efforts were focused on creating a binding force for the global think tank community.

“If you talk to anyone who has interacted with [McGann] as a part of his line of work, they will tell you that he single-handedly held that community together,” Noor said.

McGann created a database with more than 14,000 think tanks to establish a ranking of leading international think tanks across multiple categories that promotes collective improvement. TTCSP has also hosted regional and global summits with institutions from over 50 countries, including the annual Global Think Tank Summit, where discussion takes place around topics such as global transitions, the digital age, democracy, and the climate crisis.

“[McGann] elevated Penn’s platform on the world stage in a way that I think very few other institutions at Penn have. He was someone who made Penn a mover and shaker on the world stage,” TTCSP Project Lead and Middle East Center Assistant Director Ibrahim Bakri said. “Penn, through McGann’s work, was able to make the world a better place, to elevate the voices of passionate people all over the world.” 

Bakri, a 2018 College graduate and School of Social Policy & Practice first year, said that McGann’s death came as a shock to his students, co-workers, and the international community as a whole.

“When all of us heard it, we were just completely stunned. Nobody saw it coming at all,” Bakri said. “[Dr. McGann] was one of the most dynamic people I’ve ever met. Hopping from meeting to meeting, from phone call to phone call. He just didn’t stop, ever.”

As the director of TTCSP, McGann took a constantly increasing number of interns to work with his organization every semester, with 186 interns from around the world in fall 2021. He mentored over 2,500 interns over the course of his time, according to previous interns.

“Despite everything that he had to do he was so attentive to every single intern there,” Noor said. “I was speaking to someone this morning and they said that when they applied he replied to them within 30 minutes over email, and he said, ‘I’m going to take a look at your application after I get out of class.’”

Noor said that McGann held weekly “career cafes” on Wednesdays to provide interns with career advice. McGann held the meetings at very early hours in the morning and very late hours in the evening to accommodate all interns in different time zones, Noor added.

As a professor at Penn, McGann taught graduate classes in topics such as international law and global institutions including the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, Whelan said.

“[McGann] had a lot of influence in the international community, and he was always able to convey that through his classes,” Whelan, who is also a former student of McGann, said. “He always had a specific example from his own life, and they could be fascinating.”

Whelan said McGann always commanded the room, reminiscing on a trip the interns took to attend a TTCSP-organized conference in Rabat, Morocco, with the professor. 

“We took a car to Casablanca and went to Rick’s Café, from the movie "Casablanca." They had a big piano in the center, and [McGann] took over it and started singing. He was definitely not allowed to do it. It was hysterical,” Whelan laughed. “And he used to do the same thing at his conferences. He just always took over the room.”