Remembering Sornampillai Chidambaranathan (1930 – 2016)

WUSC would like to offer our sincere condolences following the passing of Mr. Sornampillai Chidambaranathan, “Nathan,” as he was known to friends and colleagues. During his 86 years, Nathan accomplished a great deal in the pursuit of a more equitable world and touched the lives of countless individuals from Papua New Guinea to Canada and many places in between.

As a young student, Nathan left his first mark on the higher education community when he became the founding president of the Madras Student Federation at the University of Madras in India. One of his most memorable achievements as president, he invited the first Prime Minister of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, to address Madras University students in 1952. Twenty-five thousand students attended this presentation. This moment was the spark that ignited his interest in social work and his commitment to helping the university community. Following his graduation in 1955 with an M.Sc. in Physics, he became an Assistant Professor in physics at his alma mater.

Shortly after, Nathan discovered World University Service (WUS), an international organization that helped displaced students continue their studies following the First and Second World Wars. Nathan knew this was an organization that he wanted to be a part of, and, as such, in 1958 he left his position as a university assistant professor and became the first Executive Secretary of WUS in India. From there, he moved to Geneva in 1961 to work in the International Secretariat of WUS. As the Associate Secretary, and later the Associate General Secretary, he served the entire continent of Asia and worked to establish new WUS committees while strengthening existing committees across the continent. For example, Nathan secured funding for two new WUS centers in Madras and Seoul, Korea to provide accommodation, food services, and health facilities to hundreds of deserving students in the regions so that they could continue their education.

In 1968, Nathan was elected as the General Secretary of WUS. He held this position from 1968-1975. This was a time when student groups around the world were becoming increasingly critical about the role their universities played in the global community. Nathan made a pivotal decision to reorient WUS by creating programs that focused on social action and bridging universities and communities, strengthening communities at large. Though Nathan eventually left WUS in 1975, he continued to hold the organization close to his heart.

Following his time with WUS, Nathan began a lengthy career with the UN University (UNU) in 1976. He started his time at UNU in Tokyo as a Senior Governmental and Institutional Relations Officer. He held this position until 1981 when he was appointed as the first Executive Officer in the Office of the Rector. In this capacity, Nathan assisted the Rector in the executive management and growth of UNU as a research and capacity building organization. He then became the Director of the UNU Office at the United Nations in New York City in 1989. From 1992 to 2013 Nathan served as a Special Advisor to the Rector, with a focus on institutional development and cooperative arrangements. In that role, he participated in the development of many UNU institutional centers (eg. UNU-INWEH in Hamilton, Canada and UNU-BIOLAC in Caracas, Venezuela).

Throughout his career as an academic and his work with WUS and UNU Nathan made many contributions in the areas of teaching, institutional development, management and program development. In addition, he held a number of honorary positions in the academic, NGO and UN sectors and participated as an expert in a wide range of activities.

During his time in Geneva, Nathan considered his staff to be his family. He cared for them and was always willing to offer them his advice. He continued to check in with them and visit them long after they worked together. Nathan was described as dedicated, committed, and hard-working. He was trustworthy, honest, and dependable, and was a friend to all those who met him. Now, around the one-year anniversary of Nathan’s passing, we all celebrate his life and achievements. He will surely be missed.

Thank you to Hema Dassanayake (WUS International Secretariat 1969-1974), a friend and colleague of Nathan’s, for helping us with this tribute.


50th Anniversary photo of WUS Secretariat (1970)

Left to Right: Georgette ROBERT, Michel GOUAULT, Nathan, Charlotte LOHRIG, unknown friend, Roger EGGLESTON, Hema DASSANAYAKE (missing: Marie LANG & Denise GLASSCOCK)

Here is what a few of Nathan’s friends and colleagues had to say about Nathan:

“I would just like to emphasize that Nathan was indeed a pillar of uprightness and reliability, whose character and demeanor inspired trust and confidence from the first minutes of meeting him. His word was his bond, and where WUS was concerned his word was based on sound assessment of policy options and sound judgement as to the most appropriate course of action.”
– Cyril Ritchie
WUS Refugee Office, Austria, 1956-1957
WUS International Secretariat 1957-1964

“Nathan was a very special person. A cascade of memories overwhelms me whenever I see or hear his name. More than anything, he is to me the epitome of courtesy, a gentleman to the tips of his elegant fingers; compassionate, concerned with the welfare of those around him as well as the universe of higher education staff, students and administrators for whom WUS cared. His diplomatic skills were legendary, as I witnessed in the Geneva office, and at sometimes acrimonious Executive and General Assembly meetings, as well as his quiet behind-the-scenes work. And his vision for WUS and the projects he developed, promoted and supported not only in universities and colleges in the developing world but through the UN University, will stand as his lasting legacy. “
– Dr. Robin Burns
International WUS General Assembly
International WUS Executive Committee

“I worked with Mr. Nathan for almost 20 years at the United Nations University! There is so much I could say, but, I can sum it all to say that his kindness, empathy, belief in people, wise counsel and friendship will be missed. He is one of the few humans who has greatly impacted my life and my career.”
– Ramon Ray
Office of the Director, New York City, UN University