Donor Spotlight

Cultivating the Next Generation of Innovative Leaders

Oct 31 2018 | By Maggie Hughes | Photo: courtesy of Jeffrey L. and Brenda Bleustein

In the 1970s, as Harley-Davidson struggled to maintain its position as America’s leading motorcycle manufacturer, Jeffrey L. Bleustein came on board as the company’s vice president of engineering.

By the end of the 1990s, Bleustein had not only helped orchestrate a buyout of the company, but also risen meteorically through its ranks—all the way to chairman of the board, where he increased the company’s market capitalization by $13 billion and was recognized by Harvard Business Review in 2010 as one of “The 100 Best-Performing CEOs in the World.”

“I spent many years at institutions of higher learning, but I credit Columbia the most with preparing me for my career,” said Bleustein. “I certainly received a solid engineering education at Columbia with exposure to its worldclass faculty. But even more important, my Columbia education taught me how to learn on an ongoing basis. It provided me with the tools, the discipline, and the confidence I needed to acquire knowledge in a variety of other areas that turned out to be critical to my business success.”

A native of Scarsdale, New York, Bleustein credits his family’s involvement in manufacturing with sparking his initial interest in engineering, leading him to earn a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell University. He then chose Columbia Engineering to continue his academic pursuits, earning his MS in 1962 and PhD in 1965, both in engineering mechanics. After graduation, Bleustein temporarily relocated to England for a year as a NATO postdoctoral fellow. In 1966, he returned to the States to take a position as an associate professor of engineering and applied sciences at Yale University, where he remained until 1971. But throughout, his heart remained with Columbia Engineering. 

Recognizing the profound impact the School had on his career, he amassed a résumé of service that includes serving on the Engineering Entrepreneurship Board, where he devoted a significant amount of time sharing his invaluable experience and expertise one-on-one with students and faculty. Additionally, over the years, Bleustein has not only given generously of his time—he has also contributed meaningful financial support to some of Dean Mary Boyce’s highest priorities. 

Through many avenues, Bleustein has found ways to translate into tangible impact his belief in the power of engineering to transform society for the better. Together with his wife, Brenda, he endowed the Jeffrey L. and Brenda Bleustein Professorship Fund in 2013 to help cultivate the next generation of innovative leaders. Great faculty excel as educators, mentors, and researchers, supporting all aspects of the School’s mission.

This past year, the couple expanded their impact by creating the Bleustein Family Fund for Excellence in Engineering for Humanity. This discretionary fund was designed to give the dean freedom to directly address the School’s priorities and advance the vision of Engineering for Humanity. Dean Boyce’s progressive and exciting plan for the School resonated deeply with Bleustein, who has combined integrity with a zeal for innovation and creativity throughout his career.

Those qualities were all on display in 2002 when Bleustein was honored with the Thomas Egleston Medal for Distinguished Engineering Achievement and selected to deliver the SEAS Class Day address. It was an event he kicked off in style, riding into the ceremony on his very own motorcycle. After reflecting on his days as a graduate student, Bleustein encouraged those listening to adopt the core attributes of the Harley-Davidson brand—freedom, adventure, and individual expression. He implored graduates to seek work in areas they are passionate about and to break down barriers of bigotry and hatred in favor of the richness of diversity and the power of love. To this day, many members of the Class of 2002 count his presentation as one of the outstanding features of their commencement experience.

Jeffrey L. and Brenda Bleustein