Alan Pifer, 84, who used the strength of his position as president of one of the nation's richest foundations to influence U.S. social policy in education, broadcasting and civil rights, died Oct. 31 at an assisted living facility in Shelburne, Vt. He had dementia.
Mr. Pifer, who led the Carnegie Corp. of New York from 1965 to 1982, was a forceful advocate of educational initiatives for students from early childhood to college. Under his leadership, the foundation issued recommendations that contributed to the founding of the Public Broadcasting System and Pell Grants for college students.
By his example, Mr. Pifer helped push philanthropic organizations toward a more engaged form of activism, taking forthright positions on issues that included women's rights, racial inequality, bilingual schooling and an aging population. He often worked hand in hand with government agencies, either as part of government task forces or by urging direct federal action to effect social change.
Along with the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, the Carnegie Corp. supported civil rights lawsuits in the South in the 1960s and 1970s and sponsored an effort to train black lawyers. Beginning in the 1970s, Mr. Pifer also supported projects that opposed South Africa's system of apartheid.
Mr. Pifer was once called "the conscience of the foundation field" by Eli Evans, the president of the Revson Foundation, but he also drew sharp criticism from people who did not share his progressive views.
In 1996, Heather Mac Donald wrote in a publication of the Manhattan Institute, a New York think tank, that Mr. Pifer had abandoned the "admirable restraint" of his predecessors and led a new generation of activist philanthropies in the 1960s that "aspired to revolutionize what they believed to be a deeply flawed American society."
It's unlikely that Mr. Pifer would have argued with that view. As president of the Carnegie Corp. -- so named, Mr. Pifer said, because its founder, industrialist Andrew Carnegie, "already had set up a Carnegie Foundation, a Carnegie Endowment, a Carnegie Trust and a Carnegie Institute" -- he was often ahead of the pack in understanding the scope of the nation's social needs.
In the 1960s, he directed the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, which prepared a report that became a key blueprint of the bill that created PBS. A 1967 Carnegie report on higher education helped lay the foundation for federal grants for low-income college students, now called the Pell Grants. In 1969, he directed a presidential task force on education, recommending a $1 billion investment in the nation's inner-city schools.
Mr. Pifer believed unequal educational opportunity caused some of the nation's worst problems yet was among the easiest injustice to correct.
"The number one priority has got to be children," he told the New York Times. "What worries me is not just the humanitarian issue involved but also the failure to understand that investing in children is the smartest thing we can do for the country's future."
Mr. Pifer was born in Boston, graduated from Harvard University and did additional study at Cambridge University in England. He was an Army officer during World War II and, from 1948 to 1953, was executive secretary of the United States Educational Commission of the United Kingdom, where he administered the Fulbright scholar program.
He joined the Carnegie Corp. in 1953, became vice president in 1963 and was named acting president in 1965, when his predecessor, John W. Gardner, was named secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under President Lyndon B. Johnson. In 1967, Mr. Pifer became the full-time president.
He served on many government advisory panels and was a board member of various businesses and educational institutions. He had a long association with the University of Cape Town and helped launch programs expanding educational opportunities for South African students abroad.
He was opposed to divestiture in South Africa, arguing that U.S. investors should use their financial clout to bring about change.
After resigning his presidency in 1982, he directed a Carnegie Corp. project examining the graying of America and edited the 1986 book "Our Aging Society: Paradox and Promise."
He called the aging population "an enormous social force comparable in scale to any of the great social movements in past years: the Westward movement, the civil rights movement, the women's movement."
His wife, Erica Pringle Pifer, died in 1999. Survivors include three sons; two sisters; and seven grandchildren.