September 22, 2003

Prof. LaFeber Recovers, Researches

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Over the summer, Prof. Walter F. LaFeber, the Andrew H. and James S. Tisch Distinguished University Professor, canceled fall classes to recover from a recent heart surgery.

“I had heart surgery down at Cornell Medical. I thought I could get back to teaching this fall but it didn’t work out, so I had to take my first [medical] leave from Cornell in 43 years to recover,” said LaFeber.

For students eager to take a class with the world renowned scholar, they will have to wait until next fall as LaFeber currently works only half the year.

“One of the reasons I went on half time is because I wanted more time to write. Cornell recognizes that faculty turn out books and continue to write after they retire,” LaFeber said.

Currently, LaFeber is working on a book about Vietnam and how the war affected the 1968 election of Richard M. Nixon.

Throughout the year, LaFeber will also be doing research for a book on America’s post Sept. 11 foreign policy and its historical roots that run back over a century. He will also be revising his own US foreign policy textbook.

Though he planned to teach this year, LaFeber is already retired. In April 2002, LaFeber was awarded the first Andrew H. and James S. Tisch Distinguished University Professorship, which has allowed him to continue teaching. The professorship is unique in that it is “to be awarded to a senior faculty member who is noted as a leader in his or her academic field, an individual who has influenced his or her students’ thinking, values and understanding of the world and who is considering retirement, or has retired.”

“I think the idea came about because of Walter, because he was such an outstanding teacher during my career at Cornell and my brother Andy’s. There was a sense that it would be good to do something that would keep these stars in a position where they could keep on teaching,” said Jim Tisch ’75. “I never took his course but I remember after lunch I would go in and listen to his lectures. I learned an extraordinary amount from him,” he said.

“I consider it a great honor,” LaFeber said. “I was flattered that Andrew and James Tisch would set up a chair like this. I’m looking forward to teaching another year, and I’m honored to have received it,” he said.

“Recognition of faculty excellence serves the university and its students far beyond particular individuals. Andrew and Jim Tisch know well that one teacher can influence a generation or more of students. A great university is built on a foundation of great teachers, who inspire future citizens. This gift not only rewards superb scholarship and undergraduate teaching, but also provides an additional opportunity for mentoring and professional exchange between seasoned and younger faculty members. It makes a statement on the high value Cornell places on its faculty,” said former President Hunter R. Rawlings III when he first awarded LaFeber the gift two years ago.

The professorship is a three year term with an option to renew another three years. LaFeber has already said, however, that he will not renew it. “I will retire after next year. I will stay an extra year because the chair has given me the opportunity to do so,” he said.

LaFeber first began teaching at Cornell in 1959 after receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin. In addition to being the first Tisch professor, he holds the title of Marie Underhill Noll Professor of American History Emeritus.

Much has changed in the history department since LaFeber first arrived at Cornell. At that time, he said, there were only twelve professors, four of whom specialized in American history. Currently, there are 40 members of the department.

Many other changes in the department have occurred during LaFeber’s tenure.

“When I came, there was not much interest in hiring women — that changed. Those of us who came in the ’60s thought to diversify and move into new fields,” LaFeber said. “The department has gotten a lot larger, more diverse and fortunately, has moved into new fields. The department has been transformed in the past 40 years as the subject matter has transformed. It is a very distinguished department in terms of publications but also in terms of teaching,” he said.

As a professor and expert on American foreign policy, LaFeber has had a chance to watch some of the country’s future politicians start their careers in Ithaca.

“I think one of the more interesting parts [of being at Cornell] has been the number of Cornell graduates who are policy makers. There’s a kind of Cornell contingent in Washington who are very influential,” LaFeber said. He cited Cornell graduates Eric Edelman ’72, US Ambassador to Turkey, Dan Fried ’74 of the National Security Council, former Clinton administration National Security Advisor Sandy Berger ’67 and Paul Wolfowitz ’65, the current deputy Defense secretary.

Archived article by Erica Temel