October 31, 2003

Lowi to Take Leave

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Laid back, unpretentious and speaking in a Southern drawl, Ted Lowi is not what one would expect of an Ivy League professor.

As the John L. Senior Professor of American Institutions in the government department, Lowi is one of the most well-known professors at Cornell, praised by students and colleagues alike. And although he will begin a sabbatical in January, he is unlikely to diminish his level of activity.

Students who have not taken a class with Lowi may still have had opportunities to see him around campus. Seventy-two years old, he runs around campus every day, in all types of weather, about 30 miles per week. An avid Cornell hockey fan, he has held season tickets for many years and often travels out of town to see the team when it makes the playoffs. A true renaissance man, Lowi referred to himself as “the only political scientist ever to play solo oboe in Lincoln Center.” He performed the solo with the Cornell Symphony Orchestra in 1965 during his first years on the faculty.

His strong presence at Cornell for the last 31 years might make it seem as though Lowi has been here all his life. Not so: He is originally from Gadsden, Ala.

Israel Waismel-Manor grad, who has worked closely with Lowi on revising his two major textbooks, described him as “a southern Jewish preacher — he spreads his gospel very well.”

Lowi earned his doctorate at Yale in 1961 and came to Cornell to join the faculty. After six years here, he left to teach at the University of Chicago, which at the time, he said, had “a certain mystique.” He returned to Cornell in 1972 after being offered the John L. Senior endowed chair. Lowi would follow in the footsteps of a man he greatly admired, Clinton Rossiter.

“They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” Lowi said.

“[Lowi] is just an exuberant bundle of energy,” said Isaac Kramnick, vice provost for undergraduate education and a colleague of Lowi’s for the past 31 years. “He’s constantly on the go because he travels a lot.” Kramnick referred to Lowi’s previous commitments as president of the American Political Science Association and of the Policy Studies Organization. He added that Lowi rarely misses a class.

Kramnick also discussed Lowi’s speaking commitments and the difficulty of balancing teaching and traveling.

“He is a rare example of collegial responsibility and dedication,” he said. “In addition to his eminence [and] in addition to his incredible travel and speaking, he is always willing to work for the department and for the University.”

“Among my colleagues, I don’t know anyone who loves Cornell more than he does,” Kramnick said.

Students love Lowi as well. They can’t seem to stop talking about him.

“He’s the most renowned professor in the department,” said Andrew Milano ’05.

He explained that students who take Lowi’s classes are eager not only to learn about government but also to learn it from Lowi himself. He literally wrote the book.

Milano used Lowi’s textbook, American Government: Freedom and Power, in his Advanced Placement government class in high school at Bronx Science in Manhattan.

“He’s the number-one liberal mind in the country,” he said, referring to what he has heard about Lowi outside of Cornell.

“Students are awed by his speaking ability,” Waismel-Manor said. “Even if they don’t agree with his politics, they agree with his intellect.”

Lowi is highly regarded outside of Ithaca as well. He has biographical mentions in Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in the World, in addition to other publications.

Lowi turned down an offer for a prestigious position at Yale because he felt that “anything I could do there, I could do here just as well.”

“This has been my life, unexpectedly,” Lowi said.

As a social leader at his high school, he once aspired to be the first Jewish president. Luckily for him, he found a similarly influential profession in which he has been able to do work he enjoys.

His influence is particularly strong in the government department. Three of its professors were once his students: Profs. Elizabeth Sanders, Richard Bensel and Martin Shefter.

“I’ve got a local life here, but my life spreads throughout the world,” Lowi said.

His work extends far beyond the Cornell community. He frequently travels to speak for other commitments, and he collaborates with intellectuals throughout the world on many of his projects.

“He’s world-class, but he doesn’t have a pompous bone in his body,” Kramnick said.

Lowi will be taking his first sabbatical in 14 years starting this January.

“I’ll psychologically go abroad,” he said of his decision to remain in Ithaca during his time away from teaching.

He will be using the time to catch up on long-standing projects that remain unfinished because of the demands of his professorship and his commitments to students.

One of his current projects is a collaboration with Prof. Mauro Calise of the University of Naples in Italy. The two men are developing a computer-generated tool that will serve as an encyclopedic dictionary of political concepts and theories.

Lowi will also be working with Kramnick on a book already in progress, The Norton Anthology of American Political Thought.

Among Lowi’s main academic interests is the suppression of political tyranny.

“We’re an experiment in democracy,” Lowi said of the United States government. He referred to the government’s successes as “small victories over the tyrant.”

Lowi explained the current controversy over legislation intended to protect citizens from terrorism.

“Psychologically, we’re at war,” he said. “We worry we won’t ever demobilize, so we accept infringement of civil liberties.”

He added that he believes it is a healthy sign to feel angry about the war and to question decisions made by the government. On the other hand, he considers laws like the USA PATRIOT Act as signs of weakness and fear and hopes such laws are only temporary solutions to current problems.

Lowi’s upcoming sabbatical is only a temporary leave from his teaching responsibilities. According to Waismel-Manor, Lowi could have retired already but has chosen not to.

“The day he’ll stop teaching is the day, I think, he’ll die,” Waismel-Manor said. “He’s in a league of his own.”

Kramnick would agree.

“He is one of the jewels in the crown at Cornell,” he said.

Archived article by Stephanie Baritz