On Saturday, celebrated professor, political icon and University devotee Prof. Isaac Kramnick, the Richard J. Schwartz Professor of Government Emeritus, died in New York City. He was 81.
Kramnick came to Cornell, the University that he would make his home, in 1972 as a professor in its government department. A giant of British and American political thought and history, Kramnick taught for 43 years, publishing dozens of books and papers while working to craft Cornell into the institution he believed it could be.
“Isaac managed to gain the respect, trust, and affection of just about every person he encountered,” said Prof. Glenn Altschuler Ph.D. ’76, American Studies, Kramnick’s friend of over 45 years, citing his friend’s integrity, insight, wit and wisdom.
Prof. Emeritus Mary Katzenstein, government, wrote in an email to The Sun that it was his “example as as teacher” that she most cherished, recalling Kramnick’s “storied” courses — including Liberalism and its Critics and American Political Thought From Madison to Malcolm X — that challenged generations of Cornellians to consider the meanings of liberalism and to interrogate America as a liberal nation.
“On Broadway, someone is a triple threat if he can act, sing and dance,” said David Folkenflik ’91, a former student and longtime friend. “Isaac was probably a quadruple threat.”
Not only could Kramnick teach the dreaded introductory courses, he enjoyed teaching them — and undergraduates flocked to him in return, packing his lecture halls and office hours. He created many mentees from their ranks, as well as those of his graduate students and even younger faculty members.
Prof. Suzanne Mettler Ph.D. ’94, government, was a teaching assistant for “Liberalism and its Critics” during her own undergraduate years, and told The Sun that she would never forget watching Kramnick captivate a full hall of students. Years later, she invited him as a guest lecturer for her own courses.
Once again, she said, she got to see him in action: “Just him standing at a lectern and – as always – delivering a magnificent lecture that kept students on the edge of their seats,” she wrote.
For Kramnick, this was typical. A tour for Cornell’s sesquicentennial in 2015 quickly turned into a former-student praise train of his masterclass lectures, Altschuler said. Prof. Emeritus Sidney Tarrow, government told the Cornell Chronicle that his own students frequently cited Kramnick’s annual guest lecture as the best part of the semester.
“Isaac was gentle, and in certain respects a self-effacing man, but you put him in front of an audience — he was a performer,” Altschuler said of his friend’s lectures.
Each lecture was written out in full in pen on paper, fretted over and revised with scrawls in the margins. “He probably had the worst handwriting in the Western World,” Altschuler said. “And still he managed to deliver impeccable lectures from those notes.”
Kramnick retired from teaching in 2015.
Off the podium, Kramnick’s own research — from which he published or edited over 20 books throughout his career — centered on British and American political theory and liberalism, with forays into religion and biographical deep dives.
Folkenflik — now at NPR, and a former editor-in-chief of The Sun — spent the summer of 1989 as Kramnick’s research assistant, helping plan a book that Kramnick would later co-write with British MP Barry Sheerman.
Years later, reporting for the National Public Radio in London, Folkenflik ran into and interviewed Sheerman in the halls of Parliament. The member of parliament just wanted to talk about Kramnick, Folkenflik recalled, and “how funny and smart that guy was — he was marvelling over a guy from a project completed over a decade earlier.”
Kramnick maintained close ties with The Sun and its reporters throughout his time on campus; he prized independent thought and cheered student journalists, and they gravitated toward him in return. The Sun once named him the University’s “best professor” — an accolade he cherished, and would frequently cite with humor and great pleasure, Altschuler recalled.
Kramnick read the paper every morning, and told The Sun in September that his first lecture each semester contained a facetious disclaimer: Everything he would say was off the record, allowing him to talk freely to his students on the goods and bads of the University, individual administrators and his ideas for the better.
For decades Kramnick served in many ways at the University’s “moral conscience,” Altschuler said. He prized Cornell for its vision and turned a sharp eye when he saw it fall short.
“Here was a guy who was simply anti-authoritarian, and anti-authority-figure, who nontheless by virture of his intellect and rigor and his ability to build bridges at times was taken seriously — he was inside the dean’s office, was inside the provost’s office,” Folkenflik said.
Kramnick served as the associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences from 1986-89 and chaired the government department from 1996-2001. He was also the University’s first vice provost for undergraduate education, in office from 2001-05.
A champion of undergraduates in and out of office, Kramnick’s seed ideas would blossom into integral parts of the University. He pushed for a live-in faculty system — realized in the revitalized West Campus system — and advocated for Cornell’s divestment from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa and even thought up the planting of the 2015 commemorative grove on Libe Slope.
“When a student was treated unjustly, he leaped to the student’s defense,” wrote Prof. Emeritus Elizabeth Sanders, government. ”I’ve never known anyone quite like him.”
Even after his 2015 retirement, he kept an eye on his beloved Cornell, submitting op-eds to The Sun among guest pieces for national outlets including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.
Kramnick sat on Dean of Students Vijay Pendakur’s committee to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Willard Straight Hall takeover, where he penned the text of the plaque installed in the hall during Homecoming Weekend this year. A seminar room on West Campus and a study dedicated in 2018 in the Arts Quad’s Olin Library, the Isaac Kramnick Faculty Research Study, permanently bear his name.
“His loss would have been mourned wherever he was or whatever he happened to be doing. Those of us who counted him as a friend are better people because of the years we spent in his company,” Prof. Emeritus R. Laurence Moore, history, a longtime friend who co-authored two books with Kramnick, wrote to The Sun.
“He was the best of his generation, and of any generation,” said Altschuler, Kramnick’s friend. The two met at a 1976 poker game while Altschuler was a graduate student — the same poker game they continued off and on for the next four and a half decades, amidst weekly Tuesday lunches, endless talks and family holidays together.
Kramnick would build his own family in Ithaca. Raised in poverty to Orthodox Jewish foster parents in Millis, Massachusetts, Kramnick earned his bachelor’s degree on full scholarship at Harvard, where he also completed his Ph.D. with a stint at Cambridge along the way.
He was on faculty at Harvard, Brandeis and Yale before the family’s move to Ithaca, where he taught at Cornell and his wife Miriam Brody Ph.D. ’87 taught at Ithaca College. She told The Sun that her husband of 57 years was “beloved by many students, loved by many colleagues, and he was the heart and soul of our family.”
He is also survived by his children Rebecca Kramnick J.D. ’92, Jonathan Kramnick ’89 and Leah Kramnick, son-in-laws Philip and Adam, daughter-in-law Bliss and his grandchildren, Madeline Cohen ’18, Anna, Sam and Milo.
His family requested that mourners donate to Cornell University and to specify that the gift be used to help first-generation students in his memory.