Lindsay France/The New York Times

Late Prof. Walter LaFeber is honored with a new professorship.

March 30, 2021

Walter LaFeber Professorship Established to Honor Late Scholar, Pioneer in Foreign Policy

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Cornell has designated a new College of Arts and Sciences professorship to honor Prof. Walter LaFeber, history, who died in early March at the age of 87. 

The inaugural Walter F. LaFeber Professor will be Prof. Thomas Pepinsky, government, who is a fellow at the think tank the Brookings Institution, and researches and teaches comparative politics, political economy and Southeast Asian politics.

“Walt LaFeber was such a dedicated teacher and researcher who wrote important books that shape how we understand American foreign policy and America’s place in the world,” Pepinsky said. 

Pepinsky said he hopes he will honor the namesake of his new role by continuing to engage with undergraduates and ensuring that his research has a broad, tangible impact. 

“I don’t work on American foreign policy in any particular way,” Pepinsky said. “But I do hope that the research that we do here on Southeast Asia can be similarly influential in how we think about the world that we live in and our role as American citizens.”

The endowed professorship is funded through a gift from Andrew H. Tisch ’71, trustee emeritus, and Ann Rubenstein Tisch. Having established a number of Tisch University professorships to attract and retain mid-career faculty at Cornell, the couple decided to remove their names from one of the titles to honor LaFeber, who spent nearly six decades affiliated with the University. 

Andrew Tisch, who also assisted in funding the Andrew H. and James S. Tisch Distinguished University professorship, of which LaFeber was its inaugural recipient, still holds fond memories of his time auditing LaFeber’s classes as an undergraduate. 

“He taught the class on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday,” Tisch said. “You can imagine what it took to get students after partying Friday night to wake up on Saturday and traipse over to Bailey Hall in the dead of winter. But he used to get more people in on Saturday than he did on Tuesday and Thursday.” 

Tisch did not meet LaFeber until his 25th Cornell reunion, when LaFeber was the guest speaker at an event that Tisch was underwriting. At that initial meeting, Tisch decided he would support LaFeber with a professorship that would last him into retirement and help keep his talents with the University.

After that, they began communicating regularly over email, and Tisch would visited LaFeber and his wife Sandra Gould every time he came to Ithaca for a trustee meeting. 

“I just did a data dump from my emails on all the correspondence I’ve had back and forth with him over the last 25 years, and there were 500 pages of correspondences,” Tisch said.

Pepinsky was named a Tisch University Professor in May 2020 after joining the government department in 2008 and achieving a full professorship in 2019.  

While Pepinsky never had the opportunity to sit in on one of LaFeber’s show-stopping lectures, he expressed his joy of teaching in the classroom and mentioned the importance of high-quality lectures in a virtual format. 

“It’s incredibly hard to remember in the middle of the pandemic how enjoyable sitting in a room and interacting with a professor who’s giving a lecture and accepting questions throughout the course of the conversation could be,” Pepinsky said. “But I know that he was a dynamite teacher in that way. And I hope to fill his classroom presence in some ways similar to that.”

“[Walter LaFeber] stayed for his career,” Tisch reminisced. “And while Ithaca’s a fine place, it’s a very, very tough place to get people to. Because, as you have no doubt found out, it’s pretty remote. But it’s also a very difficult place to get people from.”

To Tisch, establishing the professorship in LaFeber’s honor was the least he could do to celebrate a life well-lived.

“The only thing I would add is that he was probably one of the most accomplished people I’ve met my life, and I’ve met a lot of a lot of amazing people,” Tisch said. “Walt had a great family, great colleagues, highly loved and revered by so many people and he lived a hell of a life and as a good friend of his, I’m going to miss him.”