Thursday, July 15, 2010

In Memory of Peter O Steiner

Every great university has been built by great leaders, such as trustees, presidents, deans, provosts and chancellors, chairs and community supporters.

For example, Berkeley had three great presidents and chancellors, Benjamin Ide Wheeler, Robert Gordon Sproul, and Clark Kerr, who between 1899 and 1964 raised Cal to the top ranked university in the world.

UCLA is another example. UCLA, founded in the 20th Century, can claim Franklin Murphy and especially Charles Young, as its guiding lights, as well as more recently Albert Carnasale, who as Chancellor from 1997 and 2006, raised over $3 billion to maintain UCLA’s stature in a time of state budget cuts.

The University of Michigan’s success spans almost two full centuries, including recent decades of state cutbacks.

Professor Peter Steiner, who passed away June 26 at the ripe young age of 87, is one of the unsung heroes who built and maintained Michigan as a great university through these rough decades.

Peter received his bachelors from Oberlin College in 1943 and a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard in 1950. In between he served in the Navy in World War II, where he learnt to play poker with great intensity.

Indeed, he never played to lose at anything.

He joined the economics faculty of Berkeley in 1949, when the university was on its rise to greatness, moved to Wisconsin in 1957, and then received a joint appointment in the economics department and law school at Michigan in 1968. He became the first professor in the law school without formal training in the law. His economics field was Industrial Organization, which lawyers refer to as antitrust. He established the Law School’s joint degree program in law and economics, when joint degree programs were still an academic rarity.

Great universities also need great scholars, and Peter certainly was. His basic economics text, coauthored with Richard Lipsey, was the main competitor to Samuelson’s text for years.

As an administrator, he served as chair of the economics department from 1971-1974, building up an outstanding Industrial Organization faculty with Frederic Scherer and William G Shepard. Two of his economics colleagues became President of the University of Michigan and then Princeton (Harold Shapiro) and Provost of Michigan(Paul Courant).

Peter served from 1981-1989 as Dean of the School of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA), the largest academic unit at Michigan.

His tenure as Dean was critical to Michigan’s longstanding academic success. The state of Michigan was in its long term decline by the end of the 1980’s. The University of Michigan, and the other public universities in Michigan, would no longer be supported to the same extent as in the past.

His response was to hire strong, junior faculty and engage in extensive private fundraising, helping to fulfill the vision of two University of Michigan Presidents, Harold Shapiro (1979-1988) and James Duderstadt (1988-1996).

In between chairing economics and service as LSA Dean, he served as President of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). He was always a strong advocate of faculty self-governance, and yet could be highly respected by faculty as an administrator.

He was a great scholar, writing on such diverse subjects as utility peak pricing, the economic challenges of the aged, and the economic challenges of higher education. He served on numerous national and international committees, and received numerous grants and fellowships from the Ford, Guggenhem, and Rockefeller Foundations.

He served as recently as three years ago on the AAUP committees investigating Louisiana universities for their responses to Katrina.

His greatest work though came after his 1991 retirement. He published a book in 1996, reflecting his great love of poker, Thursday Night Poker: How to Understand, Enjoy – and Win. He could not exist without his weekly, high power, Thursday night poker games, which he apparently pursued almost to his deathbed.

My interest in Professor Steiner is that he chaired my doctoral committee and served as my mentor at Michigan. He guided me through the process, provided me discipline, and sharpened my research and writing skills. He was firm and strong, and yet friendly and supportive, always respectful and willing to listen. His critiques were phrased in the form of gentle suggestions. He treated his economics Ph. D. students with equal respect.

He said once that he liked the graduate students in the Law School because the law School was one of only two academic units at Michigan that did not have to follow the style manual of The Rackham Graduate School.

Peter was also a shrewd judge of character. He never invited me to the poker matches, either because he sized me up immediately as a non-poker player, or because he did not wish to take my meager fellowship.

I’ll miss you Peter.

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