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Week of July 5, 2010

Former LSA dean led college during difficult time

Peter Steiner

Peter Steiner, an internationally recognized scholar of economics and law, who guided LSA through turbulent economic times as dean in the 1980s, died June 26 at his home in Ann Arbor. He was 88.

Steiner came to U-M in 1968, with a dual appointment as professor of economics and professor of law. He created the joint J.D. and Ph.D. law and economics program. He served as chair of the Department of Economics from 1971-74 and as dean of LSA from 1981-89. He retired in 1991.

Photo courtesy Alison Steiner.

He became dean of LSA in the midst of a severe national recession, which hit Michigan especially hard. Despite the tough economy he improved the college by strengthening the faculty, especially in the natural sciences, and supporting excellence in the humanities and social sciences.

Among his accomplishments were the expansion of the Department of Chemistry faculty and the construction of the Willard H. Dow Laboratory in 1988; the creation of the Institute for Humanities in 1987; the creation of the Jean and Samuel Frankel Center for Judaic Studies, establishment of the first Dean’s Advisory Council and the reorganization of the Department of Linguistics.

As state support of the university eroded — falling from 58 to 48 percent of the general fund during his tenure — he began a program of private fundraising in LSA. He also established the college’s student merit scholarship program. He and his wife, Patricia, endowed a scholarship, which today supports four students each year.

“He loved LSA and was an excellent steward of resources during tough financial times,” says Edie Goldenberg, a professor of political science and public policy, who succeeded Steiner as dean in 1989. “I inherited an outstanding college in good economic shape with an external advisory committee that became enormously important to LSA’s future.”

Terrence McDonald, dean of LSA, praised Steiner’s skill in both economic and academic issues facing the college.

“Despite the dire economic circumstances he faced during his tenure, which are even worse than what we face today, Peter found creative ways to stay true to his unshakable desire for quality in the college,” McDonald says. “He left a wonderful legacy.”

Steiner was passionate about academic freedom, the importance of tenure and tenure reviews, and the centrality of arts and sciences in any great university, say Goldenberg and others. He was not afraid to make difficult decisions.

“Peter believed the university’s central commitments are to the education of students and the advancement of knowledge,” says Terrance Sandalow, dean emeritus of the Law School. “His willingness as dean to make difficult and at times unpopular decisions in the service of those commitments was of critical importance in enabling LSA and the university to hold course and even to prosper during a perilous decade.”

Paul Courant, university librarian, dean of libraries and a professor of economics, was hired by Steiner in 1973, when he was chair of the Department of Economics.

“He had an unrelenting commitment to the quality of the faculty and worked hard with the executive committee to make sure every promotion would make the college better,” Courant says.

A hard bargainer, Steiner would often pause a conversation by reaching into his pocket to look at a piece of paper, Courant recalls. “It wasn’t until after he retired that he confessed it was a blank piece of paper,” he says.

Steiner also was a very good poker player, hosting a regular Thursday night game for years, according to Courant, who played poker with him the Thursday before he died. He wrote a book about the game “Thursday-Night Poker: How to Understand, Enjoy — and Win,” published in 1996.

Steiner was born July 9, 1922, in New York City. He received his A.B. in economics, magna cum laude, from Oberlin College in 1943, as a member of the U.S. Navy’s V-7 program. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Harvard University in 1950. He was a professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1949-57 and the University of Wisconsin, Madison 1957-68, before coming to U-M in 1968.

He was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa and the Order of the Coif, and received fellowships from the Guggenheim, Ford and Rockefeller Foundations.

From 1976-78 he served as president of the American Association of University Professors. After retiring from U-M in 1991, he served on several AAUP committees.

He is survived by his wife, Patricia, four sons, two daughters, six grandchildren and three step-grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at 1:30 p.m. July 9 at the Library Gallery, Room 100, in the Hatcher Graduate Library.

— Submitted by Maryanne George, LSA Communications, and Alison Steiner

 

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EVENTS

  • “The Geisha Influence on Kimono Fashion” with Liza Dalby, anthropologist and author who spent a year as a geisha in Japan and was a consultant to the film “Memoirs of a Geisha,” 5:30 p.m. July 15, U-M Museum of Art, Helmut Stern Auditorium.

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