Former UC Berkeley political science professor Sheldon Wolin dies at 93


Sheldon Wolin, a former UC Berkeley political science professor widely known for his lasting impact on political theory, died Oct. 21. He was 93 years old.

From teaching at UC Berkeley from 1954-70 to teaching at UC Santa Cruz and Princeton University, Wolin was a towering figure in political theory, said Jack Citrin, a campus political science professor who knew of Wolin while studying as a graduate student at UC Berkeley. Wolin’s most notable contribution to the field was his 1960 book “Politics and Vision,” which sought to infuse political theory back into the study of politics that had since been marked by a focus on empirical research.

“Political theory was seen as a thing of the past, and Wolin made it live again,” said campus political science professor Wendy Brown, who studied political philosophy under Wolin as a graduate student at Princeton University. “He was a great teacher and a singular thinker. He transformed the landscape of political theory for a good 50 years.”

Born in Chicago on Aug. 4, 1922, Wolin attended Oberlin College as an undergraduate and Harvard University as a doctoral student. During his years at Oberlin, Wolin served in the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II as a bombardier in the Pacific Ocean theater.

As a teacher, Wolin was known for his warmth and kindness as well as the high expectations he had for students. Brown, who grew close to Wolin over four decades, remembered him as modest and dignified, with a wry sense of humor. Brown described Wolin as old-fashioned in his earnestness and radical in his progressive ideas.

Many of Wolin’s students went on to become distinguished professors or leaders in the political field, including Gov. Jerry Brown, who graduated from UC Berkeley in 1961.

Wolin’s influence reached beyond the theoretical scope of his studies. According to Citrin, Wolin was a generous and wise counselor to students during the Free Speech Movement. Wendy Brown recalled that Wolin was one of the earliest faculty supporters of the movement.

“It’s not like he went out and stood on the car with Mario Savio — he worked on the level of organizing the faculty and leading the faculty to affirm the Free Speech Movement,” Wendy Brown said. “The faculty Senate supporting the Free Speech Movement was precisely what eventually got the administration to back down, and the Free Speech Movement won.”

After retiring in 1987, Wolin spent much of his time in the Pacific Northwest, where he dedicated himself to conservation efforts to protect the redwood forests.

“He was a local activist as well as somebody who was pretty ardent about the beauty of California wilderness,” Wendy Brown said.

Wolin is survived by his daughters, Deborah Olmon and Pamela Shedd, and two grandchildren.

Contact Amelia Mineiro at [email protected].

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  • thompson_richard

    “As a political theorist and an engaged intellectual, Professor Sheldon Wolin’s deepest and abiding concern was with the subversion of democracy, understood as a form of political governance that was anchored in the participation of ordinary citizens and their exercise of real power,” said Uday Mehta, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, who earned his Ph.D. at Princeton.

  • thompson_richard

    Roger Revelle didn’t offer Jonas Salk a plot of land — nor was he the Founder of UCSD — as Associate Vice Chancellor Walshok reported last Friday night at the UCSD Faculty Club. Revelle was aghast that Salk got the plot. For Charles Dail, a polio survivor, bringing the Salk Institute to San Diego was a personal quest. Then-San Diego Mayor Dail showed Salk 27 acres on a mesa in La Jolla, just west of the proposed site for the new University of California campus. In June 1960, in a special referendum, the citizens of San Diego voted overwhelmingly to give the land for Salk’s dream. With initial financial support from the National Foundation/March of Dimes, Salk and Kahn were able to proceed. When he was but 13 years of age, Salk entered Townsend Harris High School, a public school for intellectually gifted students, named after the founder of CCNY. Salk earned a CCNY degree in chemistry in 1934. Tuition was free. While competition was intense, the rules were fairly applied. What made the place special was the student body that had fought so very hard to get there. Free tuition to qualified students, many of them with their families fleeing persecution in Europe.
    From these Jewish ranks, beginning with the Class of 1933 and 1940s, emerged a wealth of intellectual talent, including more Nobel Prize winners and PhD recipients than any other public college (except the University of California at Berkeley). Salk entered CCNY at the age of 15 — a common age for a freshman who had skipped multiple grades along the way. Felix Frankfurter in law, Bernard Baruch in finance, Andrew Grove in business and technology, CCNY also nurtured nine Nobel Prize winners, all of them Jewish, in economics, chemistry, physics and medicine. All nine obtained their undergraduate degrees at CCNY, the last in 1950. Nathan Glazer and Irving Kristol in politics, Ira Gershwin the lyricist, Bernard Malamud the writer, and several actors including Edward G. Robinson, Judd Hirsch, Zero Mostel, and Eli Wallach.
    All received a superior education for the cost of a subway fare.
    Build Townsend Harris Hall at Salk Institute and tear down the two ungainly buildings. Why? Salk was 80 years of age in the year when the two excrescences were completed. They killed him.
    When asked who owned the patent to the polio vaccine, Salk said, “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” Two ungainly buildings abut the east end of the Salk Institute and its magnificent court facing the sea. Not only did the new structures all but destroy a grove of eucalyptus trees through which visitors now enter the court, but they also crowd the existing building so much that its singular power and beauty have been lost. I don’t object to the expansion, only to the placement of the 1993&ff buildings. There were and are places where new structures could be situated on the institute’s 27 acres that would not interfere with the perfect harmony of the existing building and its surrounding landscape. Salk himself and renowned architect Kahn planned a meeting house for the north bluff, closer to the ocean.

  • thompson_richard

    October 3 -4, 1964: The Free Speech Movement forms.
    October 6, 1964: FSM rejects Chancellor Strong’s appointments.
    October 8, 1964: FSM Executive Committee and Steering Committee are fully formed. ACLU announces its intention to intervene on the behalf of the eight suspended students. Arleigh Williams, Dean of Men, receives a pro-FSM petition from fraternities and sororities. Heyman Committee formed to review suspensions.
    October 11, 1964: Graduate Coordinating Committee (GCC) forms.
    October 12, 1964: Eighty-eight faculty members including Wolin urge reinstatement of suspended students.
    October 15, 1964: Regents refuse to meet with FSM.
    October 25, 1964: Heyman Committee advises that the eight students be reinstated during its investigation.
    October 26, 1964: Strong refuses the Heyman Committee’s request.
    October 26, 1964: The English rock group the Rolling Stones arrives in America, driving another wedge into the already widening generation gap.
    November 8, 1964: FSM announces that it will lift its self-imposed moratorium on political activity on Monday the 9th
    November 9, 1964. Internal split and attempted coup. Professor Glazer was one of the instigators of the Jo Freeman coup attempt of November 9th. Politically moderate; also believed that his role in the FSM was that of go-between. His services were not appreciated by the activist students. During the arrests, however, he organized a pro-student faculty meeting. Professor Lipset seems to have been the mainspring behind the attempted coup of November 9th, enlisting most notably students Jo Freeman, Sue Swartz, Ann Killabee, Jim Burnette and an unclear number of others.
    November 9, 1964: Internal split resolved. Coup fails. Tables are set up, and about seventy-five demonstrators’ names are taken. GCC hints at a strike.
    November 10, 1964: Some 200 GCC protesters continue defiance of University regulations. Participants in the November 9 demonstration are sent notices to appear at the dean’s office for disciplinary action.
    No one appears.
    November 13, 1964: Heyman Committee recommends that the suspended students be reinstated. Professor Ira Heyman addresses the report to the Academic Senate instead of Chancellor Strong.
    November 16, 1964: Tables again appear on the steps of Sproul Hall. FSM circulates a petition in support of its stand on advocacy of illegal off-campus acts, to be presented to the Regents’ meeting on Friday, November 20.
    November 17, 1964: Tables on Sproul Hall steps. No official action is taken; FSM announces that the tables will stay until they have become legal.
    November 18, 1964: Sanford Elberg, dean of the graduate division, calls a meeting of all University teaching assistants to warn them against supporting GCC strike..
    November 19, 1964: California Democratic Council supports FSM goals.
    November 20, 1964: FSM holds rally, march to Regents’ meeting at University Hall, and vigil.
    FSM representatives are admitted to the meeting but not allowed to speak.
    November 20 – 23, 1964: The Vatican approves exoneration of the Jews of guilt for the crucifixion of Jesus. The Vatican also abolishes Latin as the official language of the Roman Catholic Liturgy.
    November 25, 1964: Dean Towle bans Un Chant D’Amour (Cocteau’s movie) from campus.
    November 28, 1964: Disciplinary letters for actions subsequent to September 30 arrive at the residences of Mario Savio, Art Goldberg, Jackie Goldberg and Brian Turner.
    A number of campus organizations are charged with violating campus regulations.
    November 30, 1964: Strong rejects FSM demands that disciplinary action be dropped. GCC announces its plan for a strike. Free speech rally at UCLA.
    UCPresident Clark Kerr repeats allegations of Communist outside agitators in FSM.
    December 1, 1964: FSM issues ultimatum if administration does not meet its demands within 24 hours.
    GCC announces a strike for Friday, December 4.
    December 2, 1964: Demonstrators pack four floors of Sproul Hall.
    December 3, 1964: At 3:00 AM Chancellor Strong requests that the demonstrators end their sit-in. At 3:45 AM Governor Brown orders arrests. Twelve hours later, some eight hundred protesters have been arrested. As the arrests continued, at 1:00 PM, eight hundred professors meet in Wheeler and pass resolutions favoring political freedom and amnesty, and condemning the use of police on campus.
    Governor Pat Brown (father of Jerry) is picketed by Davis students.
    December 4, 1964: FSM rally attracts some five thousand. Strike continues. GCC joins.
    December 6, 1964: Kerr announces a special University meeting on December 7. Strong is hospitalized with gall bladder pains. The arrestees meet with their ACLU lawyers.
    December 7, 1964: Sproul Hall demonstrators appear for arraignment. At 11:00 AM some sixteen thousand students and faculty gather in the Greek Theatre to hear an address by Clark Kerr. Amnesty for all actions prior to December 3 is declared. Savio attempts to speak, but is dragged off stage by police. Savio is released and announces a rally in front of Sproul Hall. Ten thousand attend, and reject Kerr’s political proposals. A moratorium on the strike is to begin at midnight. Committee of 200 meet.
    December 8, 1964: Academic Senate meets and adopts the FSM platform. SLATE candidates sweep all seven ASUC Senate positions. Mario Savio’s 22nd birthday.
    December 12, 1964: Kenya becomes an independent state, with Jomo Kenyatta as both Prime Minister and President.

  • Dan Spitzer

    Sheldon Wolin was one of the most brilliant individuals I’ve ever had the good fortune to know. Although he was a left liberal, he never hit the egg with the ideological sledge hammer, unlike so many of the professors who today acknowledge themselves to be on the left. Moreover, while critical to some degree of Israel, he was also a true supporter of the Jewish state. Wolin would have found academic ideologues such as Hatem Bazian a very bad joke.

    Few young people who read this piece may know how and why Wolin and his colleague John Schaar were hounded out of Berkeley’s political science department. Most of the professors in the department were on the political right and were supporters of the Vietnam War. Professor Chalmers Johnson actually helped the Johnson Administration devise US policy applicable to Indochina.

    Because Wolin and Schaar leaned strongly to the political left and opposed the war, their department treated them abominably and many of their colleagues bashed them professionally, saying that because they were political theorists, they were therefore not political “scientists.” This sort of pressure ultimately led Wolin to take a position at Princeton while Schaar departed for the relatively new UC Santa Cruz. The loss of these two remarkable scholars diminished UCB greatly and their department, while today more open, has never been the same…