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.