Remembering Peter O. Steiner

By Jordan Kurland

Former AAUP president Peter O. Steiner, professor emeritus of economics and law and former dean of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts at the University of Michigan, died on June 26, 2010, a few days short of his eighty-eighth birthday.

Throughout a distinguished academic career and continuing beyond retirement, Steiner retained a deep commitment to the freedom and welfare of all teachers and scholars in higher education. Indeed, when invited to accept nomination for the AAUP presidency he was on a fellowship in Kenya, where he had been instrumental in just-completed negotiations that secured the release of several American students who had been kidnapped by Congolese rebels from Jane Goodall’s research station in Tanzania.

After joining the AAUP in 1962, Steiner’s first major national Association activity began with his appointment in 1968 to the Committee on the Economic Status of the Profession. He served as chair of the committee from 1973 to 1976, when the insight and wit in his reports to the delegates were the highlights of successive annual meetings. During his 1976–78 term as the AAUP’s president and his three subsequent years on the Council’s executive committee, Steiner became a direct participant in the work of Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. He chaired the ad hoc investigating committee for the University of Maryland case in 1979, and he assumed regular Committee A membership a year later.

Peter Steiner’s decade as college dean necessarily brought about a hiatus in his formal AAUP responsibilities, though his interest in AAUP issues barely waned. His retirement from the university, however, led to a resumption of key AAUP work. He was to chair three additional investigating committees: Bennington College in 1995; the University of the District of Columbia in 1998; and MCP Hahnemann University in 2000. Finally, in 2006–07, he was a member of the Special Committee on Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans Universities, and since 2007 he was a member of Committee A’s subcommittee on post-Katrina censure removals.

Among the AAUP leaders who worked with Steiner over many years, Matthew Finkin perhaps knew him best. He remembers him as follows: “I had not known Peter Steiner well when, as AAUP president, he appointed me as the Association’s general counsel in 1976. That working relationship flowered over the years into a warm friendship. Peter was meticulous about seeking and expressing the truth. But his legendary unsentimental tough-mindedness was more than equaled by his sense of basic human decency. Even as he held administrative leadership to be a worthy calling, he had only contempt for the moral squalor some in authority displayed and never shrank from saying so—for the AAUP, in print.”