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Isaac Kramnick, exemplary 'university citizen,' honored

Isaac Kramnick

Lindsay France/University Photography
Isaac Kramnick listens to speakers at his retirement celebration, May 30.

A champion of undergraduate education, a mentor to his fellow members of the faculty, and a renowned scholar in English and American political thought, Isaac Kramnick, the Richard J. Schwartz Professor of Government, will retire after 43 years at Cornell. His friends, colleagues and many former students packed the A.D. White House May 30 to attend panels on Kramnick’s scholarship, teaching and his contributions to Cornell.

“Isaac is the kind of university citizen who demands that Cornell aspire to, act as and become its best self,” said Glenn Altschuler, the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies and co-author with Kramnick of “Cornell, A History, 1940-2015.” “Isaac is willing, when appropriate, to be tenacious, and cantankerous, and to speak truth to power. In this sense, he is a unique university citizen.”

Speakers highlighted Kramnick’s Cornell service: He was the first vice provost for undergraduate education (2001-05), and during his tenure the New Student Reading Project was born; he was an early champion and guiding voice for the West Campus House System, which transformed West Campus into living-learning communities for students and faculty; he led the Department of Government from 1996-2001, and was described by Cornell President David Skorton as a “peacemaker” who was open-minded and constructive; he served on the Charter Day steering committee, which celebrated Cornell’s sesquicentennial in April with a weekend of events; and it was Kramnick who conceived of the Sesquicentennial Commemorative Grove on Libe Slope.

First and always, when asked about Kramnick, people say he is a “gifted, inspired and inspiring teacher,” Skorton said. Kramnick was passionate about teaching undergraduates especially, and once told The Cornell Daily Sun that he found teaching freshmen and sophomores “exhilarating.”

Drawing from the example of Plato, who feared that books, which are “mute,” might be the death of education, Hunter Rawlings, president of Cornell from 1995-2003, said Kramnick, too, thinks “books are OK,” but they’re inferior to the process of engagement and dialogue with students.

Kramnick understands, Rawlings said, “you can’t teach anyone, really, anything of any significance. You can just help them learn.”

Ross Brann, the Milton R. Konvitz Professor of Judeo-Islamic Studies, called Kramnick “the earthly embodiment of my platonic ideal of a Cornell University professor.” An admired and accomplished academic, he is also an “outstanding teacher and profoundly attentive adviser.”

The event was co-organized by Jason Frank, associate professor of government, and Don Herzog ’78, of the University of Michigan Law School, who spoke at the event on Kramnick’s scholarship.

Recalling his time on campus, Herzog said: “As an undergraduate, I stumbled into [Kramnick’s] office and - this is astonishing generosity - he took me on for three semesters of independent study, six credits apiece, a 10-page paper due every week, and he met with me at least an hour a week. Were it not for him, I wouldn’t do what I do today, and I wouldn’t do it the way I do it, either.”

Raised by Hasidic Jewish farmers in rural Massachusetts, Kramnick described himself as a “country bumpkin” who grew up in an “anti-intellectual house” with no books. He graduated from a public school with just 19 students in his class. A scholarship student at Harvard in the mid-1950s, Kramnick was mentored by political theorists Judith Shklar and Stanley Hoffmann, young assistant professors at the time, to whom Kramnick said he owes “who I am, and who I became.”

“I like to think that in my classes there are students who are like me, who are as I was,” Kramnick said. Like Shklar and Hoffmann did for him, he hopes some of his students left a provincial world and entered an “utterly new, wondrous world of ideas.”