Milton J. Esman, professor emeritus of government, dies

Milton Esman

Milton J. Esman ’39, the John S. Knight Professor of International Studies Emeritus and a 20-year faculty member of Cornell’s Department of Government, died Feb. 7 at home in Ithaca after a short illness. He was 96.

Esman was a specialist in peace studies and ethnic studies and was one of the originators of the concept of institution building in developing countries. He helped draft Japan’s post-war constitution.

His teaching and research focused on the politics of ethnic, racial and religious pluralism and the processes of regulating ethnic conflict. Esman studied diasporas globally and was an expert on the politics of Scottish nationalism and the French separatist movement in Canada.

“Milt Esman was avuncular, wise, humorous and learned,” said Sidney G. Tarrow, the Maxwell M. Upson Professor of Government Emeritus and a longtime colleague. “Next to his wife, Janice, he loved his country, but he worried about its future in his last book, written when he was already in his 90s.” :

Another Cornell colleague, Professor of Government and International Agriculture Emeritus Norman T. Uphoff, said Esman’s life “was woven into the history of Japan and Southeast Asia, and he engaged with and was concerned for people of all walks of life all around the globe. He was adept at bringing faculty colleagues from many disciplines together to work on issues of cross-cutting interest, and a fair-minded observer and commenter on human affairs.”

The lifelong Pirates baseball fan was born and raised in Pittsburgh before earning his bachelor’s degree at Cornell and a doctorate in politics at Princeton in 1942. Commissioned into the U.S. Army, Esman learned the Japanese language in a military government training program at Harvard; assigned to the postwar staff of Gen. Douglas MacArthur in Tokyo, he helped draft Japan’s constitution.

After 1947, Esman was appointed to posts in the U.S. Civil Service Commission, the International Cooperation Administration and the Department of State – all the while teaching night classes in political science and public administration at George Washington University. He was named chief of the Program Office of the U.S. Operations Mission to Vietnam (1957-59) and taught in the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs while serving as senior adviser to the prime minister of Malaysia.

Joining Cornell’s government faculty in 1969, Esman also served as director of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies (1969-83). He retired from teaching in 1989 but remained active in writing, research and consulting for organizations that included the World Bank, U.S. Agency for International Development, Ford Foundation and the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization and the U.N. Development Program. He was the founding director of the Interuniversity Research Program on Institution Building.

More than 10 books authored or edited by Esman include, most recently, “The Emerging American Garrison State” (2012) about the increase in militarism and its effect on constitution liberties.

He celebrated his retirement 25 years ago by establishing the Milton and Janice Esman Prize, which is awarded each year to the top undergraduate student in government. His wife of 66 years, Janice Newman Esman, survives him as do a brother, three children and four grandchildren. The family suggests, in lieu of flowers, donations in Esman’s name to the university.

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Joe Schwartz