Ted Lowi, renowned political scientist, dies at 85

Ted Lowi
Charles Harrington/Provided
Ted Lowi

Theodore Jay Lowi, the charismatic Cornell professor of government whose dream of an undergraduate program in Washington became reality and whose seminal books – “The End of Liberalism,” “American Government” and “American Political Thought: A Norton Anthology” (co-edited with Isaac Kramnick) – became standards in political science discourse, died Feb. 17 in Ithaca, New York. He was 85.

“Ted was the most important social scientist to teach at Cornell in the school’s entire history,” said Kramnick, the Richard J. Schwartz Professor of Government Emeritus, who said Lowi lectured like a Southern preacher and for more than 35 years taught Introduction to American Politics – one of the university’s most popular classes.

“His writing, his mesmerizing teaching, his definitive scholarship and international eminence, and his spirited personality meant he was never still. He was a dynamo,” Kramnick said.

Eighteen months before completing his doctoral degree in political science at Yale, Lowi joined the Cornell faculty in 1959 but left in 1965 for the University of Chicago. He returned to the Cornell faculty in 1972 as the John L. Senior Professor of American Institutions. “They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” Lowi quipped.

He became the John L. Senior Professor of American Institutions Emeritus in 2015.

One of Lowi’s former students, Gretchen Ritter ’83, today serves as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “Ted Lowi was an amazing man,” she said. “He was a giant in the field of American politics. When I came to Cornell as a freshman, Lowi gave a lecture as part of freshman orientation. Hundreds of students came. I remember being awed by him – he had amazing presence and his remarks were deeply insightful. I left the lecture feeling so excited about the superb faculty and the educational opportunity that lay ahead of me at Cornell.”

Lowi was proud of his written legacy. His first classic, “The End of Liberalism,” published in 1969 and still in print, examined how government expanded by responding to organized interests. A staple in collegiate political science classes, his textbook “American Government,” first published in 1976, has added authors, adjusted subtitles with changing times, and is in its 13th edition. In 1964, he edited Robert F. Kennedy’s book, “The Pursuit of Justice,” which offered detail on Kennedy’s term as attorney general.

An oboe player since high school, Lowi joined a Cornell orchestra and played in a recorder group with fellow faculty member M.H. Abrams. For Lowi, it was months before he learned that Abrams was the renowned editor of the “Norton Anthology of English Literature” and the Cornell Class of 1916 Professor of English Literature. Abrams later inspired Lowi and Kramnick to publish “American Political Thought.”

As America celebrated its bicentennial in 1976, Lowi proposed an undergraduate program for research and teaching in Washington, D.C. After all, he explained to Cornell President Dale Corson and Provost David Knapp, “Washington is the center of the political universe.”

Lowi believed the undergraduate experience could be enhanced by direct access to policymakers, archives and Washington culture. He developed the Washington idea, and President Frank H.T. Rhodes and Provost Keith Kennedy approved it in fall 1979. Cornell in Washington started the following spring and remains a vibrant program.

The American Political Science Association (APSA) named Lowi the top political scientist in the U.S. in 1978. He served as president of the association in 1991 and as president of the International Political Science Association from 1997-2000.

In a career filled with honors and accolades, Lowi was a Guggenheim fellow (1967-68) and a fellow in the National Endowment for the Humanities (1977-78). APSA presented him with the prestigious James Madison Award in 2008.

Always armed with his professorial wit and his gentle Alabama drawl, Lowi drew students – and others – by framing pertinent points. As an example of his charismatic style, when he moderated a third-party presidential debate in 2004, he opened the event by saying, “This is a third parties debate. … This is because America is the only two-party system in the world and it believes in the two-party system, as though it came from God or the Founding Fathers or both. … Therefore, the third party is like a fifth wheel …”

Lowi was born to Alvin and Janice Lowi on July 9, 1931, in Gadsden, Alabama. In the southern summers, he scooped ice cream for Crossfield’s creamery before becoming a lifelong aficionado; he favored vanilla while holding a tender spot for chocolate syrup. He never went a day without ice cream, according to his family.

He earned his bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University in 1954, and master’s (1955) and doctoral (1961) degrees from Yale.

Lowi is survived by daughter Anna Lowi ’87 and son Jason, and four siblings. He was predeceased by his wife, Angele, in 2015, and a brother. Memorial arrangements are pending.

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John Carberry