May 14, 2009
Vol. 28 No. 16

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    Social theorist Margolis analyzed choices of individuals that affected many others

    Howard Margolis, a professor and scholar of social theory, died Wednesday, April 29 at his Hyde Park home. He was 77.

    Margolis, a faculty member at Chicago since 1990, was a Professor in the Harris School of Public Policy Studies and the College. His study of social theory focused on the underpinnings of individual choice and judgment that shape aggregate social outcomes. His current research, an article and eventual book, was titled “Understanding Persuasion,” a subject he also had been teaching.

    Margolis’ most recently published work was his 2007 book, Cognition and Extended Rational Choice, in which he shows how “behavior economics” moves rational choice theory beyond simple self-interest and intuition.

    His earlier books are It Started with Copernicus: How Turning the World Inside Out Led to the Scientific Revolution (2002); Dealing with Risk: Why the Public and the Experts Disagree on Environmental Issues (1996); Paradigms and Barriers: How Habits of Mind Govern Scientific Beliefs (1993), Patterns, and Cognition: A Theory of Judgment (1987), and Selfishness, Altruism and Rationality: A Theory of Social Change (Cambridge Press, 1982; University of Chicago edition, 1984).

    “Howard was a most unique individual,” said Susan Mayer, Dean of the Harris School of Public Policy Studies. “His research defied categorization, crossed disciplinary boundaries, and asked new and provocative questions. His courses were not in a disciplinary tradition and sometimes veered from the conventions of classroom practices. But his students were the better for it. He was a distinguished journalist before joining the academy.

    “He rode his bike to school, windsurfed and lived a full life. He was creative, collegial and thoughtful. I am certain that over time we will come to see that Howard was a man thinking ahead of his time. I know that I speak for all of his colleagues when I say we will miss him.”

    Margolis was extraordinarily committed to his students, both as a professor and a mentor. According to Stephen Tkachyk (MPP,’10), a student in his current class, “Persuasion and Policy Analysis,” his students were a priority until the end.

    “In his last few weeks with the class, his efforts to continue teaching were extraordinary and included a lecture taped from his hospital bed,” said Tkachyk. “Professor Margolis set a remarkable example for his students, through both his unflagging commitment to teaching and his personal courage under adversity.”

    Arielle Bernstein (MPP,’10) credited her interaction with Margolis during a campus visit as one of the reasons she chose to study at the Harris School.

    “On just one hour’s notice, he invited me to stop by his office during my visit to campus and chatted with me for nearly 45 minutes about his work, the Harris program and what would be best for me as someone considering an MPP. I already admired the way he connected and explored the relationship between persuasion and policy outcomes, but his sincere and generous spirit impressed me even more.”

    Colm O’Muircheartaigh, Professor in the Harris School of Public Policy Studies, described his joie de vivre. “Howard Margolis brought joy to every activity he undertook, whether it was his scholarship (trying out his reasoning and decision puzzles on all), his political philosophy (for me, it was a pleasure to find a kindred spirit), his swimming (off the Point and in Michigan), or his windsurfing (I recall watching him disappear over the horizon in what seemed a high wind in New Buffalo just a couple of years ago). I know few others who sought after knowledge so enthusiastically and who were so keen to communicate ideas.”

    Before joining the University as a Senior Lecturer in 1985, Margolis taught at the University of California, Irvine, and held research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study, the Russell Sage Foundation and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

    Prior to his academic career, Margolis worked in Washington, D.C., as a journalist, official and consultant. He was the founder of the “News & Comment” section of Science, a correspondent for the Washington Post and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, speechwriter for the Secretary of Defense and consultant to the National Academy of Sciences on studies of major public policy issues. From 2005 to 2006, Margolis was a Woodrow Wilson fellow.

    Margolis received a Ph.D. in Political Science from MIT in 1979.

    His wife Joan; his children Peter, Jenny and Sarah; and brother David survive him.