Scholar Wallerstein dies at 54

Political science professor Michael Wallerstein, one of the world’s leading political economists, died of brain cancer Saturday at his home in New Haven. He was 54.

Wallerstein was best known in his field for his use of economic models in the study of political questions, particularly for his work on the redistribution of wealth and inequality in advanced democracies. Yale officials and his colleagues, students and friends said he will be missed for his generosity and dedication to both students and fellow faculty.

“Professor Wallerstein was a first-class researcher and interested in issues that have important policy consequence,” Yale President Richard Levin said. “His loss will be deeply felt by the whole social science community here.”

Wallerstein arrived at Yale in 2004 from Northwestern University, where he had chaired of the political science department. At Yale, he taught courses on comparative politics, the political economy of advanced industrial societies and formal political economy. From 1984 to 1994, Wallerstein taught at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Yale Political Science chair Peter Swenson, who also arrived from Northwestern in 2004, said Wallerstein was well-liked by all his colleagues and always gave his time generously to others.

“I can say almost without exaggeration that he was everyone’s best colleague at Northwestern, and he would have become that at Yale,” Swenson said. “He was always the person I turned to when I wanted to try out this or that half-baked idea or develop my arguments, and he always had time, no matter what.”

Harvard political science professor Jeffry Frieden, a close friend who met Wallerstein when they worked together at UCLA, said his colleague’s work had a significant impact on his field, and his death comes as a loss to the profession.

“As a scholar, he was second to none,” Frieden said. “He combined a profound interest in real world politics with an extremely rigorous approach to analyzing politics, and in that way he was extraordinarily influential.”

Wallerstein earned an undergraduate degree from Stanford University in 1974, majoring in physics and mathematics, and received his doctorate in political science from the University of Chicago in 1985. He was awarded the Franklin L. Burdette Pi Sigma Alpha Award in 1985 for the best paper presented at the American Political Science Association’s 1984 annual meeting, and he later served on the APSA executive council. This past year, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Wallerstein was very friendly and approachable, easy to work with and always respectful toward others, Northwestern political science professor and collaborator David Austen-Smith said.

“He could separate personal issues from professional, and would never cease to be calm and polite to people despite outrageous provocation,” he said. “I would almost certainly have not come to Northwestern if Michael had not been there at the time.”

But beyond his scholastic work, Wallerstein had a love for teaching and mentoring others.

Daniel Brillman ’06, who took a class with Wallerstein in political economics, said he was caring and approachable.

“He was an unbelievable teacher,” Brillman said. “He really cared about every student … He wanted every student to learn everything he taught.”

University of Colorado professor David Brown, for whom Wallerstein was a dissertation supervisor at Northwestern, said Wallerstein advised him in a thoughtful and ethical manner. Wallerstein’s greatest strength as a scholar rested in large part on how he helped others in their intellectual endeavors, Brown said.

“Everyone who he came into contact with witnessed an improvement in their work and in their thinking,” he said. “As his student, I was fortunate enough to receive more than my fair share of what was so valued by everyone else.”

Wallerstein is survived by his wife of 32 years, Elizabeth Atlas, and his children, Jonah and Hannah Wallerstein.

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