Remembering David Olson, a true 'university citizen'

Professor Olson was more than a widely admired scholar and teacher; he played an important role in the issues of the day and of his city.
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Professor David J. Olson

Professor Olson was more than a widely admired scholar and teacher; he played an important role in the issues of the day and of his city.

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In the death last week of David J. Olson, 71,  the University of Washington has lost one of its most distinguished members of faculty, and I have lost a cherished colleague and friend.


His death comes as a personal shock. I saw David a week ago as he was leaving and I was arriving at the University Medical Center, part of the medical routine that is all too frequent for retirees of our age. We chatted briefly — conversations with David were often brief and intense.  I’m stunned to find myself writing a tribute to him barely a week later.


David’s death marks the end of an era at the University. His career bridged the administrations of two of the university’s most renowned presidents — Charles Odegaard who stepped down in 1974 and William Gerberding who led the institution until 1995. What Odegaard and Gerberding strove to achieve institution-wide is what Olson symbolized on the faculty — a scholar of international repute, an extraordinarily skilled, inspiring teacher, and a university citizen of unmatched tenacity and conviction.


I came to know David Olson through one of his most noted studies just as I arrived at UW in 1976. The following year, with a colleague at the Ford Foundation, he published Commission Politics, a penetrating and insightful analysis of the way in which political leaders use the device of public, “investigatory” commissions to ostensibly address tensions in the aftermath of racial upheavals, without making any significant effort to deal with their underlying causes. The national Kerner Commission in 1968 was a primary case-in-point, and I had some acquaintance with that body, having been part of the delegation from Detroit that testified before it in the aftermath of the civil disorder that devastated the city a year earlier.


The opportunity to meet, and subsequently to know,  one of the nation’s premier political scientists who focused his research on urban conflict was, for me, an especial privilege. David’s interests were wide-ranging: labor unions and labor contract negotiations, the politics of seaport authorities and state legislatures. His was always a balanced and reliably knowledgeable voice on the political currents swirling throughout the city, region, and state. He spoke forcefully because he felt deeply about things that matter. One could always be sure that his judgments were carefully considered and sound.


There is one other unique quality of David’s work and interest. In a field in which it is possible to range over the entire globe, examining political personages, events, issues, and arrangements in every corner of the planet, David kept his keen analytical eye focused on the local scene. He examined aspects of the national political picture, to be sure, as Commission Politics  demonstrates, but he was equally valued for his insights about political problems and processes here in our (and his) own back yard.

People who get to spend their lives on college and university campuses enjoy a particular good fortune. They work in pleasant physical settings where the life of the mind is of paramount importance. Like all institutions, however, it is the people who inhabit them — their openness, approachableness, warmth, genuineness — that make the difference. David possessed these qualities in abundance. As the chair of his political science department rightly described him, David Olson was an “institution on campus.”


As an institution within an institution, he will be missed by those who had the opportunity to know him. May he be an inspiration to generations of students yet to come.




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