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In Memory of Professor and Former SIPA Dean Alfred C. Stepan

Posted Sep 26 2017

Alfred C. Stepan, a prominent political scientist who served as dean of the School of International and Public Affairs from 1983 to 1991, passed away on September 27 at the age of 81. Over his long, distinguished career as a scholar and educator, Professor Stepan was a leading scholar and taught in the areas of comparative politics, theories of democratic transitions, federalism, and the world's religious systems and democracy.

He wrote or edited more than 15 books, including most recently Boundaries of Toleration (edited, with Charles Taylor) and Democratization and Islam in Indonesia. His widely used Arguing Comparative Politics enjoyed six printings.

“Professor Stepan was an extraordinary scholar and beloved member of the SIPA and Columbia University community for more than 30 years,” said Dean Merit E. Janow. “His impact and influence on the School, his students and colleagues, and the academic fields he engaged is simply immeasurable.”

In more than seven years as dean of SIPA, Stepan led SIPA through a period of important growth and accomplishments. In addition to his responsibilities at SIPA, he served as Columbia’s Burgess Professor of Political Science from 1987 to 1993. He left the University in 1993 to become the first rector and president at Central European University (with campuses in Budapest, Prague, and Warsaw). From 1996 to 1999 he was Gladstone Professor of Government and Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford University.

Stepan returned to Columbia in 1999 as the Wallace S. Sayre Professor of Government, teaching at SIPA and in the Department of Political Science until his retirement from teaching in 2015. Among classes he taught in later years were Democracy and Democratization: Theories, Institutions and Practices; and Democracy, the World's Religions and Problems of the 'Twin Tolerations.’ Stepan also served as co-director of the Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life, and founder and director of the Center for the Study of Democracy, Tolerance and Religion. 

Among numerous additional honors, he was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the British Academy, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. In 2012 he received the International Political Science Association’s Karl Deutsch Award for comparative research and theory. A 2007 conference at SIPA honored Stepan’s work and his impact.

Stepan earned a BA at the University of Notre Dame in 1958 and an MA at Balliol College, Oxford, in 1960. After leaving Oxford Stepan served in the U.S. Marine Corps and then worked as a special correspondent for the Economist and, later, as a policy analyst for the Rand Corporation. He earned a PhD in political science from Columbia in 1969 and began teaching at Yale the next year.

He is survived by his wife, Nancy Leys Stepan, a professor emerita of history at Columbia; his son Adam Stepan, director of the digital education group in SIPA’s Picker Center, his daughter Tanya, and his seven beloved grandchildren, Isabel, Colin, Helena, Esther, Heloisa, Fiona, and Erica.