Mark Leff (1949-2015) In Memoriam

by James R. Barrett (History)

Mark Leff passed away on February 22, 2015, surrounded by his family. One of the finest human beings I have encountered anywhere, he happened also to be one of the most talented and dedicated teachers, most treasured colleagues, and most astute scholars and this underscores the sense of loss among his students and friends.

Born in Cincinnati and raised in suburban DC, Mark received a BA in economics from Brown and a PhD at the University of Chicago. In 1971 he married Carol Skalnick Leff, a scholar of Eastern European politics. Mark took his first position at Washington University in St. Louis where he developed a devoted student following and in 1986 he joined the faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign retiring in 2012. Carol joined him on the faculty shortly afterward, teaching in Political Science.

Mark’s scholarship was impeccable. His book The Limits of Symbolic Reform: The New Deal and Taxation, 1933-1939 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984) remains the standard work on that subject. Articles appeared in the top journals including the AHR and the Journal of American History. Mark turned next to a study of the “politics of sacrifice” during World War Two, arguing that the representation and promotion of wartime wage and price, tax, and labor policies was at least as important as the actual practice which often found those with the least sacrificing the most. His article, “The Politics of Sacrifice on the American Home Front in World War II”, Journal of American History 77 (1991): 1296-1318, included a comparative analysis of policies in the US and UK. He was working on a book on the subject in the years before his death. Mark was a perfectionist, taking far too long with book and article reviews because he always wanted to be fair to the author and also to get it just right. This made him a splendid reader and critic. I and others exploited him in this capacity on a regular basis.

No one penetrated to an argument – and its flaws – more effectively than Mark, and these characteristics led to one of his most famous traits. In a seminar or discussion, he would usually begin his rare comments with an apology: “I am probably just missing something here …” At this point, those who knew him held their breath. What followed was an unusually penetrating critique that cut to the core of a problem in the study – an important assertion without evidence or a contradiction. The critique was made in the most gracious fashion but often sent the author back to the drawing board.

Above all, Mark was the consummate teacher and mentor, someone who devoted most of his creative energy to the project of helping students understand complex problems in the history of their own society. In the process, he made them critical thinkers and engaged citizens. The secret to his success was that he believed that teaching was vital to the survival of democracy. As Kerry Pimblott, one of Mark’s own graduate students, said, “He taught because he loved students, believed in democracy, and had an enormous intellectual curiosity.” An outpouring of graduate student recollections indicates that they chose Mark for their preliminary exam and dissertation committees knowing that he would be probing and demanding but also extremely supportive.

Mark was also deeply admired by generations of undergraduates. At one point our chair analyzed the correlation between grading rigor and undergraduate student evaluations. We all assumed the more demanding the former, the lower the latter. Students would tend to reward a professor who provided them with higher grades, right? In fact, Mark’s scores ran in the opposite direction. He was among the most stringent graders and yet at the very top in terms of student assessments. Thus, he won teaching awards at the department, college, and campus level multiple times and in 1998 was named by the Carnegie Foundation as Professor of the Year for the state of Illinois. His students, often lined up outside his office, understood his strengths. His courses on war and society and on political intolerance were particularly popular. Whatever written work a student turned in – whether a dissertation or a short paper, Mark read and marked it line-by-line. As a result, he spent huge amounts of time grading, and then sat down with students to go over their work. The process was labor-intensive and extremely effective.

Mark’s enthusiastic teaching often burst beyond the classroom walls. In the Odyssey Program, he taught a classic course on the modern US to adults living at or below the poverty line; in the Education Justice Project, he lectured to inmates at a minimum security prison; in the Osher Life Long Learning Institute, it was seniors, including many retired academics. He was a favorite among secondary teachers. Wherever I went, people lapsed into unsolicited testimonials to Mark’s inspiring teaching. It could be a little intimidating if you did not recall his genuine passion for the vocation.

If the connection with democracy strengthened Mark’s teaching, he found other ways to work toward the same end. He was in the faculty union from his first moment on campus and remained active long after he became ill. He became a stalwart in our local ACLU and served in the campus senate. I knew no one with a better grasp of contemporary US politics, so he often provided a source for advice on the seemingly inexplicable twists and turns in Congress.

One of Mark’s few faults was that he consistently underestimated his own strengths and how much his colleagues and students loved and respected him. In a world shaped too often by greed and personal ambition, he was selfless to a fault. This might have been frustrating to those of us who loved him and tried to live up to his standards, but it was also a trait that allowed him to empathize with others and made him the wonderful teacher and friend that he was.

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