Donald Levine, sociologist and former dean of the College, 1931-2015

Susan Allen
News Officer for Arts and HumanitiesUniversity Communications

Whether he was teaching his students about sociology through martial arts or leading them to the Point during the University’s annual Kuvia celebration, Prof. Donald Levine believed in education without boundaries.

“[T]he intense communication that flourishes here occurs well beyond the classroom,” Levine told entering College students at Opening Convocation in 1982. In the years to come, he said, they would learn everywhere: “in the residence halls, at the supermarket, on the playing fields, inside the coffeehouses and on the streets of Hyde Park.”

Levine, the Peter B. Ritzma Professor Emeritus of Sociology, died on April 4 after a long illness. He was 83.

An adventurous and open-minded intellectual, Levine, AB’50, AM’57, PhD’57, made wide-ranging contributions to the field of sociology, alongside his lasting impact on the University as dean of the College from 1982-87.

John W. Boyer, current dean of the College, said Levine served “brilliantly” in that position.

“As an alumnus of the College and later as a prominent faculty leader, Don was a strong and passionate advocate for student rights and student welfare, and a firm believer in the power and efficacy of general education as a defining principle of the College’s educational programs,” Boyer said.

“I’m on very good terms with the dean”

As dean, Levine reaffirmed the importance of the College’s liberal arts education. “[E]ven from a practical point of view of occupational success in later life, the best thing you can do is acquire a wide range of intellectual abilities,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1982.

He used his deanship to draw attention to the non-academic aspects of College life as well. Levine worked to expand the academic advising program, strengthen the residential house system and encourage students to venture outside Hyde Park. He attracted national attention for his decision to change the school’s official song to replace “sons” and “men” with gender-inclusive terms like “children” and “us.”

With several colleagues, he created the College’s annual wintertime festival, Kuviasungnerk/Kangeiko, which began in 1983. The celebration was, in many ways, a reflection of Levine’s seemingly indefatigable good humor. “You can’t change the weather, but you can change your perception of it,” Levine said. “We wanted to blast away winter doldrums with some fun.”

Kuvia also honored Levine’s belief that education should cultivate both body and mind. A fourth-degree black belt in Aikido, Levine taught a College course that incorporated sociological theories of conflict resolution along with a weekly three-hour “lab” focused on the theory and practice of the Japanese martial art.

Levine, then dean of the College, knew the course seemed unconventional to some, but “I’m on very good terms with the dean of the College, you see,” he said.

Intellectual dialogue

In his own undergraduate days, Levine met the renowned philosopher Richard McKeon, whose work on pluralism shaped Levine’s open-minded approach to sociology and social theory.

Over his long career, Levine published several works that are now considered landmarks of sociology. His “masterpiece,” according to former student Charles Camic, was Visions of the Sociological Tradition, published by the University of Chicago Press in 1995.

In that book, Levine traced the intellectual genealogy of the social sciences and argued that different traditions of social thought could productively inform one another. “It’s a brilliant analysis of theories and intellectual traditions, but also a very thoughtful effort to bring them into intellectual dialogue with one another,” said Camic, PhD’79, now a professor of sociology at Northwestern University. “The beauty with which it’s argued and the depth of his knowledge about these different intellectual traditions are astounding.”

Levine was also influential in promoting the work of German sociologist Georg Simmel and translated several of Simmel’s works into English. “He brought Simmel to awareness in the U.S.,” said Douglas Mitchell, a longtime editor at the University of Chicago Press, who worked with Levine throughout his career.

As a young scholar, Levine spent several years doing fieldwork in Ethiopia, which resulted in his first book, Wax and Gold: Tradition and Innovation in Ethiopian Culture. In 2004, Andreas Eshete, the president of Addis Ababa University, called Wax and Gold “an Ethiopian classic.”

Levine remained interested in Ethiopia throughout his life and served as an advisor on Ethiopia to the U.S. Senate, Department of State and other federal agencies. In 1999, he published Greater Ethiopia: The Evolution of a Multiethnic Society, an interdisciplinary study of Ethiopian history.

Levine used his experiences as dean of the College to inform his 2006 book, Powers of the Mind: The Reinvention of Liberal Learning in America, in which he explored the history of undergraduate education at UChicago and proposed ways to keep liberal education relevant in the modern world. “That’s one I think people will keep coming back to, more and more,” said Levine’s former student Dan Silver, PhD’08, now a professor at the University of Toronto.

Ethiopia, martial arts, intellectual history, pedagogy—the breadth of Levine’s interest and his openness to new ideas set him apart, colleagues and students say. “He was a great believer in different approaches in the hope that each could be enriched by the others,” Camic said. “I think it also came out of a deeper moral belief in the importance of human dialogue across all lines.”

Levine brought that spirit to his work as a teacher. Rigorous but never doctrinaire, Levine encouraged students to follow their own interests wherever they led. “His goal as a teacher was to produce students from whom he could learn later,” Silver said.

At the end of his life, Levine was at work on a book on the role of dialogue in social theory, according to his longtime friend and UChicago PhD student Jonathan Baskin. Baskin was surprised that Levine was trying to finish another book during his illness, but quickly realized the project brought Levine joy in his last months. “For me, it was inspiring to see someone who really did what he loved to the end,” Baskin said.

An embodiment of the UChicago spirit

Levine’s colleagues and collaborators remember him for his generosity, thoughtfulness and positive outlook. Despite his many commitments, he was never too busy to read a former student’s work or send an email of praise. Mitchell remembers Levine making a surprise appearance at his most recent birthday party, flowers, card and balloons in hand—a memory that, for Mitchell, captures both Levine’s kindness and his game-for-anything sense of spontaneity.

“He lived in a way that expressed his commitment and love for ideas,” Baskin said. “He was one of the embodiments of the University of Chicago spirit for me. He expressed so many of its best qualities.”

Donald Levine is survived by his wife, Ruth Levine; his children, Rachel Levine, William Levine and Theodore Levine; and his grandchildren, Natanyel Bohm-Levine, Zoe Melnick and Ari Melnick.

A memorial service will be held on April 9, 1 p.m. at KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation, 1100 E. Hyde Park Blvd. Shiva will be at the Levine residence on April 9 and 11, from 6 to 8:30 p.m. with a minyan at 7 p.m. both nights. Memorial contributions may be made to the Nature Conservancy or the Jacob J. Weinstein Fund of KAM Isaiah Israel.