Alum of the Month

Alum of the Month
  • September 2014: William K. Muir Jr. '49

    William K. Muir Jr. ’49 is professor emeritus of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught undergraduates and graduates for more than 30 years. He is the recipient of both the University of California at Berkeley’s Distinguished Teaching Award (1974) and Phi Beta Kappa - Northern California’s Excellence in Teaching Award (1992).

    Muir describes his Hotchkiss class as particularly close. “I think it is due to Headmaster George Van Santvoord, who was a great man whom we all revered, and the character of the class – nice guys with a sense of humor, all accomplished in a variety of fields.” After Hotchkiss, Muir spent a year as an exchange student at Clifton College in Bristol, England, before entering Yale, where he planned to focus on law and policy and dreamed of going into politics. In 1952 an opportunity presented itself, and Muir had the chance to volunteer in the Michigan gubernatorial campaign of a family friend, Fred Alger. “I enjoyed meeting the local political pros who immersed themselves in politics as a side interest. I loved hearing their stories and was surprised by their intelligence and sophistication.”

    Two weeks after graduating from Yale with a B.A., magna cum laude, Muir prepared to enter the Army but was instead diagnosed with polio. This put his hopes of becoming a politician seemingly out of reach. Muir’s senior essay had been about a working-class neighborhood in New Haven, for which he won the prize for the College’s best undergraduate essay on American politics, but more important for Muir was that through the process he met Herb Kaufman, who was a political science professor and one of the judges. Kaufman, along with Muir’s polio doctor, Charles Long, would inspire and challenge him through some of the difficult days ahead, but Muir remained undecided about his career path.

    In 1958 Muir enrolled at the University of Michigan and earned a J.D. “I loved law. The profession of law was honorable because it was absolutely vital to the maintenance of civilization.” Muir began to see himself “educating others in the subject matter of politics and lovingly researching how politicians governed a democracy.” He was offered a job teaching at Michigan’s Law School and “was utterly happy at it.”

    In 1959, Muir took a job at the firm of Davis Polk Wardell Sunderland & Kiendl. The following year he married Pauli Wauters in Dearborn, Michigan, with his brother Howie ’46 and Hotchkiss classmates Jon Bush, Christy Emerson, Bud Hudson, and Sandy McCormick as groomsmen. Muir’s Hotchkiss classmate and Yale roommate, Bob Bryan, married the couple, and they began what would become a wonderful marriage. Yet Muir began to realize that practicing law wasn’t fulfilling him as much as it should, and he returned to Yale as a graduate student, receiving his Ph.D. in 1965. But, “mildly triggered by economic concerns,” Muir went back to practicing law while he moonlighted in politics. He remembers, “I worked for some advertising firms who were promoting three gubernatorial candidates. All three candidates, Rockefeller (New York), Romney (Michigan), and Reagan (California) won.” But Muir kept thinking about teaching. And since winters in New Haven were tough for someone with his physical limitations, in July 1968 Muir was on his way to Berkeley and to the University of California.

    At UC Berkeley, Muir blended all three of his passions—teaching, law, and politics. He taught in the political science department from 1968 through 1998 in the fields of American politics and constitutional law, and served as chair of the department from 1980 to 1983. “I had great teachers to emulate. Yale’s Herb Kaufman, among others, taught me the secret to success in the classroom: ‘Positively encourage your students in whatever they want to do – and love them. Insist on hard work to get a sense of accomplishment.’ Hotchkiss had great teachers, too, among them Dick Gurney. He was tough, but I learned how to teach from being subject to his demands. I had great colleagues who encouraged me, and great students, who, whether they knew it or not, taught the teacher. My focus in teaching has always been power and its various forms, for example threatening (do it or else), reciprocity and exchange, and the power of speech. My favorite class is Political Science 1 (Introduction to American Politics), a large lecture class of 400 students. One assignment is the ‘Streetcorner Paper.’ Students are randomly assigned a street corner in the Bay Area to find a ‘political event’ occurring at or close to that intersection, describe and explain it, and point out its implications. I am perpetually surprised by how good their papers are, and I frequently learn about the Bay Area from reading those papers.”

    “Teaching at the college level has certain advantages,” says Muir. “You are your own boss, and you work in a lovely environment. You can find satisfaction in making the world better through the students you teach. I think the most fulfilling part of teaching for me was several cases of helping struggling graduate students complete their Ph.Ds. They went on to satisfying and wonderful careers.”

    An accomplished author, Muir bases his books on field work – interviewing, observing, and being taught by people. His publications include Freedom in America; The Bully Pulpit: The Presidential Leadership of Ronald Reagan; Legislature: California’s School for Politics; Police: Streetcorner Politicians (Pulitzer Prize nomination, 1977), and Law and Attitude Change (American Political Science Association’s Edwin S. Corwin Prize, 1967). Additionally, Muir has served as a consultant to the Oakland (CA) Police Department and as a member of the Finance and Commerce Committee staff in the California State Assembly. Muir was honored to work as a speechwriter for Vice President George H.W. Bush. He “greatly admired President Ronald Reagan and his mission to revive Americans’ optimistic spirits.”

    In 2014, the University of California at Berkeley established the William K. (Sandy) Muir Jr. Leadership Award, which supports deserving undergraduate students with an exemplary record of public service. In retrospect, Muir says, “To a greater extent than I would have initially acknowledged, my polio disability had restricted my activities to a narrow path, but it was a path that led to an occupation of observation and reflection, one that gave me total intellectual and moral satisfaction.”

    Posted September 2, 2014

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