Howard Bernstein, a visiting professor who taught for 20 years in departments as diverse as the College of Letters, History, Science in Society, and the Graduate Liberal Studies Program, died on Monday, Jan. 15. He was 63 years old.
According to an online report written by members of his family, Bernstein died of cancer in a hospital in Nyack, NY. He is survived by his wife, Joan, and his daughters Hilary and Christina.
“He was an enormously popular teacher—passionate, caring, very knowledgeable,” said Paul Schwaber, professor of COL and a longtime colleague of Bernstein. “Though a shy person, in class he could boom forth with inspired talk and explosive laughter. Students loved it.”
A gifted and popular teacher who sponsored a large number of senior theses, Bernstein taught classes at the University for 20 years without receiving an offer for tenure. His colleagues and friends characterized his misfortune as unfair, citing his charisma and the admiration he inspired in his students as indicative of the position he deserved.
“He had hard luck at Wesleyan,” Schwaber said. “Opportunities would open and close for him. A particularly poignant instance of his luck, about which he told me once, was that he’d been elected by the students as the winner of the Binswanger outstanding teacher prize but was declared ineligible because he wasn’t on the tenure line. Someone else got the honor.”
In 1998, Bernstein received his final contract from Wesleyan, one that forced him to leave the University after 2001. In reaction, students inundated North College with demands that he receive tenure. On Sept. 18 The Argus published an editorial decrying the terminal nature of Bernstein’s new contract.
“After nineteen years at this University, all Bernstein is getting for his commitment is a slap in the face,” the editorial states. “A professor so well respected and so popular should not be dropped like dead weight from a sinking ship.”
When remembering Bernstein, COL professors consistently recall not only his popularity, but many other personal qualities as well. Laurie Nussdorfer, professor of COL, described a particular memory of Bernstein that, according to her, exemplified his compassion and sensitivity.
“I have a special memory of a time when his daughter, Hilary, who is a historian at U.C. Santa Barbara, came to a faculty seminar at Wesleyan to talk about her research,” she said. “Howard came to see her, and it was clear that he felt so proud of her. It was very moving to see them together.”
Howard Needler, a fellow COL professor who described himself as both a colleague and a friend of Bernstein, expressed similar sentiments, characterizing Bernstein as an inspiring teacher and a remarkable scholar.
“He was one of the most charismatic teachers Wesleyan has ever had,” he said. “His students almost universally adored him. His former students are still passionate about his teaching: one of his former students, Aaron Faobel, who graduated in the early 80s, recently sent a letter to the department attesting to the eye-opening brilliance of his instruction. He was extraordinary.”
A memorial service for Bernstein was held Feb. 5 at St. Paul’s Chapel, Columbia University, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. In accordance with Bernstein’s wishes, his family asks that those wishing to send flowers instead donate to charity.