Campus mourns Prof. James Underwood

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James Underwood

James Underwood

[Note: A campus memorial for Prof. James Underwood is planned for Sept. 25 at 10 a.m. in Memorial Chapel. For details visit the announcement.]

James Underwood, who by many accounts “bled garnet” over a four-decade career as professor, department chair, dean of faculty and interim president, passed away on Friday, April 23, 2021 after a brief illness. He was 83.

“Jim” was known for his loyalty to Union, his wide-ranging involvement across campus, his strong connections with alumni and his deep interest in College history.

"I feel lucky to have known Jim," said President David Harris. "He was widely respected for his loyalty to the College; his warm rapport with colleagues, students and alumni; and his tireless energy as a teacher and administrator. He was also a keen student of Union history, and one who directly affected much of Union’s history."

Underwood joined Union in 1963 and retired in 2003 as the Chauncey H. Winters Research Professor of Political Science and dean of faculty emeritus. In retirement, he remained highly active on campus. He kept an office in the College's Emeritus Center; attended many College events with his wife, Jean; and continued to advise students. He taught a class the year after he retired on one of his favorite subjects, Eliphalet Nott, Union's president from 1804 to 1866.

His vast experience made him a natural choice to serve as interim president in 2005. “Jim was extremely helpful during a critical time for Union, working diligently to pull the Union community together,” said Stephen Ciesinski ’70, who was chair of the Board at the time of Underwood’s appointment. “He was respected by all, including faculty and alumni, as an exceptional researcher, teacher and spokesperson for Union. I was truly appreciative for his agreeing to serve as interim, and I know he enjoyed his role.”

Underwood served as dean of faculty from 1988 to 1994, chair of Political Science from 1978 to 1984, chair of the Social Sciences division, and director of the General Education program. He was the longest-serving current faculty member when he retired from full-time teaching in 2003.

Roger Hull, who served as president from 1990 to 2005, said he was pleased to have Underwood continue as chief academic officer for the first five years of his administration. “Not only was he a very good dean, but Jim also was what anyone serving in an administrative position definitely wants and clearly needs—loyal and honest. Always loyal, Jim never hesitated at the same time to give me his unvarnished thoughts on all issues. For that loyalty and honesty, I was always, always, grateful.”

Clifford Brown, the Robert Porter Patterson Professor of Government, recalls that his friend and colleague “first and foremost, considered himself to be a teacher, and he would be most proud of the accomplishments of the hundreds (or thousands) of students whose lives he touched, and with many of whom he kept in contact long after graduation.”

Underwood was also proud of his role as academic vice president, when he presided over the creation of a nationally recognized General Education program. He led the creation of the Africana Studies and East Asian Studies programs, which complemented Gen Ed, and was instrumental in the organization of the President's Commission on the Status of Women. He also contributed to the planning for the Yulman Theater and Schaffer Library expansion.

As interim president, Underwood’s accomplishments were also extensive. He presided over Union's initial participation in the POSSE program, formed a commission to promote civility on campus, launched a major self-study as the basis of the College's 2006 strategic plan, formalized the status of lecturers, filled 12 vacant endowed chairs, launched a reform of the merit system, and (ever mindful of students) instituted several measures to enhance student safety.

Underwood loved the beauty and history of the College grounds. “Jim was very proud of the Union College Ramée campus,” Brown said. “He worked diligently on the committee that developed the materials for celebrating its bicentennial in 2013. He was a quiet patron and defender of Jackson's Garden, and was responsible behind the scenes for saving a serious amount of open space at its east end when the Reamer Campus Center and access road was planned.”

Underwood helped organize an invaluable resource to future historians of the College, an oral history project that has interviewed dozens of emeriti faculty.

Underwood said his most fulfilling years at Union were those when he returned to teaching after serving as dean. He was refreshed and wiser, he said, from reading about teaching styles from many tenure reviews. He also noted that the quality of students had improved over the years, an observation that drew a playful rebuke from a former student who had become a judge. “I sent him back what I think was a Solomonic answer: ‘I have more students who are like you,’” Underwood said.

He taught a range of courses including Contemporary American Politics; Political Leadership; Policy-Making and American Society; the Environment, Energy and American Politics; Civil Rights and Civil Liberties; and Seminar in American Politics.

Underwood often compared teaching to acting. “You are a performer in the classroom, just as you are on the stage,” he said in a retirement interview with Union College magazine. “A lot of actors and faculty are shy, but not on the stage or in the classroom. Both need a response. When you've struggled, you leave exhausted. When everything has gone well, you leave with a quiet euphoria; there's no feeling like it. I think both actors and teachers feel as though we're really only as good as our last performance, and that's one of the things that drives you.”

He was an advisor to many students in the College's internship programs in Washington, D.C. and Albany. He had long-standing friendships with a number of alumni who have gone on to distinguished careers in law, politics and diplomacy. By the end of his teaching career, he had taught a number of children of former students including one whose parents were both students.

His areas of professional interest included political leadership, administrative systems, environmental and energy policy, and New York State politics. He was a consultant to the Subcommittee on Executive Reorganization in the United States Senate, and to the New York State Education Department. He also served on Congressional staffs as a recipient of an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellowship.

He was the co-author (with William Daniels) of Governor Rockefeller in New York: The Apex of Pragmatic Liberalism in the United States, and published articles in Policy and Congress and the Presidency. In 1971, he co-authored Science/Technology — Related Activities in the Government of the State of New York, a study funded by the state Office of Science and Technology. He wrote and lectured extensively on former New York Governor Mario Cuomo. He wrote an article, “Lincoln: A Weberian Politician Meets the Constitution,” in the June 2004 issue of Presidential Studies Quarterly. His entry on William H. Seward, Union Class of 1820 and Lincoln's secretary of state, was published in the Encyclopedia of the American Presidency.

He was a popular speaker at alumni events across the country, usually speaking on Union historical figures such as Nott, Chester Arthur and William Seward.

A graduate of Franklin and Marshall, he received his M.P.A. and Ph.D. from Syracuse University. He was a member of the American Political Science Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Ever the teacher, he has donated his body to Albany Medical College.

A native of Irwin, Pa., he is survived by his wife, Jean; two daughters, Karen (Fred) and Carolyn (Warren); and four grandchildren, Connor, Griffin, Grace and Anna.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Professor James E. and Jean A. Underwood Endowed Scholarship, established in 2007 by Richard Ferguson ’67, to support Union students with financial need. Gifts to the scholarship may be made here.