Obituary: Norman Schofield, professor in Arts & Sciences, 75


Norman Schofield, the William Taussig Professor of Political Economy in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, died Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019, in St. Louis, surrounded by family. He was 75.

Schofield, who was also a professor of political science and of economics,  was a pioneer in the use of mathematical models to better understand the dynamics of electoral competition. He traveled across the United States and the world to study elections, visiting Azerbaijan, England, Georgia, Israel, Italy, Mexico, Poland, Russia and Turkey. The author of over 150 articles, 10 books and 14 edited volumes, his research fundamentally altered the way that scholars theoretically and methodologically approach the study of democratic politics.

“Norman Schofield was a brilliant social scientist, a wonderful collaborator, a loyal and dedicated colleague and an amazing friend,” Chancellor Andrew D. Martin said. “I’m extremely grateful I had the opportunity to learn from him as one of his students and for his spirit, wisdom and leadership throughout the years. He will be greatly missed by many throughout our Washington University community.”

Notably, he championed the use of social choice theory — a mathematical approach to theorizing about how individual preferences are aggregated to yield collective decisions — and generated path-breaking contributions to the understanding of democratic politics.

He was renowned for his role in the development of the Schofield chaos theorem, which theorizes that if individuals possess preferences over multiple dimensions, then decisions reached by voting processes are fundamentally unstable. More generally, his scholarship laid the groundwork for what is often called the “neo-institutional revolution” in political science, showing how institutional rules affect political outcomes.

Schofield, born Jan. 30, 1944, on the island of Bute, Scotland, served as a faculty member at the University of Essex and the University of Texas at Austin before he arrived at Washington University in 1986. He was named a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in 2005, among many other honors, fellowships and visiting professorships.

When Schofield arrived at WashU, “his outsized personality and aggressive intellect” made some graduate students too timid to work with him, remembered Randy Calvert, the Thomas F. Eagleton University Professor of Public Affairs and Political Science.

“When I came back in 1999 after a dozen years away at the University of Rochester, I started hearing about a student cohort during the 1990s in which three or four members studied closely and published papers with Norman. One of them was Andrew Martin,” Calvert said. “As it turns out, he really had a formula for working with graduate students, for eliciting their talents and for teaching them to become productive researchers. That hole in our graduate program will be hard to fill.”

“When I arrived at WashU in 1997, Norman was the director of the Center for Political Economy,” recalled Sunita Parikh, associate professor of political science. “I knew of his towering reputation in political science and was intimidated by both his intellectual brilliance and his tendency not to suffer fools, gladly or otherwise. But he couldn’t have been more welcoming.”

She remembers Schofield’s annual conference, an “intellectually vibrant gathering,” during which he invited scholar guests to dinner at a St. Louis restaurant or his Benton Park home. “The sense of community and scholarly camaraderie Norman created was almost unique in my academic experience,” Parikh added. “And most of all, it was enormous fun.”

He is survived by his wife, Liz; his three children, Tom, Isobel and Camilla;  and three grandchildren, Phoebe, Naomi and Ursula.

A memorial service organized by the Department of Political Science in Arts & Sciences is being planned for the spring. Colleagues and friends can visit here to offer condolences or, in lieu of flowers, donate to Schofield’s chosen charity, the Hispanic Federation.

Heather Sloan-Randick in political science contributed to this article.