University of California: In Memoriam, 1986

Malcolm H. Kerr, Political Science: Los Angeles


Much has been written about Malcolm Kerr since his tragic death in Beirut in January 1984 and it is not our intention once again to list his many academic and scholarly honors and distinctions. They are well documented and provide an excellent testimony to Malcolm's national and international stature as a widely known and respected authority on Middle Eastern affairs. There is no doubt that the field of Middle Eastern politics has lost one of its most valuable experts whose absence is and will be sorely missed. That field is too important and too complex to afford such losses: the gap left vacant by Malcolm's death has not yet been bridged and may never be. We hesitate to call any individual irreplaceable yet we also feel that Malcolm fits that description better than most.

On this occasion, however, we want to reminisce about Malcolm not as a scholar but as a friend and human being. All of us have considered ourselves his friends for many years which gave us the chance to get to know him better than had many of his UCLA colleagues. It should be mentioned that Malcolm was not an easy person to know: in addition to being by nature an intensely private person, he was deeply devoted to his immediate family and, let us face it, he did not stand fools gladly and had little time and use for idle chitchat. Still, he was always available to his friends who invariably reciprocated his friendship.

It is hard to know which of Malcolm's many traits has impressed us most over the years. At the risk of sounding arbitrary, we would put his personal integrity ahead of the others. Regardless of whatever hat he may have been wearing at the time--the chairmanship of the Political Science Department, deanship of Social Sciences or directorship of the Von Grunebaum Center for Near Eastern Studies--it was his personal and intellectual honesty which proved overwhelming. It is a conventional wisdom that academics are by nature compromisers par excellence, eschewing unpopular causes and avoiding voicing their own beliefs. Malcolm was different, whether in his scholarship or in personal relations. Being a highly visible

authority on the Middle East in the 1960s and 1970s was not an enviable task: in fact, it was more than onerous and someone of lesser stature than Malcolm would find it most tempting to equivocate, compromise and avoid taking sides. Malcolm was cut from a different cloth: he did not hesitate to present the Arab side in the Middle East conflict at a time when it was not only unpopular but also dangerous, as witnessed by an attack on his home which fortunately did not result in serious damage.

As an administrator at UCLA, Malcolm's behavior was no different: whether as dean or chairman, it would have been easy for him to bend rules or to interpret them subjectively. Here again, he was unshakeable, even at the cost of antagonizing, albeit briefly, his friends and admirers who soon came to realize that he was right after all.

His integrity was perhaps best illustrated by his decision to accept the presidency of the American University in Beirut. In all candor, all of us tried at different times to dissuade him from taking the job, alas without success. Of all people, Malcolm probably knew best about the dangers of life in Beirut, yet he also believed that if anyone could make a contribution toward the lessening of the fratricidal strife in Lebanon, it was he, and we do not think that he hesitated much before saying yes. Malcolm clearly felt that he had a mission even though he was not a missionary. He was a realist, he knew what to expect, he strongly believed he had a chance.

Malcolm's personal integrity, which his political and academic adversaries occasionally interpreted as stubbornness or rigidity, was tempered by his unique sense of humor. Malcolm was blessed with it in abundance and delighted sharing it with his friends. His reservoir of jokes, anecdotes and bon mots was boundless and spanned many cultures, languages and ethnic groups. It was simply another telling testimony to his erudition which was not confined to purely scholarly subjects but covered all other aspects of human existence on a global scale. It is hard to forget Malcolm regaling us with his latest joke or anecdote, delivered with his typical deadpan expression which greatly enhanced the story's impact.

To repeat, Malcolm was first-class scholar and expert whose counsel was sought far and wide. For us, however, who knew him well, he was above all a true human being, a real mensch to whom we could turn for advice and on whose support and good judgment we could always count. He was a rare person and we shall miss him badly.

Raymond Orbach Richard Sisson Andrzej Korbonski

About this text
Courtesy of University Archives, The Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720-6000;
Title: 1986, University of California: In Memoriam
By:  University of California (System) Academic Senate, Author
Date: 1986
Contributing Institution:  University Archives, The Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720-6000;
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