Steven A. Peterson (September 10, 1947–December 10, 2021)

Loss of a Team Leading Pioneer in Politics and Public Policy: A Memoriam to Steven A. Peterson (September 10, 1947–December 10, 2021) by William H. Dutton

Steven A. Peterson died suddenly at home on December 10, 2021 at the age of 74. Steve Peterson and I were both born in 1947 and over half a century ago, in 1969, both of us entered graduate school in the department of political science at the University of Buffalo (then SUNY-Buffalo). For decades he has been my old graduate school colleague, but also a wonderful friend, and a seriously influential academic across a variety of fields in political science and policy studies.

In 1969, Steve graduated magna cum laude from Bradley University, a top ranked private university in Illinois, before moving on to graduate studies in political science at the University of Buffalo. He went from graduate school to Alfred University in 1973, where he rose through the ranks of promotion from Assistant to full Professor and for a time chaired the social sciences division of the university.

In 1997, after two decades of a successful career, Steve left Alfred University to accept a position of Professor of Politics and Public Affairs and Director of the School of Public Affairs at Pennsylvania State University Harrisburg, Penn’s ‘Capital College’. With over thirty faculty from multiple disciplines and located close to the capital of Pennsylvania, and not far from Washington DC, Penn State Harrisburg is an attractive location for teaching students for careers in public policy and administration at local and federal levels. Professor Peterson served as director for nearly two decades, until 2015, which is an impressive term for such a demanding role, returning to his professorial role. He retired a few years ago retaining his link to the university as an emeritus professor.

Steve Peterson at Penn State Harrisburg

While a graduate student, Steve began collaborating with Professor Al Somit on studies of biopolitics, a field for which he and Al Somit were arguably among the founding pioneers. Among their many publications in this area, their book, Darwinism, Domiance, and Democracy (1997) is an example of being ahead of the field. They were asking why democracies often seem to fare less well than autocracies, a question now being asked around the world. They found novel answers in the evolution of human nature, such as in possibly creating an affinity for hierarchy. This biopolitics thesis challenged most theorizing that relied more exclusively on cultural and institutional factors.

Biopolitics also provided Steve with a perspective on political behavior – another focus of his research – in ways that challenged and supplemented more conventional interpretations, such as those based on theories of political socialization and partisan identification. His 2012 book, entitled Political Behavior: Patterns in Everyday Life, continues to be well cited.

Another area of focus as a graduate student, was on state politics. Professor Peterson continued to research American political institutions, particularly at the state and local level, throughout his career. He not only taught courses in this area, but published innovative perspectives on public policy, such as a book with others entitled The World of the Policy Analyst, which went to three editions.

More generally, as an academic, Steve Peterson accumulated a remarkable track record of book and journal publications in his areas of research. I started counting his publications, and then moved to counting the pages of his list of publications. His stature in the field is also reflected in the colleagues he worked with, such as Albert Somit, who was not only a noted political philosopher, but also rose to become President of Southern Illinois University. He was one of Steve’s mentors and one of Steve’s fellow pioneers of bio-political studies. Other figures in political science who worked with Steve included Glendon Schubert, Robert Heineman, James Schubert, and Stephen Wasby. He also collaborated with colleagues in criminal justice (Shaun Gabbidon, Barbara Sims, and William Hall), Psychology (Robert Lawson), and Public Administration (Denise Thompson, Amy Brofcak, and Thomas Conlin).

With his move to Penn State Harrisburg, his work had to shift from research and teaching to more administrative and leadership roles within the School of Politics and Public Affairs. Nevertheless, Steve remained an active, innovative, and productive scholar and continued to teach one course per year because he wanted to stay connected to the students at his school and loved to teach. Reflecting on his leadership role at Penn State Harrisburg, the former Chancellor, Madlyn Hanes, captured it well, writing:

“Steve’s legacy, in addition to his outstanding scholarly accomplishments, most certainly include his contributions to academic leadership. Steve was a kind and thoughtful leader— patient and empathetic. He was especially considerate of colleagues beginning their academic careers as professors. Steve helped facilitate their upward trajectory, guiding them with care, and providing constructive feedback and mentorship to further their professional development. He set high standards for students and helped them successfully navigate higher education’s challenging learning environment. Steve was particularly proud of the quality of the programs offered by the School of Public Affairs — the School he led for nearly 20 years. He was moreover an engaging and insightful colleague, working collaboratively to advance the mission and vision of Penn State Harrisburg, the Capital College. Steve will be remembered fondly for all these attributes and achievements; but for those who knew him best, he will be remembered always as a good friend who was greatly admired.”

Madlyn Hanes, Senior Vice President for Commonwealth Campuses and Executive Chancellor Emerita at Penn State University, and former Chancellor of Penn State Harrisburg

Steve Peterson viewed himself as a generalist, such as by having taught forty-five different courses through his career. He is very broad and multidisciplinary also in the reach of his publications. He enjoyed focusing on the synthesis of work in a subject area, consciously seeking to avoid becoming siloed in a particular academic specialization. However, he became one of the most widely cited pioneers in biology and the social sciences, a field which has grown dramatically in recent years, such as in areas around the rise of neurosciences. Steve was there when the field was in a very nascent stage and helped shape its development.

While modest almost to a fault, Steve was a truly innovative, convivial, thoughtful, respected, and esteemed political scientist who could work across multiple disciplines, such as the life sciences. His edited book with Somit, entitled Biopolicy: The Life Sciences and Public Policy (Emerald 2012), is an example of his reach. In addition to books and published journal articles, Steve did it all. He always presented his work at conferences. He was a strong citizen within his profession and universities, but also in his community.

Steve’s colleague, Omit Ansary, found his death to be a tragic loss for the School, saying that Steve was:

“… a true gentleman, a role model for his students, faculty and … administrators (like myself). He was a stellar and renown scholar, a superb human being, with a huge heart full of love and care for everyone, a humble individual, exceptionally calm under any situation, who treated everyone around him with the highest respect and professionalism, a person with high integrity, and a great friend and wonderful colleague that we will all deeply miss.” 

Omid Ansary, Ph.D., Sr. Associate Dean for Academic Affairs & Professor of Electrical Engineering, Penn State Harrisburg

In his profession, his universities, and communities – Steve created and led teams. I can remember Steve organising, coaching, and leading an intramural touch football team as a graduate student. I only mention this because you can see this initiative throughout his career. Steve was a founding member of the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences. He was recognized as a hero in his community by being named an ‘Olympic Torch Bearer’ in 1996. He was an assistant scout leader. He coached little league. It is part of his ‘team-DNA’ to serve as a director of his school for nearly two decades.  

While students in Buffalo, Steve and I would go together every year to Chicago for the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association. Most recently, from 2014-18, I directed a center at Michigan State University. Before I returned to my home in Oxford in July 2018, Steve and I met back in Chicago on a day trip. I came from East Lansing, and Steve from his home in Hummelstown, Pennsylvania.

During our conversation in Chicago, I convinced him that he should be sharing more of this thinking online, such as on social media. He had a lot to say about any topic, and he took me up on this and started posting on Twitter and created a blog on WordPress. He had posted online less than an hour before he passed away.

It was a sentimental journey and the last time we were together. I am so glad we found the time to meet when we could. Many of his colleagues have told me what I already knew: Steve was not just a strong academic. He was also a very kind, sociable, and trusted friend to those fortunate enough to have known Professor Peterson.

Steve Peterson and Bill Dutton in Chicago, July 2018

A family obituary for Steven A. Peterson is available online here:

Comments are most welcome