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Students, Colleagues Mourn Passing of R. Jeffrey Lustig

Called 'professor for the 99 percent,' author, professor, labor leader and activist remembered for optimism, humanity, humor.

I met Berkeley's R. Jeffrey Lustig in the twilight of his career teaching government at Sacramento State. I found Jeff informed and intense. We hit it off.

I found fruitful our background discussion for my education coverage on labor-management relations in the California State University.

Jeff, 69, an author, professor, labor union and Free Speech Movement activist, passed away from pancreatic cancer on June 14. His was a life of radical practice and theory for justice.

“Jeff was a mentor to me in how to be a public intellectual,” said native Berkeleyite Kevin Wehr, 40, a sociology professor at Sac State and current chapter president of the California Faculty Association. “I met him through our work in the union six years ago, and he was an inspiration and a model for scholarly engagement with public issues."

Feelings were mutual: Jeff had praised Wehr for his efforts to organize junior faculty members. They were fighting against a so-called “experience penalty,” whereby the CSU paid them less than new faculty hires.

“Jeff helped many others in similar ways, and I know that he was much beloved by his students," Wehr said.

One of those students was Benjamin Hoyt, 23, a student of Jeff’s at Sac State.

“Professor Lustig had what Nabokov called spontaneous eloquence,” Hoyt said, “the gift of never being rhetorically dull. He was always on-point, and could cut through complex theoretical issues in the writings of Hannah Arendt or Karl Marx with erudition and yet not come off as being glib.

“He expected a lot from the people in his class, not just as students, but as citizens," he said. "I left his course with better powers of reasoning and broader intellectual horizons, but also with the understanding that these things have uses outside the academy.”

To readers in and out of school, I recommend Remaking California: Reclaiming the Public Good (Heyday Books, 2010), which Jeff edited. The contributors, not all on the political left, unpack the ailments and remedies around economics and politics in the Golden State. Jeff included conservatives, such as Dan Walters, a political columnist for The Sacramento Bee, to write for this volume of thought-provoking ideas on the roots of, and exits from, California’s crises of governance, representation and social context.

Jeff earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from UC Berkeley. In 1989, he founded the Center for California Studies at Sac State. As the first director of the center, now the California Studies Association, he assembled thinkers and writers from around the Golden State to study its present and past.

Patricia McBroom, 74, of Pleasant Hill, is an author and journalist affiliated with the CSA at UC Berkeley.

“I met Jeff only three years ago and fell in love with his optimism, humor, humanity and boundless energy as a public intellectual,” McBroom said. “He cared deeply about our common heritage in California and helped all those, including myself, who wanted to protect the public interest in such areas as water policy."

Iain Boal and Michael Watts of UC Berkeley are two of the four co-editors for West of Eden: Communes and Utopia in Northern California (PM Press, 2012), which was dedicated to Jeff as the dean of California studies.

In his essay, he fleshed out the vital role of common lands, namely UC Berkeley and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, in the 1960s. Both places were public venues for communal activities, from feeding hungry people to mobilizing anti-war protests.

Jeff walked the talk about active involvement in the pressing issues of the day. In the first decade of a new century with rampant income inequality and working-class poverty, public higher education is on the front lines of this social conflict. In February 2007, Jeff co-organized a public discussion off-campus that focused on what is (not) happening, and why, to the state’s public university system’s professors and students. They shared generational experiences with lively analyses and testimonies.

“It meant a lot to me that Jeff associated the Berkeley Free Speech Movement with a view of academic life as both socially critical and politically engaged,” said Mark B. Brown, 43, fellow Berkeleyite and an associate professor of government at Sac State. 

“Jeff often argued that academic freedom is essential to protect the university from commercial pressures,” Brown said. “But that didn’t mean faculty should retreat into an ivory tower, because academic freedom depends on participation in self-governance."

Jeff is survived by his wife, Nora Elliott of Berkeley; a son, Jacob Lustig of Alameda; a brother, Steve Lustig of Berkeley; sister, Nancy Lustig; and two grandchildren.

Plans are underway for a memorial service on Sunday, Aug. 19.

 

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Nicole Magnuson July 18, 2012 at 03:05 AM
Oh, how sad. I remember Jeff well from my undergrad days at UC Berkeley ('74-'78) when he was a guest speaker in political economy classes, among others. Isn't his brother Steve the high-level UCB administrator?
Martha Winnacker July 19, 2012 at 08:25 PM
Jeff's passing is a huge loss for California, Berkeley, and the engaged academic community, especially all whose inquiry focuses on California. He played a larger than life role with humor, verve, and integrity and will be deeply missed.

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