Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 2
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Wednesday, January 12, 2011
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Suzanne Keller, Princeton’s First Tenured Female Faculty Member, Liked the Word “Transcendence”

Ellen Gilbert

Calling it “a first-rate ethnography and history,” the American Journal of Sociology’s review of the late Suzanne Keller’s final book, Community: Pursuing the Dream, Living the Reality described it as “a rich discussion of the literature of community, ranging from Plato to modern cyberspace.” Ms. Keller died last month at the age of 83.

Her work caught the attention of those outside of academia as well. According to the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, “Suzanne Keller’s thoughtful insights and analyses are especially valuable in these rapidly changing times of both great promise and great danger, as we strive to improve our own communities and develop a genuine world community at peace and with opportunity for all.”

Ms. Keller came to Princeton as a visiting lecturer in 1966; two years later she became the first woman to receive tenure at the University when she was named a professor of sociology.

It was a long journey: born in Vienna in 1927, Ms. Keller moved to New York City and became an American citizen as a child. She graduated from Hunter College and earned her Ph.D. in sociology in 1953 from Columbia University. In 1994, already in her late 60s, she earned a master of social work degree from Rutgers University. She retired from Princeton in 2004.

Community, which was published by Princeton University Press in 2003, is an account of a three decades-long study of change in a New Jersey housing community. The book won the Italian Sociological Association’s 2005 Amalfi European Prize for sociology and social sciences, in the Sociological Theories and Social Transformations Section.

“Community is so difficult to attain and yet so essential,” said Ms. Keller in a 2004 Princeton Weekly Bulletin interview. “I believe that people need community, both for roots and as a place where they feel a sense of identity and belonging. Too many people today are lonely and disconnected as the scale of contemporary life dwarfs them. It is not a lack of a partner or a family. It is an existential loneliness.”

Ms. Keller’s first book, Beyond the Ruling Class: Strategic Elites in Modern Society, an examination of the elite power structure in America, was published in 1963. It was followed by The Urban Neighborhood (1968), The Social Origins and Career Lines of Three Generations of the American Business Elite (1980), Building for Women (1980), and The American Dream of Family (1991), as well as a widely-used textbook, Sociology (1983).

“Suzanne Keller leaves behind an exceptional professional and personal legacy,” said Viviana Zelizer, Princeton’s Lloyd Cotsen ‘50 Professor of Sociology. “Brilliant, charismatic, generous, she was not only an expert in the study of communities but a gifted builder of social ties. She forged enduring connections with colleagues, students and friends.”

“As a scholar, Professor Keller is considered one of sociology’s most distinguished students of elites, inequality, gender and community life in the United States,” Zelizer added. “She was deeply committed to the highest standards of scholarship. Her intellectual range was exceptionally broad; she refused the confinement of a single discipline and was at ease not only with sociology but with a variety of social science and humanistic ideas.”

Indeed, during various phases of her career, Ms. Keller could be found working in departments of psychiatry, architecture and planning, as well as sociology. At Princeton, she taught in the School of Architecture for ten years. She also served as a consultant to industry and government agencies in areas such as housing and new communities, and family and gender issues.

“If we don’t take care of the common ground, we don’t have private ground,” said Ms. Keller when she was asked how she would respond to someone who asks, “What’s it to me?”

“I like the word transcendence,’” she added, “that each of us needs to transcend our own lives because all of our lives depend on other people all the time.”

Another ground-breaking effort for Ms. Keller was her role in promoting women’s studies first as an academic subject and then, in 1981, as a formally constituted Princeton program. She taught the University’s first course on gender and society during the early 1970s.

Nancy Weiss Malkiel, Princeton’s dean of the college and a professor of history, said, “As the first woman appointed to a tenured professorship at Princeton, Suzanne Keller holds a unique position in the history of the University. As a remarkable scholar, teacher and mentor, and a wise and generous colleague, she holds a special place in the lives and hearts of generations of Princetonians. After I joined the faculty in 1969 as one of Princeton’s first two women assistant professors, I turned to Suzanne often for guidance and counsel. For 40 years, I have looked up to her, learned from her and cherished her friendship.”

After her retirement, Ms. Keller traveled frequently with her husband of 30 years, Charles Haar, who is Harvard’s Louis D. Brandeis Professor of Law Emeritus.

In addition to Mr. Haar, Ms. Keller is survived by Mr. Haar’s daughter, Susan, and Ms. Keller’s stepchildren, Cintra McGauley and Richard Huber Jr. Funeral services were private. A memorial service in Princeton is being planned for the spring.

Contributions in memory of Ms. Keller may be made to the Passage Theatre Company in Trenton, at www.passagetheatre.org.

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