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Duncan MacRae, Jr. – Biography

Duncan MacRae, Jr., was appointed Kenan Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the University of North Carolina in 1972 and served in that capacity until his death as emeritus professor in July 2008.

Duncan was also a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a Fulbright Research Scholar. He received the Woodrow Wilson Award of the American Political Science Association, and the Donald T. Campbell and Harold D. Lasswell Awards of the Policy Studies Organization. Internationally recognized as one of the founders of public policy analysis, Duncan was among the earliest scholars to distinguish between the methods of social science research and those of public policy analysis. See, for example, Policy Analysis for Public Decisions, Duxbury Press, 1979, with James A. Wilde, Policy Indicators: Links Between Social Science and Public Debate, UNC Press, 1985, and Expert Advice for Policy Choice: Analysis and Discourse, Georgetown University Press, 1997, with Dale Whittington.

Rather than specializing in a particular policy field, Duncan devoted his career to the methods of policy analysis and its application to a wide range of policy issues, including education policies for handicapped children, policies to contain the AIDS epidemic, and the provision of water supplies in developing countries.

A factual recitation of these and other distinguished achievements falls short of conveying the remarkable scope, texture, depth, and multifaceted features of Duncan’s career. The discretion commonly permitted in offering reflections on the lives of departed colleagues prompts the following statement presented at a September 2008 memorial service and formally titled: “Duncan MacRae, Jr., An Inspirational Odyssey.”

I am privileged, honored, and humbled beyond words by the invitation from Amy MacRae to share reflections and recollections about the inspirational life, character, and scholarship of Duncan MacRae, whose Scots clan surname means “son of grace.” Grace and gracefulness epitomized Duncan’s personal demeanor and scholarly deftness. My reference too humbled beyond words will be evident momentarily when I rely on statements from others to provide scope and depth to my inadequate efforts in expressing what Duncan meant to me, to former students, to colleagues, to UNC, and to the wider university of the mind.

In a book titled How the Scots Invented the Modern World, Arthur Herman poses a set of arresting questions: Who created the first literate society? Who first articulated free market capitalism? Who invented our modern ideas of democracy? To these and other wide-ranging queries Herman has a simple answer: the Scots! The mention of Scots and Scotland quickly conjures up images of bagpipes, kilts, even ties/tartans, whisky, and of course, golf!

Besides being an esteemed colleague and an admired scholar, Duncan was a golfing friend and partner with several of us. The many rounds played at Finley Golf Course probably equaled or exceeded in hours the time it took to write several articles or even a book. To me and to colleagues who joined in those endeavors, it was time enjoyably well spent. Indeed, any time in every venue with Duncan was time well spent. Playing golf with him contradicted Wordsworth assertion that golf was “A day spent in strenuous idleness.” I could not begin to recount the range of topics and lively conversations that transpired on the walks from tee to green. In those days no one deigned to ride in a cart, especially Duncan!

Neither did golf with Duncan meet H. L. Menken’s acerbic comment that “Golf is a walk in the woods spoiled by searching for a small white ball.” Duncan’s golf game contradicted this because he was never in the woods; actually, he was seldom off the fairway! As colleague George Rabinowitz, a frequent golfing participant commented, “Two things always stood out to me about Duncan, one his devotion to students, the other his incredible golf swing.” Permit me to extend the golfing metaphor.

Duncan’s soaring intellect and academic targeting paralleled his golf swing and ball trajectories. His swing was a smooth, compact, fluid, balanced, and refined. In short, his golf swing matched his mind in elegance and grace. Other features borrowed from golf applied to his personal and professional life. These included passion, precision, and patience, courtesy, respect, and integrity, joined with excitement and enjoyment in dealing with ideas as well as with students and colleagues. Companionship in the classroom and on the course was only one hallmark of Duncan’s remarkable presence at UNC. On the course and in the mind he was a true son of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Duncan’s arrival in Chapel Hill from the University of Chicago in 1971 was auspicious in multiple ways. His grandfather had been Dean of the UNC law school and his father a 1909 graduate of UNC at age 18. Early in 1971 faculty colleague Merle Black, a recently minted Ph.D. from Chicago, wrote to Duncan and asked him to recommend someone to fill a departmental vacancy. Duncan provided a quick response: “How about me?” Dick Richardson, past chair of our department, described it thus: “It was like writing Napoleon to suggest a soldier to run our ROTC program and the general himself showed up! He, Duncan, was our most significant recruit.”

Merle, the recruitment intermediary, described Duncan as follows: “Duncan MacRae, Jr. was a master scholar of international reputation and a great, great teacher. He was the most actively helpful professor I have ever known. Duncan sat on hundreds of dissertation committees during his long career and used his enormous talents in the service of his students. Duncan combined world-class intelligence with great personal kindness and Scotch practicality. Above all, he was a wonderful person who led a life of integrity, purpose, and achievement.”

Another longtime colleague, Professor Gordon Whitaker of the School of Government, captured two features of Duncan wonderfully well – Duncan’s professional commitment to public policy analysis and personal relationships with colleagues.

Duncan MacRae is the father of public policy analysis at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and one of the most rigorous and vigorous of the discipline’s founders in the United States. Duncan was dedicated to improving public life. He was convinced that public policies could be improved through careful analysis. And he devoted his years at Chapel Hill to building both intellectual and human structures for public policy analysis. So I remember Duncan for his work. But I also remember him as a friend. Duncan was a kind and gentle man, passionate in his commitment to reason, but understanding of human frailties. Duncan MacRae was not only an intellectual giant and an institution builder; he was also a caring and compassionate human being.

Bill Keech, another colleague from the political science department reflected on the broad scope of Duncan’s intellect: As my interests turned from conventional American politics to political economy, I found him to be extremely knowledgeable about other social science disciplines. Duncan’s book, The Social Function of Social Science, published in 1976 dazzled me. I was just beginning my study of economics and thought that what he knew to write the chapter on economics in that book was what I aspired to know and understand. But he had written comparable chapters on psychology, sociology and political science. What a polymath!

One of Duncan’s earliest and closest collaborators in public policy analysis at UNC was James Wilde of the economics department with whom he coauthored PolicyAnalysis for Public Decisions, 1979. Jim offered these reflections: My fondest memories of Duncan MacRae were of our team-teaching the Public Policy introductory course, Poli 71. Here was the tower in this field which was new to UNC, who was excited about exposing students to the discipline that he was so passionate about. And here he was joining with a young kid from another discipline, someone whose style was distinctly different from his. So I stood aside and observed the wonderful way Duncan shared his expertise with young people just beginning their journey into the world of public policy. It was a great ride for me and I am grateful that Duncan was the driver.

Dr. Cheryl Miller, a professor and Dean at the University of Maryland, speaks glowingly of serving as a teaching assistant in the introductory public policy analysis 25 years ago: “One of my lifelong bragging rights continues to be that I served as a TA for the one and only Dr. Duncan MacRae. I am forever indebted to him for his contributions to my intellectual growth.”

Another senior scholar in the field, Professor Theodore Lowi at Cornell University, writes expansively, in a full-page single-spaced letter, about Duncan as “one of my most valued colleagues…” Both when they team-taught at the University of Chicago in the 1960s and in the years since. The course, Ted says, “was a great success despite our differences. Duncan was a behavioralist, I was a traditionalist. He was far too modest; I was far too full of bombast and rage. It was a beautiful productive friendship.”

Three of Duncan’s UNC colleagues from public policy were eager, prompt, and extensive in their reflections about Duncan. First, Richard, Pete, Andrews, current chair of the department of public policy, not only concisely characterized Duncan’s view of the discipline but pointed to his continuing institutional and intellectual legacy. “Duncan’s distinctive conception of the field of public policy analysis combined rational analysis with deep commitments to public policy decision-making as a matter of ethical choice by informed and reasoning citizens, and not merely technical analysis, however rational, by professionals. I believe our Department owes its distinctive emphasis on undergraduate and doctoral level public policy research and education very much to Duncan’s vision and legacy.”

Michael Stegman, now with the MacArthur Foundation, was past chair of the public policy department and the first appointee to the MacRae Professorship of Public Policy, a chair that Duncan and Edith created to honor Duncan’s parents. Mike shared many reflections but this paragraph reveals Duncan’s intellectual and institutional tenacity in achieving a basis for public policy analysis.

“My recollections are of many of our planning committee meetings, especially the very early ones that focused on the need and feasibility for a doctoral program in public policy analysis at UNC. Duncan was adamant about calling the program Public Policy Analysis because of the importance of methodological sophistication in explicating the pros and cons of alternative policy solutions. Duncan would hold informal “salons” to help educate the rest of the members who came from all across the university and from many disciplines on what public policy analysis was and why and how it differed from other programs and disciplines.”

The third public policy colleague, Dale Whittington, was perhaps the closest sustained collaborator in teaching and coauthoring with Duncan. Their book, Expert Advice for Policy Choice, 1997, is a definitive work. Dale offered this concise capstone comment in reviewing Duncan’s autobiography: “Throughout his career he has brought a disciplined and penetrating intellect to the big questions in his field, challenging analysts to reflect more deeply on what they are doing and why they are doing it.”

This self-reflection was one stimulus leading Duncan to produce his autobiography, the lead portion of which is titled An Academic Odyssey. It traces Duncan’s career from natural science to social science and ultimately to public policy analysis. In many respects lines from Tennyson’s poem about Ulysses, aka Odysseus, describe Duncan personally and professionally.

The selected lines are:

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ Gleams the untraveled world whose margin fades
Forever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use.

The poem closes with these lines:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now of that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven,
that which we are, we areβ€”
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Even in the final days when illness limited Duncan’s communication capacities, he admirably demonstrated these features as he smiled when I spoke to him about undergraduates in public policy analysis, and about golf! To live in the minds and hearts of those who remain behind is not to die. Duncan truly lives on.

Deil S. Wright
University of North Carolina

Duncan MacRae
Duncan MacRae