February 14, 2013: Remembering Michael Cohen

Editor’s note: These remarks by Sidney G. Winter were delivered at a memorial service held at 10:30 a.m., Saturday, February 9 in the Rogel Ballroom of the Michigan Union building at the University of Michigan. You participate in remembering Michael Cohen on a Facebook Page for him.

Sidney Winter: It is common knowledge here that Michael Cohen was a very special human being. Not only is that well understood in general terms, but there is a list of his specific virtues that is also widely acknowledged. As we have all struggled to cope with this loss, in this past week, I have been struck by the power of this consensus about him, how effectively people can evoke the person they knew, and how clear it is that it was indeed the same remarkable person that they all knew. Even the appraisal of him as the embodiment of typical Midwestern virtues, his California background notwithstanding, came to me from more than one source.

Since there is little profit in a recitation of common knowledge, what to do? One might try reaching for stronger superlatives: A supreme intellect, a virtual Superman of gentleness! What, a Superman of gentleness? I think super-sizing the superlatives is not the way to go, or at least not evidently my particular talent. I will reach instead for some resonant memories.

If the records do not lie, I was a colleague of Michael’s at the Institute of Public Policy Studies, predecessor of the Ford School, for a mere 5 semesters in 1973-75. Thinking about that today, it is incredible to me that our time as actual colleagues was that short, considering the durability of the connection formed. We had offices on the same hallway in the IPPS quarters on East Liberty Street. We had in common our enthusiasm for the IPPS mission and for the Carnegie School traditions that strongly shaped it. We had other shared enthusiasms … such as the idea of using computer simulation as a vehicle for theory, and also the aspiration to do interdisciplinary social science. Leaving Ann Arbor was painful for many reasons, but the truncation of the developing relationship to Michael was a major one.

Fortunately, we encountered each other in a number of conferences and workshops over the years, and especially so in recent decades. This was largely because of our shared interest in organizational routines. There were several small workshops of the kind where serious interdisciplinary conversation could take place. These events were held in a number of not-so-bad locales, such as Santa Fe, Laguna Beach and Nice,—not to speak of Ann Arbor and Philadelphia. I recall these occasions with special pleasure and gratitude.

I remember Michael’s great value as a participant in such conversations, and particularly his talent for expressing skepticism in a helpful way. He would identify the logical weakness, the parochialism, the overstatement, or occasionally the ignorance, in a presentation or argument. As he did so, you saw the fabric of his character in one single piece … the fabric woven of the high intelligence, the learning, the serious-mindedness, the ever-constructive attitude … and then, always, the generosity, the gentleness and the humor. Or perhaps I should say, the playfulness. There was that twinkle of laughter and enthusiasm that frequently came into his eye. It said, “I’m really enjoying this and I trust you are enjoying it too.” That image is the one that will always be with me when I remember him.

Now, I think of myself as having reasonably good manners in the seminar room, at least when I’m talking. When I’m just listening, however, my inner agitation can become evident when I don’t like what I’m hearing. One day I was sitting beside Michael in one of those workshops and displaying such symptoms of distress. Michael leaned over and showed me his laptop screen, where he had brought up a Peanuts cartoon. Lucy is lecturing Linus about a little tree, while Charlie Brown looks on. Lucy says, “This is a palm tree. It’s called that because I can put my palm around it.” Charlie Brown makes a nauseated face and says, “My stomach hurts.”

That cartoon cured my own gastric distress of the moment, and it has been therapeutic in many similar episodes in the years since. It established Michael in my mind as my personal guru of the Zen of scholarly battle, not just in the workshop or seminar context, but in all its many forms.

Certainly I followed his guidance in many other domains, and particularly on the individual psychology of organizational behavior … a topic on which I happen to have a Michael-inspired, and strongly Michael-assisted, paper forthcoming. The last of that valuable assistance was received from him in the now long-ago month of December.

As I look around the country and the world today, I am repeatedly struck by the propensity to self-destructive behavior exhibited by the human species. Deep down, most of our collective problems are not so difficult; they are manageable. But instead of managing the problems, we seem to employ our expanding knowledge to discover new paths to self-inflicted pain.

To manage the problems, we need of course to understand the relevant problems and their complexities. In his teaching and research, Michael helped in building that detailed understanding.

We also need a deeper and more generic understanding of human behavior itself. Particularly in recent years, that was the path that Michael took in his research.

But is that enough? Isn’t the fundamental problem that we actually have need of “a better class of human beings” to make this planet the garden that it could be? As a solution, that may be close to “assuming a miracle”, but not quite. History has shown us some examples of that “better class”, and the collective power of such examples shapes the future. Michael is one such example—but now we have lost him to a problem that is not self-inflicted, and not yet in the class we know how to solve.

His influence will outlast the pain we now suffer at his loss; we can all ride the waves and currents of his special kind of humanity.

Sid Winter
Deloitte and Touche Professor Emeritus of Management
The Wharton School
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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