In Memoriam: Hayward Alker

The USC College international relations scholar is remembered for his intellectual range and encyclopedic knowledge.
By Wayne Lewis
J. Ann Tickner and Hayward Alker on campus in 1995

Courtesy of the Alker Family
Hayward R. Alker, holder of the John A. McCone Chair in International Relations in USC College, died on Aug. 24. He was 69.

Alker was a leading scholar on world order and international conflict resolution, interests grounded in his Quaker faith and belief in the possibility of achieving peace. A member of the College faculty for more than a decade, he brought a mathematics background to the social sciences and was renowned for his interdisciplinary approach, incorporating both statistical and humanistic techniques in his research. He previously had been a professor at MIT and Yale.

Alker suffered a cerebral hemorrhage at his home in Block Island, R.I., and died that evening at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence. Alker and his wife, J. Ann Tickner, professor of international relations at USC College, split their time between homes in Block Island and Santa Monica.

“It's a huge loss for the College and a personal loss for me,” said USC College Dean Howard Gillman. “He was an amazing, innovative scholar – one of the giants in his field. But mostly I am thinking now about his passion for his work, for his students and the joy he exuded when he was sharing new ideas. He was a great man, a force of nature.”

Laurie Brand, professor and director of international relations at USC College said, “He was a scholar of national and international standing. I’ve been receiving e-mails from various parts of the world asking about him, conveying condolences. I just got a note from someone who said he had never been Hayward’s student, but that Hayward had been the most important intellectual influence in his life.”

USC College Vice Dean Steven Lamy, who was director of international relations from 2001-06, called Alker “a powerful and influential voice in our field.”

Alker’s intellectual development intersected with one of the great debates in that academic field – the question of methodology. Early on, while concentrating on the workings of the Cold War and the United Nations, Alker was a staunch proponent of a strictly scientific approach to international studies. He would grow to repeatedly rethink and hone that view. He ultimately integrated both advanced mathematics and humanistic methods while widening the scope of his scholarship to investigate artificial intelligence, globalism and game theory.

His contrarian rejection of a pure-science approach resonated with young international relations scholars seeking to strike a new path.

In a chapter about Alker in The Future of International Relations: Masters in the Making? (Routledge, 1997), Heikki Patomäki of the University of Helsinki wrote, “As scholars in the field, we could learn from Alker’s learning, not only from the innovative paths of his long voyage. In other words, we should be interested in both what and how he has learned.”

Alker summed up this progression in Rediscoveries and Reformulations: Humanistic Methodologies of International Studies (Cambridge University Press, 1996), a compilation of articles. This magnum opus laid out his neo-Classical approach, alluding to and analyzing Aristotle, Machiavelli and Marx among a cast of great thinkers through the ages.

“No one else was capable of doing this,” said Nicholas Onuf, a former research fellow at USC and friend and colleague to Alker for more than 25 years. “Not anybody, ever, in the field of international relations had this kind of breadth, this kind of reach.”

When asked about Alker’s impact, his former student and noted international studies expert Joshua Goldstein, now a research scholar at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, said, “He was very eclectic in his interests, and he was consciously, purposefully multi-methodological and multi-theoretical. He always pushed his students to find other theoretical perspectives and to use multiple methodologies. That had a huge effect on my career.”

Both Alker and Tickner were leaders in the study of international relations. Tickner is the immediate past president of the International Studies Association, the most respected professional organization in the field. Alker was its president in 1992–93.

Alker’s colleagues and protégés were to present him this spring with a Festschrift, a traditional academic tribute in the form of a volume of articles dedicated to him. Originally planned as a surprise for Alker, the book, tentatively titled “Learning From Alker,” will instead be offered as a memorial.

Upon learning of Alker’s death, the International Studies Association announced that it will posthumously recognize him with its Susan Strange Award, which recognizes a person whose intellect most challenges conventional wisdom in the international studies community. A roundtable discussion in his honor will be held at the association’s annual spring conference.

Alker was born in New York City in 1937 and raised in Greenwich, Conn. He attended Brunswick School, where he was the first student in the school’s history to earn straight A’s.

He earned his bachelor’s degree in mathematics from MIT in 1959, earning a 1960 master’s and 1963 doctorate in political science from Yale University, his father’s alma mater.

He stayed at Yale to teach, becoming a full professor at 29. In 1968, Alker returned to MIT as a political science professor, where he remained until joining USC College in 1995.

His career was marked by prestigious visiting professorships, including a 1989 appointment as the first Olof Palme Professor at the Universities of Uppsala and Stockholm in Sweden and a 1996 fellowship to study chaos theory at the Santa Fe Institute. He was a visiting scholar at Brown University at the time of his death.

Alker’s books include Journeys Through Conflict (Rowman & Littlefield, 2001) and Mathematics and Politics (Macmillan, 1965).

Alker most recently was working with colleagues to complete a book on world order debates. He also was dissertation adviser for nine doctoral students in international relations at USC.

Alker is remembered for his sharp intelligence and selflessness.

“He was deeply committed to community,” Brand said. “He was a terrific mentor who worked tirelessly on behalf of his students.… He also had the most fertile, inquisitive and creative mind of anyone I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.”

Talking to him was better than Googling a topic, said a colleague. Lamy described him as “brilliant, a walking bibliography for every theory and issue in our field.”

Goldstein recalled working on his dissertation with Alker: “You’d go in and talk with Hayward about an idea you had, and he would sit there and go for about 20 minutes at a mile a minute. Quite often, a citation would come by, and you’d just scribble it down. And then, you’d go off to the library for two weeks, and you’d discover a whole body of literature that you didn’t know about.”

Outside of academia, Alker was a Red Sox fan, and he had a passion for singing. This summer, he toured Italy with the Santa Monica choral group Cantori Domino. Alker had been an active member of the Santa Monica Friends Meeting since moving to the West Coast.

“My dad lived his life fully,” said his daughter Gwendolyn Alker, a teacher at New York University’s Department of Drama. “We just had the whole family together to celebrate his 70th birthday early. He was watching a Miyazaki film with his grandchildren the night before he died.” His birthday is in October.

A Quaker memorial will be held on Block Island on Friday, Aug. 31, at the St. Andrew Parish Center, followed by a private burial at the Block Island cemetery. A service at USC is planned for Oct. 8 at noon at the United University Church, with a reception to follow at the University Religious Center.

Alker is survived by his wife; his brother, Henry; his sister, Charity; three daughters, Joan, Heather and Gwendolyn; and six grandchildren. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Middle East Peace Education Program of the American Friends Service Committee in Los Angeles or the Block Island Conservancy.