The Duck of Minerva

In Memoriam: Jon Western

31 January 2022

Back in the Duck of Minerva‘s heyday, Jon Western was one of its anchors. Indeed, it wasn’t that long ago that we were talking about his returning. Jon said that he’d gained important perspective on the state of higher education from his time as dean of faculty and vice president for academic affairs at Mount Holyoke. He wanted to share that with a broader audience.

That won’t happen. Jon died on Saturday. I don’t have the details. Just a forwarded email from Mount Holyoke. It reads:

Dear members of the Mount Holyoke community,

It is with the utmost sorrow that I write to say that, yesterday, Mount Holyoke lost an exceptional scholar, teacher and administrator. Our colleague, professor and friend, Jon Western, Carol Hoffmann Collins ’63 Professor of International Relations and Five College Professor of International Relations, died suddenly, leaving behind his wife Jenny and their two sons, Charley and Alex, to whom he was utterly devoted.

There are simply no words to describe how profoundly many of us will feel this loss. Jon’s talents, commitments and warmth had a profound impact on many of us, and on generations of colleagues, students and alums.

Jon joined Mount Holyoke in 2000, and served with distinction as dean of faculty and vice president for academic affairs from 2016 to 2020. He was the author of “Selling Intervention and War: The Presidency, the Media, and the American Public” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005) and co-editor of both “The International Community and State-building: Getting Its Act Together?” (Routledge, 2012) and “Global Giant: Is China Changing the Rules of the Game” (Palgrave, 2009). Jon was passionately at work on a biography of Dorothy Fosdick, titled “The Woman in the Room: Dorothy Fosdick and the Rise of American Power in the 20th Century.”

Jon earned his BA from Macalester College, and went on to earn an MPP from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. from Columbia University. Before joining Mount Holyoke, Jon was a Peace Scholar-in-residence and the coordinator of the Dayton Upgrade Project at the United States Institute of Peace. He also served as a Balkans analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the U.S. Department of State. He previously taught at Columbia University and George Washington University.

Recently, in a tribute to his commitments, scholarship and integrity, and with the help of six Mount Holyoke students, he uncovered that the prominent Christian conservative lawyer Michael P. Farris had played a key role in the lawsuit by the Texas Attorney General and others looking to overturn the 2020 election. The revelations made the national news.

Jon leaves a lasting legacy at Mount Holyoke and will be deeply missed as a cherished member of our community. More details regarding plans to honor Jon’s memory and accomplishments will be shared as soon as they are available. Counseling resources are available for any students and employees needing support at this time.

On behalf of the entire Mount Holyoke community, I extend our heartfelt condolences to Jenny, Charley and Alex, and to their wider family and many friends.

In shared grief and sorrow,

Sonya [Stephens, President of Mount Holyoke]

This does a surprisingly good job of describing Jon’s achievements and outlook.

Jack Snyder was on the email chain. I’m sharing, with his permission, his comments:

This is a terrible shock.  Just a couple of weeks ago I had an email from Jon bearing condolences on Bob Jervis’s passing, and everything that Jon said about Bob’s virtues can and will be said about Jon as well. I can imagine how much Jon will be missed in the Five Colleges community.  I recall what a wonderful sense I got about their IR community when I visited there a while back, and the role that Jon played as the glue for it.

Just two days ago I told one of my students that he absolutely had to read Jon’s book and marvelous IS article on the Somalia intervention.  It always seemed fitting to me that Jon had written such an insightful book on political media spin on military interventions, since he was a master of that art himself. I remember just before Jon showed up at Columbia for the first day of his PhD program a firestorm of publicity broke out in all the major newspapers announcing that Jon, the desk officer for Bosnia, had resigned in protest against the immorally weak US policy there.  He was good at analyzing brilliant tacticians because he was one himself.  

A terrific guy in every way.

There’s not a lot to add, so I thought I’d share two anecdotes that have really stuck with me.

In 2011, the ISA annual convention was held in Montreal. Instead of traveling there directly, I flew to Burlington with my daughter so that she could visit her maternal grandparents (they live pretty close to the border on the New York side of Lake Champlain). I went the rest of the way by bus.

At the end of the conference, Jon offered to give me a ride back. I’m pretty sure it was out of his way, but he said he could use the company. He spent a good portion of the trip talking about his kids.

Maybe a year or two later, we invited Jon to our house for dinner. I can’t remember exactly when or why he was in DC. At almost exactly the time that I was supposed to drive Jon back to his hotel, my daughter – who would’ve been eight or nine years old – returned from gymnastics practice. She went to take a shower. We left.

We were barely down the street when my wife called me. My daughter was utterly distraught. She’d heard from us that Jon knew a lot about military interventions and civil wars. She wanted to ask him about Syria.

At Jon’s behest, we turned around and drove back to the house.

He did, indeed, answer – to the best of his ability – all of her questions. And didn’t get back to his hotel until much later than he planned.

That’s the kind of guy he was.

***

I’ll be creating an in memoriam page. If you have any memories, anecdotes, or thoughts that you want to share, you can post them below or send them to me. I’ll post them here and add them to the page.