Peter Steiner, Former Michigan Dean Who Played to Win, Dies at 87

U. of Michigan Photo Services

Peter O. Steiner in 1985
July 11, 2010

Peter O. Steiner loved to play games, the more competitive the better. After Mr. Steiner, who led the largest college of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor through the 1980s, retired, he wrote a book about his favorite game: poker.

Mr. Steiner, who was a well-known professor of economics and law, died last month at home, in Ann Arbor. He was 87.

He saw the lessons in his book, Thursday-Night Poker: How to Understand, Enjoy—and Win, as just as useful outside of the weekly games he played for decades with colleagues and friends.

In fact, after the book's publication, in 1996, he gave a copy to Edie N. Goldenberg, who succeeded him in 1989 as dean of Michigan's College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

"He told me I needed to read the chapter on bluffing, that that was a very important skill for someone in the deanship," recalls Ms. Goldenberg, who is now a professor of political science and public policy at Ann Arbor.

Mr. Steiner's skill at analyzing and predicting other people's behavior served him well as chair of the economics department and later as dean during the financially troubled 1980s.

"Sometimes negotiating with him was like playing poker," says Paul N. Courant, dean of libraries at Ann Arbor, who was part of the Thursday-night poker circle for about 25 years. "He was a formidable adversary."

Faced with the dwindling of state support, Mr. Steiner began raising money from private donors to support the university's growth in key areas. He also guided the expansion of the chemistry department and established an institute for the humanities, raising $20-million for its endowment. He worked to improve the faculty through strategic hiring and retention.

Mr. Steiner's colleagues remember him as a confident, authoritative leader. While he was dean, faculty members celebrated promotions as soon as his office weighed in. "Once they were decided at the dean's level, they were decided," Ms. Goldenberg says.

He was also a dedicated teacher and a demanding adviser, his students and younger colleagues say.

Mr. Steiner received a bachelor's degree in economics from Oberlin College in 1943 and a doctorate in economics from Harvard University in 1950. He joined Michigan in 1968 and went on to became the first member of the law school's faculty without formal training in the discipline to teach traditional courses in law. He began teaching antitrust law and other courses after sitting in on classes at the law school, and established Michigan's joint degree program in law and economics. He retired from the university in 1991.

He valued not only good ideas, but also how well they were expressed, says Daniel L. Rubinfeld, a professor of law and economics at the University of California at Berkeley. Mr. Rubinfeld, who was hired as a member of Ann Arbor's economics department while Mr. Steiner was its chair, says his own academic path—which eventually combined law with economics—is partly a consequence of the example Mr. Steiner set.

Mr. Steiner was also a passionate advocate for academic freedom and faculty governance. He was president of the American Association of University Professors from 1976 to 1978, and just three years ago was a member of the AAUP committee that investigated universities in New Orleans for laying off faculty members and shedding academic programs in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. "If an interesting assignment came along, he was happy to serve," says Mr. Courant.

Mr. Steiner, who served in the Navy during World War II, had his share of unusual assignments. In 1975 he was teaching in Kenya when he was asked to help free four students who had been kidnapped in Tanzania, recalls Terrance Sandalow, a former dean of Michigan's law school and a close friend of Mr. Steiner for over 40 years. The four students, including Barbara B. Smuts, who was a Michigan graduate student at the time and is now a member of the university's psychology department, had been working at the research station of the primatologist Jane Goodall when they were taken prisoner by Congolese rebels. Weeks later, they returned safely to the United States.

In poker, in tennis, in all the challenges he faced throughout his life, Mr. Steiner liked to win.

"He would win, more often than not, simply by the strength of his determination to win," Mr. Sandalow says.

But the high expectations Mr. Steiner set for himself and others helped make him a valuable mentor, a tough leader, and a caring friend.

Mr. Steiner kept up his poker game even in the last year of his life. "Peter played up until the very end," Mr. Courant says.