Recent death of STS chair saddens many

After more than thirty years at Rensselaer, the chair of the department of Science and Technology Studies, Dr. Sharon Anderson-Gold, passed away on September 26, 2011.

Anderson-Gold earned a doctoral degree in philosophy and master’s degrees in political science and philosophy at the New School for Social Research and joined RPI’s faculty in 1979; she was originally a professor in the philosophy department. Her colleagues described her as very committed to the Faculty Council and Senate—Anderson-Gold was originally elected the first female president of the Faculty Senate, but did not accept the post, due to being appointed the associate dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. She then served as acting dean of HASS from 1993–1997. In 1999, she joined the Science and Technology Studies department, and she became chair of the department in 2004. Then-dean of the School of HASS John Harrington described her as “a scholar of philosophy and an expert in ethics across a number of disciplines.”

Anderson-Gold’s particular area of interest and study was Kantian ethics and political philosophy; she had published dozens of journal articles and essays, as well as two books, Unnecessary Evil: History and Moral Progress in the Philosophy of Immanuel Kant (2001) and Cosmopolitanism and Human Rights (2001). She was also the editor of Kant’s Anatomy of Evil (2010), a collection of philosophical essays. She strove to apply Kant’s theories of ethics to today’s social problems and was known for presenting a new reading of his works. Langdon Winner, the Thomas Phelan Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences and a professor in the STS department, called her “[a] thinker who described Kant’s work with scrupulous care and developed its themes in new, creative dimension. More than that, she lived a life of philosophical insight in direct, everyday, practical ways.”

Anderson-Gold was a notable figure to her co-workers, both in appearance and demeanor. In speaking at a memorial service this past

weekend, Professor Ellen Esrock, associate professor of literature, compared her typical dress to a new form of mythology. “If she emerged from her mother’s head in a full suit of armor like the mythological Athena, she would have been wearing a curve fitting, bright red suit and high black heels, coiffed in cascades of bright blond curls. In such outfits, [she] confronted hard-fisted deans and provosts, engaging them in lengthy analyses of her proposals, she counseled students and collaborated with faculty.”

Her colleagues praised her ability to keep order within the department. Winner remembered, “She had a talent for helping move our intellectually-divided group toward sensible, equitable, workable solutions.” In agreement, Linda Layne, a professor of anthropology and the Hale Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences, described the STS department as “factionalized” and attributed much of Anderson-Gold’s administrative success as chair to her philosophical studies. “She skillfully engaged in what Kant calls ‘the harmonization of dispositions,’” said Layne.

Layne also described Anderson-Gold as reveling in “hard-hitting, impassioned debate” and being unwavering in intellectual matters; she was known for her opinion that well-reasoned positions on difficult moral issues could be agreed and acted upon by persons of good will.

In one such case, shortly after the dissolution of the Faculty Senate in 2007, faculty members gathered to protest at a teach-in. Anderson-Gold was present, voicing her concerns about an official lack of faculty representation; in 2003, she had proposed the idea of non-tenure track faculty being representatives of the Faculty Senate. In a speech to the participants, she emphasized the importance of the freedom of the academic world because that is where enlightened people are developed. “Public argumentation tests one’s capacity to acknowledge others as having an equal claim to intellectual independence,” she said. “Only that which survives the process of criticism can have rational authority … Academic freedom requires that faculty be able to act in community with other faculty to collectively guide the educational mission to the achievement of socially responsible ends.”

Anderson-Gold was a member of the Advisory Board of the Society for International Law and Ethics, the International Standing Group on Kantian Thought, and the president of the North American Kant Society, as well as chair of the steering committee for the Interdisciplinary Programs on Design and Innovation at RPI.

“Among my colleagues at Rensselaer, there is a strong belief that the best continuing tribute to [Anderson-Gold] is to encourage our students, colleagues, and friends to read her books and enjoy the richness of her thinking,” said Winner. “Along that path, the spirit of her life and work will certainly endure.”

Anderson-Gold is survived by her husband and two children. Professor Linnda Caporael has assumed the post of acting department head of the STS Department.