Walter, emeritus political scientist who taught public policy, has died

headshot of Ben Walter
Benjamin Walter (courtesy of Roberta Goodman)

Benjamin Walter, a Vanderbilt University emeritus political scientist whose teaching and research interests included American government, environmental policy and suburban politics, died in Nashville on Aug. 21. Walter was 90.

He was born in New York City on March 15, 1930, and grew up in Long Beach, New York. Walter majored in history at Yale University, where he graduated with high honors in 1952. He then earned a master of public administration from Syracuse University. After serving in the Army, he earned a doctorate in political science from Northwestern University in 1960.

Walter taught at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before moving to Nashville in 1961 to join the Vanderbilt Department of Political Science. He was promoted to professor of political scientist in 1973 and later became a senior research associate at the Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies. Walter served as director of graduate studies for his department for six years and acting department chair from 1982 to 83.

Walter taught a variety of undergraduate classes, including American Government and Politics, Public Policy and Health Care Policy. During the late 1990s, he and Jonathan Gilligan, now associate professor of earth and environmental sciences, designed and co-taught a new course called Science, Risks and Government Policy. It was part of the university’s Science, Technology and Humanities initiative that launched in 1995.

“Ben was a good friend, colleague and mentor,” Gilligan said. “Teaching an interdisciplinary course with Ben was intellectually stimulating for both of us and allowed us to show students how two people with very different political views could disagree passionately, but do so civilly, respectfully and cordially. Ben also opened my eyes to the importance of psychology and behavioral economics in designing and assessing policy, and this insight has guided my work on environmental policy ever since.”

Walter authored several publications on hazardous waste management, including Siting Hazardous Waste Management Facilities: Demand, Supply and Political Constraints for Oak Ridge National Laboratories in 1979. He and James F. Blumstein, now University Professor of Constitutional Law and Health Law and Policy, were co-editors of Growing Metropolis: Aspects of Development in Nashville (Vanderbilt University Press). He also co-authored On the City’s Rim: Suburban Politics and Policy.

Walter was active in the Faculty Senate and served on many faculty committees at Vanderbilt. He became professor of political science, emeritus, in May 1999.

His many interests included opera, travel, stamp collecting and his synagogue, where he held many leadership positions. He is survived by his wife, the former Carol Masia; two children, Roberta Goodman (Lenn) and Matthew Walter (Rina); grandchildren; and great-grandchildren.

A burial service was conducted by Rabbi Saul Strosberg on Aug. 23. Memorials may be made to Congregation Sherith Israel, 3600 West End Ave., Nashville, Tennessee, 37205.