Obituary for William Keech
Obituary: William Keech Brought Together Economics and Political Analysis to Understand Democratic Institutions
By Stacy Kish
William “Bill” Robertson Keech, an emeritus professor of political economy, social and decision sciences and head of the Department of Social and Decision Sciences (SDS) at Carnegie Mellon University from 1997 – 2001, died on May 20, 2021. He was 81.
Keech is remembered by his academic colleagues for his willingness to listen, think and find legitimate reasons to complement other’s work. He did not lose sight of the big picture when many get lost in the minutia or methodological controversies.
“Bill was an important, gentle and stabilizing force for the department during his headship,” said Mark Kamlet, University Professor of Economics and Public Policy and Provost Emeritus at CMU, with joint appointments in the Department of Social and Decision Sciences in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences and the Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy. “During my early years as CMU’s provost, Bill was always a good and highly-valued sounding board for me.”
His colleague, John Miller, professor of economics and social science, continued, “Bill was able to greatly enhance CMU's presence in political science, while also carefully navigating the explosive growth of SDS's Information and Decision Systems major.”
Keech earned his bachelor’s degree at Bucknell University in 1961 and his master’s degree and Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin in 1965. He began his dissertation, which was later published as the book “The Impact of Negro Voting” (1968), in the early 1960s when he was active in the civil rights movement. He took a temporary position at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, which led to a tenured full professor position in the political science department from 1965 to 1996 before joining CMU.
His scholarly work examined the nature and consequences of democratic institutions from the enfranchisement of Black citizens to linking economic concepts with political analysis. He published four books and numerous scholarly journal articles that detailed his professional evolution in the exploration of politics, economics and the monetary system. His continued pursuit for knowledge during a sabbatical to complete a series of economics courses at the University of Michigan in the early 1980s. His humility and ambition characterize his approach to his academic studies and his life.
Beyond his academic pursuits, Keech was a dedicated teacher, adviser and mentor. Kenneth Shepsle, the George Markham Professor of Government at Harvard University, credits Keech with spurring his interest in Political Science and pursuit of graduate studies. Kerry Haynie, associate professor of Political Science and chair of the Political Science Department at Duke University, points to Keech’s guidance and mentorship while completing his PhD at UNC-Chapel Hill. Irwin Morris, the William T. Kretzer Distinguished Professor of Humanities Executive Director of the School of Public and International Affairs, points to Keech’s collegiality, leadership and scholarship. Keech was also the adviser for Paul Wellstone, who later served as a U.S. Senator from Minnesota.
“Bill was a very kind man [who] aimed at helping others. Despite being an expert in political science, he was not political,” recalled Cleotilde (Coty) Gonzalez, a research professor in Social and Decision Sciences at CMU. “He aimed at maintaining balance, and he was conscious of the personal demands of the various faculty members. He was a good colleague and friend. He will be missed.”
Keech was also honored outside academia, being elected as President of the Southern Political Science Association in 1989. He was active in consulting with the National Science Foundation and did important interdisciplinary work with collaborator Carl Simon on their paper, "Electoral and Welfare Consequences of Political Manipulation of the Economy."
Upon retiring from CMU, Keech moved back to North Carolina to be near his family. Upon his return, Keech was recruited to take a position of research professor at Duke University in the Political Science Department, where he taught classes on political economy and development and became a favorite professor of a generation of students interested in problems of economic policy. Upon his retirement, Keech was honored with a day-long conference in 2018, reflecting on his work and achievements. The conference was attended by 50 people, many of them students or colleagues from the past, and some of them new friends who had known him for a few years.
The Keech family honored the life of William R. Keech at a gathering at The Farm in Chapel Hill on July 11th. Keech is survived by his wife Sharon, his daughter Sarah, his son Dan, his daughter-in-law, Cindy and his three grandchildren, Cody, Tommy and KC.