In memoriam: Marvin Bressler h’68 h’71 h’82

Emeritus professor Marvin Bressler, a popular teacher and adviser in the sociology department who left his mark on the University’s curricular and extracurricular offerings, died July 7 in Skillman, N.J. He was 87.

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Marvin Bressler, circa 1980. (PAW Archives)

Bressler, a faculty member from 1963 to 1993, chaired the Commission on the Future of the College, which in 1973 produced the “Bressler Report,” a review of both educational and social opportunities for undergraduates. The report envisioned “a place where students can learn from one another,” and made recommendations that included adding a one-term requirement in English composition, enhancing interdisciplinary studies, expanding new facilities like the Third World Center (now the Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding), and building a central student center.

Bressler also served as his department’s chairman for 20 years. Viviana Zelizer, the Lloyd Cotsen Professor of Sociology, said in a University release that “he had the charming silk touch and good spirits, told great stories, and was deeply concerned with forming a human connection with faculty, students and staff.”

“But what really shaped the department was an iron fist,” Zelizer said. “He had a vision and worked hard to achieve it. He cared deeply about building a department that would produce significant work. He succeeded.”

As a scholar, Bressler devoted much of his research and writing to higher education but also studied health care, cultural pluralism, and the moral implications of sociobiology. He described his motivation as an educator in the personal statement on his website:

“I still think of education as a secular creed, the university as a worldly church, and the faculty as lay priests pursuing a calling. This conception implies that the social sciences properly serve as the empirical wing of moral philosophy and that each, in its own fashion, addresses the Kantian questions: What can I know? What may I hope? What shall I do?”

A close friend of Hall of Fame basketball coach Pete Carril, Bressler served as a mentor for generations of Princeton men’s basketball players and inspired the Academic-Athletic Fellow Program, which connects faculty and staff with varsity sports teams. Athletic Director Gary Walters ’67 called Bressler “one of the most inspiring academicians at Princeton University in the 20th century” and said that “he continued to serve as an inspiration to people of all races, religions and nationalities until the time of his death.”

Bressler was an honorary member of three Princeton classes: 1968, 1971, and 1982. He advised independent work for two of the sociology department’s best-known graduates: Wendy Kopp ’89, whose senior thesis provided the blueprint for Teach for America; and First Lady Michelle Obama ’85, who completed her junior paper under Bressler’s guidance.

Bressler was buried at a private service July 9. A memorial gathering on campus is planned for the fall.

3 thoughts on “In memoriam: Marvin Bressler h’68 h’71 h’82

  1. Brian S. McGill *79

    I wholeheartedly agree with Jess Deutsch that PAW devote at least a cover article to Professor Bressler.
    After I left Princeton with a very kind letter from Marvin that I treasure our paths crossed again when he addressed a sold out crowd at the Germantown Jewish Center in Philadelphia. It does not do him justice to say he wowed them and he left to thunderous applause.
    Marvin received his doctorate in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania, and has been mentioned was quite the basketball fan. Since I studied sociology at Penn I cheered the Quakers while Marvin was Princeton’s top fan.
    In fall 2007, I met Douglas Davis, Sr. I was wearing a Princeton sweatshirt and he informed me that his son was considering matriculating at Old Nassau. Mr. Davis, Sr asked if Princeton would be a good choice for his son. I laughed and told him he couldn’t find a finer university.
    So my final gift to Professor Bressler was in part recruiting Doulas Davis, Jr, Class of 2012, a scholar and stellar Princeton basketball player.
    Acta est fabula, plaudite.

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  2. jess deutsch '91

    I hope that the PAW will devote at least a cover article to the life and enduring Princeton legacies of Professor Marvin Bressler. There are HUNDREDS of “students” in the university and alumni community (whether students of sociology, student-athletes, faculty, or just anyone lucky enough to cross his path) whose lives are better for having listened to, laughed with, debated, or talked basketball with Marvin Bressler. Many of these individuals are extraordinarily and quite publicly successful. Many of them are more quietly living out the ideals and principles that Marvin helped them to refine. All loved and respected a man who considered himself distinctly fortunate to be a professor… yet for sure it was Princeton’s good fortune.

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