The university community is mourning the sudden loss of Joel Olson, an associate professor of politics and international affairs at Northern Arizona University since 2003, who died while in Nottingham, England, on March 29, 2012. He was 44.
Admired among his students and colleagues alike, Dr. Olson had been on an international teaching exchange this semester at the University of Alicante in Spain where he was teaching courses on extremism and the West and contemporary Western political thought. He had presented his paper, “The Democratic Uses of Manichaeism,” at the University of Nottingham on March 28.
Geeta Chowdhry, professor and chair of the Department of Politics and International Affairs, called Dr. Olson “a colleague of great kindness and decency, a teacher of unquenchable passion and inspiration, a foremost scholar of critical race studies and an eloquent spokesman for the oppressed.”
Born Nov. 4, 1967, in Ypsilanti, Mich., Dr. Olson moved to Phoenix in 1979 where he attended Thunderbird High School. He earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from Arizona State
University and his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Minnesota. His scholarly interests were in political theory, social movements and race and ethnicity, and he taught courses at the undergraduate and graduate level, including American political thought, political ideologies, extremism and Marxist theory. He also taught for the Honors Program.
He came to NAU in 2003 as an assistant professor and in 2004 he published the book The Abolition of White Democracy with the University of Minnesota Press. He was promoted to associate professor in 2008.
Most recently he had been working on a book on the political theory of extremism in the United States, and many in the activist community considered him a role model.
“Joel could debate an issue civilly, disagreeing while still being agreeable,” said Lori Poloni Staudinger, associate professor of politics and international affairs. “The things that made him a great friend and colleague were the same things that also made him a great teacher—he was likeable, approachable and relatable.”
It was those qualities that in 2005 earned him the Outstanding Teaching Award for the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
“While we all know him as a professor and activist, Joel’s family is his biggest legacy,” Poloni Staudinger said. It is a sentiment echoed by many students, friends and colleagues on a memorial Facebook page, Remembering Joel Olson, where those who knew him best say he will foremost be remembered as a loving husband, father and friend.
He is survived by his wife, Audrey Creed, and their children, Malcolm, George Emmett and Nile Vida, as well as his parents and his four siblings, April, Wendy, Nathan and Natalie.