Joel Olson, 1967-2012

31 03 2012

Sad news from a friend and former colleague, about a friend and former colleague:

NAU prof Joel Olson dies suddenly

Hillary Davis, Arizona Daily Sun

Colleagues, students and friends are mourning Joel Olson, a popular political science professor at Northern Arizona University who died this week while working abroad.

Details on his death have not been released. Olson was said by friends to be about 45 years old.

Olson was spending the spring as a visiting faculty member at the University of Alicante in Spain. He gave a lecture at the University of Nottingham in Nottingham, England on Wednesday evening and died in Britain before returning to Spain.

On Thursday evening, the posts on his Facebook wall turned to shock, grief, support and admiration.

Word quickly came back to his NAU peers — in Flagstaff, or, like colleague Fred Solop, in Argentina.

Solop, also a political science professor, was a co-worker and for a time was Olson’s department chair. Solop said Olson encouraged critical thought and engagement in his students.

“He was very passionate about life,” Solop said by phone Friday from Buenos Aires, where he is spending part of his sabbatical. “He was passionate about his family, he was passionate about politics, he was passionate about teaching.”


Olson was an academic, activist and family man. He was an associate professor at NAU with scholarly interests in political theory, race and ethnicity, and social movements. His research focused on race and democracy, and fanaticism, or extremism. He had been at NAU since 2003.

He won the Outstanding Teaching Award for the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences in 2004-2005. Last fall, he taught an undergraduate course in classical and medieval political thought and a graduate course in critical race theory. He was teaching courses on extremism and the West and contemporary Western political thought while in Spain through the University Studies Abroad Consortium.

Olson was active with grassroots groups like the Repeal Coalition — an organization that seeks the repeal of laws that target immigrants and uses the slogan “Fight for freedom to live, love and work anywhere you please.” He spoke out critically on subjects like SB1070, Arizona’s anti-illegal immigration law.

Last fall, he and other Repeal Coalition members accompanied workers who had been fired from Flagstaff’s Little America hotel for not being able to provide satisfactory documentation of legal residency in a request for severance packages.

“Joel was 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. Above all, he was a loving husband and father, and a much-loved brother and son,” read a statement by NAU’s Department of Politics & International Affairs. “While his loss will be forever, the example of his life will live on. Whether one knew him as a friend or as a teacher, he will always be our role model for a life fully and nobly lived.”

Read the rest here.

Joel was a supremely decent man, someone with strong convictions whose politics was informed by an inherent generosity toward others. He was smart and funny and friendly and steadfast and yes, I’m making him sound like a saint and no, he wasn’t but, goddammit, he was one of those rare people who made others better.

The world was better for having him in it.

My deepest sympathies to his wife, Audrey, family, colleagues, and friends.




2 responses

1 04 2012

sorry for your loss, sounds like he was doing what he loved.

3 04 2012

Thanks, dmf. I think you would have liked Joel; he was a truly good human being.

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