Remembering Frank Cunningham (1940-2022)

February 7, 2022

The department was very sad to learn of the death of Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Philosophy, Frank Cunningham, over the weekend. To remember him, his colleague and friend Joseph Carens, who remembers him below, has gathered together a number of tributes from his Political Science colleagues. His obituary is available here. To read the Globe and Mail obituary click here.

“Frank was a friendly, convivial guy, with lots of energy and lots of interests. When Oxford University Press contacted me about republishing Macpherson’s Possessive Individualism and other works, I thought Frank was the person best suited for the task. He worked enthusiastically bringing Macpherson’s mixture of democracy and socialism to twenty-first century audiences and suffered at the hands of Quentin Skinner and his followers who think Locke more of a Skinnerian republican than a possessive individualist. Of all Frank’s many qualities, what struck me most was his optimism, not just Gramsci’s combo of optimism of the will and pessimism of the intellect but a thoroughgoing optimism about the future of a democratic world. In our e-mails during the past year, I indicated that his optimism about the future was a moral virtue that I admired and lacked.”

Ed Andrew, Professor Emeritus

“My main interaction with Frank revolved around a book he wrote for a book series I was co-editing for Routledge. The book he wrote – Theories of Democracy: A Critical Introduction – was in fact the first book published in that book series. He told me on a few occasions that his wife was threatening to divorce him because he was putting so much time into writing the book, and hence neglecting her. Frank was particularly excited about the fact that he was able to arrange a Chinese-language edition of the book before he even started writing it. I assume that it did in fact appear in Chinese. It was a terrific book: a really capacious and ambitious survey of all the variants of democratic theory and their strengths and weaknesses, written with exceptional clarity and force. Frank straddled Political Science and Philosophy probably to a greater extent than any other colleague in either department. It’s a shame more of us haven’t been able to do that. He was a great bridge-builder. He even taught Philosophy to engineering students.

Ronnie Beiner, Professor Emeritus

My first sustained interaction with Frank came in 1988 when Marsha Chandler, the chair of our department, assigned me the task of organizing a memorial conference on C. B. Macpherson who had died the previous summer. I was new to U of T, and I relied heavily on Frank’s deep knowledge of Macpherson and his good advice about whom to invite. Over the years I always saw Frank as a person whose values I shared and whose judgment I trusted. I knew that he was someone who would pitch in and try to help (as he did by appearing a number of times in a course I taught that exposed grad students to the different approaches to political theory available at U of T), and I tried to reciprocate when I could (e.g., by participating in the course he organized at Regents Park). He did a better job than anyone else of bridging the disciplinary divide between the departments of philosophy and political science here at U of T. And we had mutual friends abroad who drew us together. Iris Young, Veit Bader, and Rainer Baubock are three who come to mind, but there were others as well. In sum, Frank Cunningham was someone whom I was lucky to have as a colleague and as a friend.

Joseph Carens, Professor Emeritus

Over four decades ago, Frank and I discovered that we enjoyed talking together. We did so until just last week. Frank was lucid, eclectic, and always well-grounded in his arguments. In many respects, he was my Sensei, my teacher. It started during a long car ride on UTFA business when I complained about the obtuseness of political scientists asserting that the discipline could produce science. While steering the car on the country road, he gave a stout defense of the goals of “objectivity” invoking Hegel and Frederick Engels no less! He added “I wrote a book about this.”

We shared ideas ever since, about war and peace, inequality, racism, the incarceration of Japanese Canadians during World War II, the secrets of being a good teacher, the University and the Community, the uncertainties of being a middle manager in a university. In later years, when I returned to the study of philosophy (“from Thales to Rawls” I told him), he kept me focused on the basic tools of philosophy – arguments, conceptual distinctions, empirical assessment – and on the utter importance of moral thinking. When I taught a course on the political economy of contemporary Cities (of which his writings are unique) he admonished “Michael, you must start with Aristotle”. In recent years, we thought together about contemporary Japan. I had the upper hand on this topic. Many of his books have been translated into Japanese.

Learning in the University helps cultivate a deeper understanding of the human condition and human needs. Learning never ceases. Professor Cunningham helped me all along the road. I am sure that he did so for many others.

Michael Wade Donnelly, Professor Emeritus

It seems oxymoronic to write about Frank Cunningham as a University Administrator, but he was. In 1994 he became the 6th Principal of Innis College at the University of Toronto. Knowing Frank as a political philosopher, I was surprised that he let his name stand as a candidate for the position, surprised that the search committee (thick with senior U of T brass) chose him and, perhaps most surprised, that Frank accepted the appointment. I should have known better. Frank Cunningham and personal power do not fit well together but neither do Innis College and personal power. Innis College Principals do not “run” the College. The Principal’s job is to know whom to encourage on the staff and among the students, and to perform diplomatic services for the College to the governing powers of the University. Frank was well suited for the job. His optimism, good nature and sense of humor enabled him to be a very successful Principal.

Peter Russell, Professor Emeritus

Personally, what I most liked about Frank was his companionable nature. I always looked forward to a meeting with him, of which we had one or two each time I visited Vancouver. Sitting on the patio with Frank at the Sylvia Hotel, overlooking English Bay, beer in hand, was such a treat. We might discuss anything. Even when he was weak in late July last year, we met twice there and had a convivial time. Now, when I return to the Sylvia, it will not be the same at all.

Intellectually, I was most impressed by Frank’s versatility: Philosophy and Political Science, teaching philosophy to engineers, turning at the end of his life to the study of urban policy issues. The disciplines varied, but his commitment to equality, socialism and democracy was always at the centre. I liked to tease him that he and I were proxy members of the capitalist class because we lived from substantial pensions earned by our fund managers largely from the stock market. However, he would not accept that.

Richard Sandbrook, Professor Emeritus

My personal connection with Frank was, over the years, a result of our mutual interest in urban issues and especially urban politics. Frank always looked at the philosophical side of these questions, while I usually took much more of a straight up empirical approach. Frank had a close connection with the old CUCS at Spadina and College (where I was resident for years), and later worked on the “Cities” course which we were both involved in. Frank was passionate about progressive urban policy, so that we had many spirited discussions about the direction Canadian cities needed to take. In Toronto, this progressive energy was often expressed in his ratepayers association where he was very active. Frank took that interest with him to Vancouver when he moved there with Maryka. Here, the two of us developed a policy discussion series – based on a debate between an academic and a policy specialist – at CUCS that was very popular in the wider community. After he moved to Vancouver and began teaching in the urban studies program at Simon Fraser, he applied that model successfully in a new setting. Frank had a great sense of humour, and the two of us often found much to laugh about within the university setting, with which we were so deeply connected.

Richard Stren, Professor Emeritus

Frank was an important figure to me from my earliest days at the University of Toronto. From our first encounters, he appointed himself as my friend and fellow traveler on the path of democratic justice. Conversations with Frank about democracy and social justice were always both intellectually serious and a great deal of fun because of his affable personality and joie de vivre.  I remember some intense discussions he hosted at Admiral Road, punctuated with laughter and lubricated by his signature martinis. He was a consistently committed feminist and expressed this not only through his scholarship but also, irresistibly, through self-effacing comparisons between his own accomplishments and Maryka’s. He was a kind mentor to me, as I know he was to many other female scholars over the years. His early mentorship of, and long friendship with the late Charles Mills, whom we lost earlier this year, also exemplified Frank’s capacity to weave his commitment to social justice into all the roles he played in the academy. Frank was, as the French put it, entier in that hard-to-translate sense that there was a wholeness, completeness, and integrity to all the different facets of his life, from scholarly work to university roles to community activism and engagement in the world of policy. All were of a piece of his boundless friendliness toward humanity. Not that he didn’t have an edge: he could also burn bright with righteous anger at injustices from the very local to the all-encompassing social scales of politics.

Intellectually, I’ve been most influenced by Frank’s work in democratic theory. His Theories of Democracy: A Critical Introduction, is to my mind the best overview we have of the range of theoretical understandings of democracy. It’s an excellent work precisely because it lives up to the “Critical” in its title. Frank never loses sight of his own theoretical account of democratic justice in presenting other theories, but he is also rigorous and fair-minded in setting out the stakes of choosing one model of democracy over another. The book grew out of a seminar in democratic theory that he taught for many years in the Department of Political Science, and my own seminar on the topic bears the clear imprint of Frank’s approach.

I’ve also been inspired by Frank’s vision of democratic urbanism, which informed not only his work at the Cities Centre at U of T but also his many projects of practical engagement with democratic life in the city of Toronto, work he continued in Vancouver when he and Maryka moved there. Early in my time at U of T, Frank recruited me to contribute to a course he constructed for residents of a low-income part of the city. Frank was also a driving force behind the incorporation of philosophy into the public high school curriculum in the Toronto District School Board. Frank was always seeking out ways to shift our institutions and social relationships in the direction of inclusive, reflective, democratic citizenship, and the impact of these efforts carries forward across generations.

Some years ago, not too long after Frank and Maryka had moved to Vancouver, I was visiting the city and got in touch with Frank. He extended a warm invitation to visit them in their new digs, and Maryka and he showed me their characteristically generous hospitality. Frank was like an excited child, bursting with delight and gratitude for their good fortune as he shared the beautiful view of English Bay and Stanley Park. Then he told me he had something even more magical to share with me, and he escorted me downstairs and out of the building to a nearby grove of trees within the compound of the apartment complex. It was around this time of year, in February as I recall, and he beckoned my gaze to the top of the trees: the Great Blue Herons were building their nests. With feminist zeal, Frank explained to me that the nest builders were all males, who had arrived before the females and were competing with each other to build the finest nest so they could attract the best mate once the females arrived. I will never forget it. I hope that Frank and Maryka got to see some of this season’s herons before he left us.

Melissa Williams, Professor