Remembering Robert Belknap

 December 23, 1929 − March 17, 2014

We mourn the loss of our colleague and friend, Robert Belknap, who passed away on Monday, March 17, 2014.  We miss his kindness, wit, intellect, and camaraderie.

Bob was a brilliant teacher, loved by thousands of students and honored by his life-long employer, Columbia University. He taught Literature Humanities since 1957, and his commitment to the Core Curriculum extended far beyond the classroom. He was a prolific scholar of Russian literature—one of the world’s foremost experts on Dostoyevsky—publishing works in English and Russian, including The Structure of The Brothers Karamazov and The Genesis of The Brothers Karamazov. Columbia University has recognized his career through many awards during his lifetime.

On September 12th at 2PM we will gather in St. Paul’s Chapel on the Morningside campus to share our love and appreciation for Bob and to celebrate his well-lived life.

Bob’s spirit lives on in all who knew him.  Here at the University Seminars, we will feel his imprint for many decades to come.  He was a member of several seminars including Literary Theory; Slavic History and Culture; and the History of Columbia University. He was our Director from 2001 to 2011 and our official historian since last year. He both shaped and embodied the ethics of the Seminars movement: to disagree without rancor; to listen before speaking; to seek the truth among peers without the encumbrance of hierarchy; to operate with both modesty and integrity; and above all to be driven by one’s curiosity.

He was the consummate academician, for whom intellectual debate was the breath of life and learning new things its great sacrament.  For those of us who had the privilege of working directly with him, he was the steady hand that kept us all focused and sane, and made our work here a joy.

The University Seminars honor his legacy by articulating his vision: by looking to the future with a mindfulness of the past; by maintaining radically high standards of fairness and kindness in all that we do; and by bringing people of many disciplines together to eat, drink, and have a “good argument”.


A Letter from the Director…

I have the sad duty to report the death today of our colleague and friend, Professor Emeritus Robert Belknap.  His great body of scholarship, his decades of service to the College and the University, and his kind, generous demeanor all marked him as a person whose gifts to the University were rare and worthy of note.  Please let me know as plans emerge, how I may participate, and how the University Seminars, which he directed so ably for a decade, may participate as well.

I cannot leave this note at the simple reporting of his death.  I have been trying to articulate the reason for my own sense of deep loss and shock; why, that is, I feel as if I have been knocked over by surprise.  Here is how I can best put it at this moment.

At my age, it is an increasingly rare gift to still be the kid in the room.  Robert Belknap was ten years older than me when he taught me Humanities in my Freshman year, in the Fall of 1957.  I was the kid then, and by his teaching I was helped to become a serious grown-up.  Almost sixty years later, when he would come into my office in Faculty House, though I was his successor as Director of University Seminars, I was still the kid.

But though that was the case, it was also the case that he could allow himself to be my student, as I remained his.  Let this be my reason for asking you each to give Bob Belknap a serious and appropriate sendoff: he taught us all that the way to remain fully alive is to never stop being the teacher, and also to never stop learning from your students.

Robert Pollack, Director, The University Seminars


Some thoughts from the University Seminars’ community…

The passing of Professor Belknap does indeed mark a great loss for Columbia.  But, I am happy that he was able to see his name on a new Core Lectureship, courtesy of a generous donor and former student, Jay Lindsey, who greatly valued Professor Belknap’s contribution to his own Columbia experience.  At the reception in November at Jay Lindsey’s home celebrating the Belknap Core Lectureship, Professor Belknap was honored by many speakers, I among them.

James J. Valentini, Dean of Columbia College, Vice President for Undergraduate Education, Columbia University


I cannot believe yet that we will have to live form now on without enjoying the warmth and the wit of Bob Belknap. With time I will accept his physical absence but never forget how he through decades enriched my life as a colleague and friend.

I remember him with love and eternal friendship.

 Maristella Lorch, Professor Emerita of Italian, Columbia University


We lost a great man,  brilliant scholar, and humanist. We are indeed heartbroken.

 Muhsin al-Musawi, Chair, The University Seminar on Arabic Studies


I was saddened and shocked to hear of Bob’s passing. As chair of a University Seminar and as a Vice Chair of the Advisory Committee, I had gotten to know Bob fairly well during the last 15 years. He was a brilliant, scholarly, generous, incisive and kind humanist that inspired faculty and students to maintain and improve one of Columbia’s intellectual jewels. I will sorely miss him.

Herb Terrace, Chair, The University Seminar on Cognitave and Behavioral Neuroscience


His intellectual leadership of the University Seminars enriched all of them by promoting far ranging dialogue and exploration of a multitude of topics. The Seminars stand in testament to his many contributions.

 Margaret E. Crahan, Chair, The University Seminar on Latin America


I knew Bob Belknap since I am co-chair of the University Seminar on Cinema and Interdisciplinary Interpretation and he was Director of all of the University Seminars. From our first meeting, I found him to be remarkably helpful and insightful. He anticipated many of the needs of our seminar and readily helped us out in numerous ways. Our fields of interest were quite different and he knew much more about mine than I knew about his. That was typical of him. His range of knowledge was broad and his interests extensive. Most importantly, I remember his full-throated laugh, easily given, and consuming his entire body. Meetings with him were always pleasant, never tense, regardless of the topic. He knew how to put people at ease, how to give them the sense that he was genuinely interested in them and eager to help out. That’s rare. I am grateful to have known him. I always looked forward to seeing him and am truly sorry that he is gone.

Bill Luhr, Co-chair, The University Seminar on Cinema and Interdisciplinary Interpretation


I was very sorry to hear about Bob Belknap. He was very helpful to me just for being the person he was. We shall miss him.

Elizabeth K. Hill, Co-chair, The University Seminar on the Renaissance


I have had the occasion to interact with Robert Belknap several times through meetings and dinners of the University Seminars, and found him to be warm, enthusiastic, and genuinely committed to the goals of the seminar.  I am saddened by his passing. I, too, lost someone this week—my mother, Gertrude Thabault Nolan of 89 years, who passed away on March 16th.  May we mourn these great people together!

Kathleen Nolan, Co-chair, The University Seminar on Population Biology


Professor Belknap has left us too soon after having a job done so well as Director of the University Seminars. Behind his smile was a heart that was truly passionate for the refinement of the humanities and advancement of knowledge. He was a gardener who tended new ideas as they grew, and our seminar was one of his special charges. The Early China Seminar remembers Professor Robert L. Belknap with unending gratitude for his generous support of its birth, growth, and all its accomplishments.

 Li Feng, David Branner, and John Major, Co-chairs and Former Co-chairs, The University Seminar on Early China


We are saddened by the loss of Bob Belknap and sorry that what was undoubtedly a very productive retirement has been cut short. Bob’s field of interest was different from that of our seminar, but he always showed interest and enthusiasm in our proceedings. He encouraged us to seek leading thinkers for our meetings and aided us in planning special events that met similar standards. His combination of geniality and outstanding scholarship impressed and inspired us.

Sheila D. Collins, Helen Lachs Ginsburg and Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg, Co-chairs,
The University Seminar on Full Employment, Social Welfare and Equity


I am so saddened by this news. This is a great loss for our community. I first met Bob in 2004, to discuss the Core Curriculum and the University Seminars. I was then new to Columbia, and Bob had a half-century under his belt. He mentored me in my first years of teaching at Columbia as well as throughout my years as seminar chair. Bob was so generous with his time and wisdom, and supremely kind and supportive. I am blessed to have known Bob for this past decade, and to have learned so much from him.  Like so many others, I will miss him greatly.

 Nancy Walbridge Collins, Chair, The University Seminar on Defense & Security


I am so sorry to hear that Bob Belknap could not remain with us any longer. As the chair of the Seminar on Slavic History and Culture, I had often turned to Bob for advice. He was the living memory of the seminar as well as a constant presence whose civility and encyclopedic knowledge always raised the discussion to a new level. Bob’s ability to discuss work in an incisive yet encouraging way seems to me to incorporate the highest traditions of the University Seminars as a place for expert yet civil critique.

Most of all, Bob was always a teacher. When he wasn’t teaching Russian literature, he was teaching us all by example how to be kind, wise, patient and encouraging. He wore his authority lightly, but it was all the more visible for it. His had a tendency to be the final word, but it was always spoken gently. Though he would have denied it, he is indeed irreplaceable.

His work on Dostoevsky and his lifelong service to Columbia were both striking for his deep understanding of people and of the infinite variety of their inward states and outward actions.  Very little could be hidden from his kind yet discerning eye.

The world of Slavic studies, as well as Columbia, has suffered a great loss.  And yet, we are all lucky to have learned from such a teacher.

Susan Smith-Peter, Chair, The University Seminar on Slavic History and Culture


If you would like to contribute to this page, please email Summer Hart, sh3040@columbia.edu