Professor Emeritus Frank Cunningham, a renowned political theorist, former principal of Innis College, and chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Toronto from 1982 to 1988, passed away on Friday, February 4, 2022, at the age of 81 at his home in Vancouver, assisted by the Canadian Medical Assistance in Dying program after a protracted battle with leukemia.
Born in Evanston, Illinois, Cunningham came to Toronto in 1965 to complete his studies, which he had begun at Indiana University and the University of Chicago. He would remain at U of T for more than 40 years, first as a student, then as an esteemed teacher, scholar, and changemaker who dedicated his energies to the creation of a more equitable world and believed firmly in philosophy’s importance to everyday life.
Cunningham joined the Department of Philosophy, which he would later help rejuvenate and shape, in 1967 as a lecturer while still completing his doctorate under the supervision of David Gauthier. His early work focused on the philosophy of social science, but following the publication of his first book, Objectivity in Social Science (1973), he dedicated the remainder of his career to political philosophy, with a particular emphasis on democratic theory. That research led to a number of books, including Democratic Theory and Socialism (1987), The Real World of Democracy Revisited and Other Essays on Socialism and Democracy (1994), Theories of Democracy: A Critical Introduction (2002), The Political Thought of C. B. Macpherson: Contemporary Applications (2019), and, most recently, Ideas in Context: Essays in Social & Political Theory (2020).
Though he excelled at theory, Cunningham equally cherished action and activism rooted in those theoretical concepts; people always came first in Cunningham’s life. Students and colleagues remember an engaged and committed teacher who—with both humour and boldness—supervised 19 doctoral theses and served on numerous committees, including the University of Toronto’s Faculty Committee on Vietnam and its Faculty Reform Caucus.
As chair of the Department of Philosophy (1982–1988), Cunningham pushed for growth and progress, shaking the department out of a period of stagnation with new faculty appointments. He also introduced the idea—groundbreaking at the time—of making philosophy a high school subject in Ontario, shepherding the proposal through multiple levels of government approval. Many people initially viewed his proposal with skepticism, worrying that the approach would cut into first-year enrollment. Yet Cunningham not only proved them wrong but also laid the groundwork for hugely successful outreach initiatives of the future, such as the department’s Aristotle Contest, an annual high school philosophy essay competition that elicits participation from across Canada. Cunningham further spearheaded the University’s introduction of an organized program in bioethics for both undergraduates and graduate students.
Between 2000 and 2005, he served as principal of Innis College, where his commitment to equity and fairness meshed perfectly with the college’s parity governance structure. His interest in urban issues propelled him to give much-needed support to the college’s Urban Studies program. He championed the program’s innovative experiential learning course, which offered internships to fourth-year students. Cunningham also fortified the program’s connections to the community by pushing for a partnership with Regent Park. His efforts resulted in a provostially funded program wherein residents took courses building skills and expertise as urban citizens. He also worked with other post-secondary institutions to ensure that the redeveloped Regent Park had space dedicated to adult learning. At the same time, he proved instrumental in reviving Innis’s Writing & Rhetoric program, and helped lay the foundations for the Cinema Studies program to become a freestanding institute. Overall, Cunningham enriched the college in myriad ways, increasing the slate of awards and scholarships for students, expanding its staff and faculty complements, and re-engaging alumni as part of Innis’s 40th-anniversary celebrations in 2004.
Cunningham retired from U of T in 2009 and moved to Vancouver, where for the last years of his life he was affiliated with the Urban Studies program at Simon Fraser University, continuing his commitment to accessibility and equality.
Those who remember him not only point to his quick wits and strong politics but also to his kind, generous, and fun-loving personality. Mark Migotti, now a professor of Philosophy at the University of Calgary, remembers having his first job interview with Cunningham at an Eastern Division American Philosophical Association meeting in December 1989. Even though he did not get the position, Migotti gained something perhaps more valuable from the interview, held during an outdoor stroll: “I was grateful for Frank’s insightful questions and his welcome encouragement,” he said, noting that this supportive relationship continued for many years after the two men did become colleagues.
Ellen Roseman, sponsor of the department’s Roseman Lectures in Practical Ethics, which this year featured Oxford University’s Cécile Fabre, met Cunningham while working on her master’s degree in Philosophy in 1968–1969. She recalls good times at Grossman’s Tavern, spent both in discussion and laughter. “I found him friendly, cheery, and keen to make students feel at home at U of T,” she says, adding that she never doubted he had a great professional future ahead of him.
Cunningham’s dedication, empathy, and spirit are already deeply missed.
On September 20, 2021, the Department of Philosophy lost one of its most eminent alumni, Professor Charles W. Mills (MA 1975, PhD 1985). Many consider Mills, a prolific writer and renowned academic, to have played a foundational role in establishing critical race theory and in introducing the philosophy of race and racism into North American academia.
A veteran of progressive politics in his native Jamaica, Mills brought his political commitments to the University of Toronto, where he began his graduate work in philosophy in 1973 after having completed an undergraduate degree in physics at the University of the West Indies and winning a Commonwealth Fellowship. In Toronto, he not only worked to advance his scholarship but also actively championed Caribbean solidarity, various social justice movements, and graduate student involvement in University policy through U of T’s Graduate Student Union.
Supervised by the late Frank Cunningham and Daniel Goldstick, Mills wrote a thesis on the concept of ideology, moving on to a successful career in the United States that helped transform contemporary understandings of justice and the social order through a race-based lens. In 2021, the American Political Science Association recognized the lasting impact of his most famous book, The Racial Contract (Cornell University Press, 1997), with its biennial Benjamin Lippincott Award.
The author of six books and more than 100 articles, Mills was named to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, delivered the American Philosophical Association’s 2016 John Dewey Lecture, was elected president of the American Philosophical Association
Central Division in 2017, and gave the 2020 Tanner Lecture on Human Values at the University of Michigan. In the latter, Mills held that while progressive theorists needed to remain aware of mainstream liberal democracy’s sometime complicity in racism, they should not abandon liberalism, instead putting a robust version of it to anti-racist use.
Throughout his career in Chicago (University of Illinois and Northwestern University) and New York (CUNY), Mills remained famously warm and encouraging to colleagues
and mentees, combining probing intellectual powers with gentle wit and grace. In the words of Goldstick, “Everyone remembers Charles Mill’s modesty and humour. … But I also learned some valuable points from him about Marxism and ‘the racial contract.’” The late Cunningham likewise recalled a man who “opened my eyes to the importance of philosophers engaging the blight of racism”—as well as a lifelong friend and fellow traveller.
We are honoured to have shared the path with a scholar and human of such integrity and insight.
On February 3, 2022, the award-winning writer and member of the Order of Canada Erna Paris (née Newman) passed away at the age of 83. Paris, who spent her writing life probing the nature of collective memory, injustice, and the mythologizing of history, graduated in 1960 from the (then) joint honours program in Philosophy and English.
She later remained connected to the department and to philosophy through her husband, Professor Emeritus Thomas M. Robinson.
Among seven acclaimed books of literary nonfiction and hundreds of articles, Long Shadows: Truth, Lies, and History (2001) likely ranks as Paris’s best-known and most influential work. In it, the author examined how countries from Germany to Japan, South Africa to the United States confronted their violent pasts and attempted to reinvent themselves. Her investigations often found evidence of what she called “the cynical shaping of historical memory,” which exaggerated and mythologized acts of resistance against the realities of widespread complacency. The Literary Review of Canada named the ambitious tome one of the “100 most important Canadian books ever written.”
In a similar vein, the citation for Paris’s appointment to the Order of Canada in 2016 called her “one of Canada’s leading human rights commentators and activists,” emphasizing that she never shied away from “sensitive issues in order to explore the roots of intolerance.”
Born and raised in Toronto, Paris moved to France for several years after earning her bachelor’s degree at the University of Toronto to continue her studies at the Sorbonne. She began her writing career in the 1970s as a magazine journalist, radio broadcaster, and documentarian, and she continued to contribute regularly to the opinion pages of the Globe and Mail until the end of her life.
Paris’s dedication to human rights, historical accountability, and the values of a pluralistic society were surpassed only by her loyalty and commitment to family and friends. Canada and the world have lost a prominent voice that extolled with singular clarity the virtues of kindness, unflinching honesty, and tolerance.