To students, he was a professor who could make the biggest lecture class feel small.
To colleagues, he was an influential political scientist — and an even better friend.
But descriptions of political science professor George Rabinowitz barely scratch the surface of just how deeply he will be missed by the University community, said those who knew him.
Rabinowitz died Friday from a heart attack at a bus stop in Trondheim, Norway. He was 67.
He and his wife, political science professor Stuart Macdonald, were on leave in Norway for the semester conducting research.
At UNC, Rabinowitz was known as an experienced professor of 40 years. But his reputation stretched beyond Chapel Hill for a theory that rejected the status quo.
His directional theory of issue voting challenged the spatial theory, which argues that candidates converge in the middle of the political spectrum during elections.
Rabinowitz’s theory, developed with his wife, states that voters tend to have a direction for their preferences. For example, a voter who leans conservative would be more likely to support an extreme conservative candidate than a more moderate candidate who leans left, even if the moderate candidate is closer to their stance on an issue.
It implies that candidates do not have to take a stance in the middle on all issues to gain re-election.
“That gave them, him and professor Macdonald, visibility as national and international leaders in the study of voting behavior,” said Evelyne Huber, chairwoman of the political science department.
Political science professor Virginia Gray said the theory furthered not only Rabinowitz and Macdonald’s reputations but also the University’s.
“When people thought of UNC, they thought of him along with a few other professors,” she said.
Rabinowitz taught several courses in his career, including POLI 100, Introduction to Government in the United States, which is a large, introductory lecture class. But students said Rabinowitz’s personality and expertise made the class a more personal experience.
Connor Brady, a freshman political science major, said Rabinowitz encouraged him to look at many sides of every issue.
“You never got one straight viewpoint,” Brady said. “You always had several viewpoints to choose from to look at and learn from.”
Before sophomore Erin McCarty took POLI 100 with Rabinowitz, she was completely uninterested in politics, she said.
But that changed quickly.
“He didn’t make me align specifically with either side, but he helped me explore what I really believed,” she said.
McCarty and Brady said they were impressed they were learning an innovative voting behavior theory from its creator.
Even though Rabinowitz achieved national and international recognition, he remained down to earth, colleagues said.
“He was very supportive of junior faculty,” Huber said. “He would take them to lunch. He would comment on their papers and give them advice on how to manage their careers.”
Jeff Harden, a political science graduate student who was a teaching assistant for Rabinowitz for two semesters, said undergraduates who took POLI 100 often gave glowing course evaluations.
“He was always very giving of his time to help people out,” he said.
“He taught me a lot about going the extra mile for students.”
It is unclear what Rabinowitz’s passing will mean for the political science department, Huber said.
“It will be very difficult to fill his shoes,” she said. “There is nobody else who has the same kind of set of expertise in voting behavior and public opinion.
“And we have lost a really, really nice colleague.”
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