With his New York Times tucked under his burgundy-colored button-down shirt, Marty Brownstein walked into his 10:50 a.m. Media and Politics class for one of the last times.
While sitting on a table in Park Auditorium, he cleared his throat, and his deep raspy voice filled the room as he started a conversation with his students about the recent volcanic eruption in Iceland and the regulations on Wall Street.
“What are the political and economic implications of this eruption?” Brownstein asked his students. “Are we going to see continuous effects from this?”
For an hour, Brownstein listened to his students tell him the news, pushing them to articulate and debate their views of the world.
But after 40 years of listening and moderating these discussions, Brownstein, associate professor of politics, has decided to retire.
“I was apprehensive as most prospective retirees are, but I have to resolve my questions of the sadness of leaving and the pain of leaving my podium behind,” he said. “It’s a very privileged job, and I did feel a little sad at times for leaving it, but not now.”
The Brooklyn native received his undergraduate degree from Brooklyn College, part of City University of New York, before attending Harvard University for a year and then earning two master’s degrees from Yale University.
Brownstein began teaching at Ithaca College in 1970.
“I was going to leave two years ago,” he said. “I raised the question in a couple of my classes, and they all smiled at me in their devilish student way and said, ‘Take it to the next zero.’”
After retiring this semester, Brownstein said, he is ready to embark on new adventures. He said he plans to move to Portland, Ore., to be closer to his sister.
“For a long time, I’ve had the desire to seek more urban space,” he said.
Brownstein said his students have helped shape his life for 40 years. Remembering the post-Vietnam War era when he first began teaching, Brownstein said students played a more active role in campus governance, including involvement on the hiring committees for faculty. He said he was one of the first faculty members hired that way.
“I always felt a particular obligation to honor the wishes of all students, so I casted my career in a more student-centric direction,” he said.
Over the years, more students began to recognize Brownstein’s devotion to them. In 1983, a few students asked him to be the faculty adviser for a Model United Nations team they were forming on campus. The team, which started with 16 in 1983, has now grown to 28 students.
“[Model U.N.] changed my career,” he said. “I am very proud of the spirit and the intensity of the intellectuality that cycles around these students.”
Senior David Korenthal, a head delegate of Model U.N., has been a part of the team for three years. He said Brownstein will be missed but that his legacy will last forever through the organization.
“[Model U.N.] is his child,” he said. “It’s sad to see him go, but at the same time, he’s worked hard, and he deserves [to retire]. Marty will be around if not physically, then spiritually forever.”
Last week, Evan Axelbank ’05, former student and teaching assistant of Brownstein’s, came to campus to sit in on one of Brownstein’s last classes. Axelbank, now a reporter for WROC-TV in Rochester, N.Y., said he draws from Brownstein’s lessons every day.
“Sometimes I’ll be writing, and I’ll start to say something that was one of his big ‘no no’s’,” he said. “He has what is called the BS detector that’s supposed to go up when you think you’re being lied to.”
Students are not the only members of the college community who have been impacted by Brownstein. Asma Barlas, professor and program director for the Center for the Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity, said Brownstein persuaded her to accept a teaching offer in a one-on-one meeting they had in 1991.
“It’s difficult to imagine the politics department without Marty; he’s been such a presence there,” she said. “I wouldn’t want [anyone] to feel like the only role he’s played in the department has been as a teacher.”
Outside of the politics department, Frank Musgrave, professor of economics, is Brownstein’s political opposite. Musgrave, a self-assigned conservative professor, is also retiring from the college. He has worked with Brownstein for 40 years.
Earlier in their careers, Musgrave and Brownstein hosted multiple local radio and television programs in Ithaca where they debated political and economic events.
“What I enjoyed about him was that he would invite me to his classes, knowing I had a different opinion, maybe even for that purpose,” Musgrave said.
Brownstein described himself and Musgrave as the political “odd couple.” Brownstein said he enjoys intellectual debates like the ones he’s had with Musgrave.
“Frank and I, who clearly have significant differences in our politics, understand that we’re toilers in the same vineyard and we want the best for our students,” he said. “It’s more than fitting that Frank Musgrave and I leave in the same year.”
Brownstein’s influence can be seen across Ithaca — even in the form of food. At Hal’s Delicatessen and Sandwich Shoppe on North Aurora Street, anyone can order a “Marty Brownstein Nova Scotia lox and toast breakfast.” Sandy Kuntz, one of the owners of the delicatessen, said the breakfast has been on the menu for more than 20 years.
“Marty is a really great customer,” she said. “He comes in almost every morning with his paper and eats his breakfast.”
As his last semester at the college comes to an end, Brownstein said he will miss teaching his students.
“It’s not about traditional education or book-focused education,” he said. “It’s about learning-by-the-seat-of-your-pants education.”
Once the discussion was over, Brownstein glanced around Park Auditorium at his class of students and simply said, “I’m good,” as they began to file out of the classroom.
The dialogue-driven class is just a few of the things Brownstein said reflects his distinctive style of teaching — one that will be remembered for years to come.
“If the inmates were allowed to run the asylum, good things would happen,” he said.