Robert Cuff (1941-2001)
Marlene Shore, March 2002
York University's Department of History and the Schulich School of Business lost a beloved colleague with the sudden passing of Robert Cuff. He expired in Toronto's Sunnybrook Hospital on November 25, 2001, five days after collapsing from an apparent stroke. He was only 60 years old.
After graduating from the University of Toronto in modern history in 1963, Bob Cuff flew through the PhD program at Princeton, completing in only three years an ambitious thesis for Arthur Link on U.S. mobilization for World War I. The University of Rochester snapped him up in 1967. In 1969, Bob was hired by Dean John T. Saywell, who had previously taught him at the University of Toronto, to bolster the field in United States history at York. For all the energy and excitement at the University of Rochester, Bob and his wife, Mary Lou, jumped at the chance to return to Toronto to raise their family and to help build a new university.
Bob Cuff was one of the early pioneers and brightest academic stars of the fledgling York University. During the 1970s, Bob helped establish York's reputation for productivity and intellectual vitality, particularly in history. His landmark book, The War Industries Board: Business-Government Relations During World War I (1973), remains the standard work on the subject. Bob possessed the casual ease of a true professional; articles, contributions, collaborations, conference proceedings, book reviews tripped out of his typewriter. Bob came to be known in the 1970s as one of the major figures of "the organizational synthesis" in US history. While he had become by profession a specialist in business-government relations in the United States, Bob also maintained a lively interest in Canadian history and public affairs. He and Jack Granatstein collaborated on several books and articles on Canadian-US relations. Bob played a behind the scenes role organizing the Canadian Association of American Studies. He turned his interests in war mobilization towards the Canadian experience. With his own sparkling essays and those he encouraged from colleagues, he also brought Canadian historical scholarship into the pages of the Harvard Business History Review. Selection for membership in the Charles Warren Center at Harvard as a visiting fellow in 1973–74 marked Bob as a rising superstar in the US historical profession.
Bob Cuff began to turn his personal and professional attention to business education in the 1980s. His studies of the growth of the military-industrial complex in World War I had led him to focus on the rise of bureaucratic methods of command and control. This in turn led him to examine for the first time the development of techniques of statistical measurement and management in US universities, mainly business schools. Bob was able to connect his research interests with teaching practice in the mid-80s when Thomas McCraw of the Harvard Business School recruited him to join for two years the teaching team of "Business and Government in the International Economy," one of the core courses in the business program. Bob thrived in this new setting, discovering he was good at the theatrical teaching style demanded by Harvard's horseshoe-shaped classrooms and groups of 90 students. Harvard liked him as well. He and Mary Lou returned for another two years from 1989 to 1991. During this period Bob published a series of tightly focused essays on the personnel, techniques and political institutionalization of production control systems. Slowly his attention shifted towards the history of the profession of management.
When he returned to York in the early 1990s, Bob possessed a new interest in both the history of management and teaching managers. He sought a joint appointment with the faculty of Administrative Studies. His historical understanding informed his teaching, and in turn his experience with colleagues and students in the business school informed his historical research. Bob brought the same professional credibility, seemingly effortless competence, and level-headed decency to the burgeoning Schulich School in the '90s as he had to the rambunctious history department earlier. Bob, in his quiet, yet very effective style soon assumed the leadership of a diverse Policy Area at Schulich and built intellectual bridges between Public Policy and Business Management scholars, establishing unique masters and doctoral seminars that reviewed the history of management thought. By such means, he provided new historical perspectives on the discipline of management. Bob was thus poised to embark on a new phase of his career when his beloved wife, Mary Lou, fell ill with cancer. With the same quiet dignity that had marked his entire career, Bob now devoted himself to his family and care giving. Bob and Mary Lou were inseparable. Her death in November 1999 was a devastating blow.
Recently Bob had begun to participate anew in the history department's affairs; we revelled again in his jocular, self-deprecating humour. He played an important role in the hiring of new U.S. history professors at York. He was admired among his Americanist colleagues as an incredibly well-read historian who kept up-to-date with the latest scholarship in new fields while also encouraging new looks at older scholarship. Graduate history students appreciated his openness to new topics and approaches, and his acts of incredible generosity in giving them his own books, lecture outlines, and course materials when they began new jobs as instructors and professors. The students in his fourth-year history seminar on "Organizing the United States for War," marvelled at his excitement with the way in which he was able to illuminate the current organization of the US war effort with historical parallels from his own work. Academically, he and Tom McCraw were about to launch on a research project on mobilization management for World War II. He was laughing and enjoying the fellowship of colleagues in the Schulich business policy unit, planning for the future, when he was tragically struck down.
Bob Cuff brought style, performance, academic credibility, professional dedication, and above all, human decency to York. He was admired as a scholar and loved as a human being. At his funeral, moving eulogies by Tom McCraw and Neville Thompson, friends of long standing, reminded us of the far-reaching influence of Bob Cuff's indomitable spirit, acute intelligence and integrity. He is survived by his father, Gerald Cuff, two daughters, Christine and Katherine, a son, Peter, and granddaughter, Alexandra. The family has requested memorial donations be sent to Sunnybrook Hospital Foundation, Toronto, or the Canadian Cancer Society.
on behalf of the Department of History
and Schulich School of Business,
York University, Toronto, Canada