By Peggy McInerny
International Institute, April 4, 2014 — It tells you a great deal about a scholar that 30 years after his death, his family, colleagues and former students continue to celebrate his legacy. Malcom H. Kerr (1931–1984), a well-known expert on Arab politics and professor of political science at UCLA for 20 years, was such a man.
Kerr was assassinated in 1984 at the age of 52 in front of his office at the American University of Beirut (AUB) — a university where he had grown up, completed a master’s degree and returned to as president in 1982. He left behind a wife and four children, ages 15, 18, 22 and 25. Although Islamic Jihad took responsibility for his murder at the time, evidence discovered later indicated that Hezbollah killed Kerr at Iran’s behest.
That Kerr loved the Middle East, and Lebanon in particular, spoke fluent Arabic and was one of the most informed specialists on Arab politics in the United States, only heightened the tragedy of his death. Like his friend the renowned historian Albert Hourani, with whom he did postdoctoral work at Oxford University, Kerr trained a generation of Middle East specialists and had an extraordinary impact on the field.
His untimely death left his family, friends and colleagues around the world devastated. His legacy lives on in many ways: through his books, his students, the Malcom Kerr Dissertation Awards of the Middle East Studies Association and his personal collection on the Near East. (The collection, like that of the legendary Gustav E. von Grunebaum, who recruited Kerr to UCLA, is now part of the Middle East collection of the UCLA Library.) Not to mention the memoir written by his wife Ann Kerr-Adams, Come with Me from Lebanon (Syracuse University Press 1994), and another written by his daughter Susan Kerr van de Ven, One Family’s Response to Terrorism (Syracuse University Press 2010).
On April 8, 2014, a memorial to Kerr on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of his death was held at UCLA, cosponsored by UCLA’s Center for Middle East Development, Political Science Department, G.E. von Grunebaum Center for Near Eastern Studies, and the International Institute.
The fully registered event featured presentations by Keith Watenpaugh (UC Davis), Fred Lawson (Mills College) and Necia Tschirgi (UC California San Diego). On hand for welcoming remarks were Jeffrey Lewis, professor and chair of the UCLA Department of Political Science, and a very famous colleague of Kerr: former UCLA Chancellor Charles E. Young.
Fittingly, the speakers addressed the impact of American education in the Middle East, which began in earnest with the establishment of AUB in Beirut in 1866, followed by the founding of the American University in Cairo in 1919 (Malcolm Kerr taught at both). American education in the region continues to flourish, with a number of American universities having established campuses in Arab countries over the last decade, including New York University, Cornell, Georgetown, Carnegie Mellon, Virginia Commonwealth, Texas A&M and Michigan State.
Contrary to what one might expect, Ann Kerr retains a deep love for the Middle East, where she has enduring ties. (She met Malcolm in Beirut during a junior year abroad at AUB.) And she continues to work to cultivate a more informed understanding of the region among Americans. Her family, after winning a judgment against Iran in a federal court in 2003, chose to encourage dialogue between the United States and Iran rather than pursue punitive damages against the latter.
All of Kerr’s children have grown up to become successful professionals, although his widow alone continues to be actively engaged with the Middle East. As Ann likes to say, “I have two PhDs, an MBA and an NBA.” A professional NBA basketball player for 15 years, their son Steve is now a sports commentator for TNT. Son John is an agricultural economist teaching at Michigan State University and working in international development; daughter Susan, an elected county official (Liberal Democrat) in the UK; and son Andrew, a businessman working in construction in Washington, DC.
Ann, who will participate in the April 8 memorial, has worked for over two decades at the UCLA International Institute as coordinator of the Visiting Fulbright Scholar Enrichment Program for the Los Angeles metropolitan area.
Within months of 9/11, she put together and began to teach a Fiat Lux course at UCLA that brings undergraduate students together with international Fulbright scholars to learn about their countries and hear their perspectives on the United States. The highly popular course is fully enrolled whenever it is offered. “Teaching this seminar is one of the most gratifying ways I have found to carry out the mission of the Fulbright Program and our own International Institute to create international awareness and understanding,” she says.
Ann is a well-loved member of the UCLA International Institute, which commends her service and celebrates the legacy of her late husband Malcolm Kerr.
Click here for an excellent, comprehensive article on the life and work of Malcom Kerr
Articles by Ann Kerr-Adams
Middle East Association Malcom Kerr Dissertation Awards
Selected works of Malcom Kerr:
Lebanon in the Last Years of Feudalism, 1840–1868 (AUB 1959)
The Arab Cold War: Gamel ‘Abd al-Nasir and his Rivals, 1958-1970
(Oxford University 1965/ 1975, 3rd ed.)
Islamic Reform: The Political and Legal Theories of Muhammad 'Abduh and Rashid Ridā
(Princeton University 1966)
The Elusive Peace in the Middle East (SUNY 1975)
Co-editor, with Abraham S. Becker and Bent Hansen, Economics and Politics of the
Middle East (American Elsevier 1975)
Co-editor, with El-Sayed Yassin, Rich and Poor States in the Middle East: Egypt and
the New Arab Order (Westview 1982)
An earlier version of this article was published on April 4, 2014.