In memoriam: William J. Foltz, expert on politics in Africa

William J. Foltz, the H.J. Heinz Professor Emeritus of African studies and political science at Yale University, died on Oct. 27 at his home in New Haven.

From 1983 to 1989, Foltz was also the director of the Yale Center for International and Area Studies (now the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies), where he brought together and expanded faculty and programs in international relations within the University. For many years over the course of three decades Foltz also developed Yale’s offerings in African studies as chair of the Council on African Studies. He served as associate director of the Southern African Research Program for 15 years, and as chair of the Department of Political Science 2004–2005.

"Bill Foltz was widely known and respected for his work in and about Africa, and he was a beloved mentor to his students," said Ian Shapiro, the current Henry R. Luce Director of the MacMillan Center (formerly YCIAS). "Bill helped build the foundation of the African Studies program at Yale. As the first director of the Yale Center for International and Area Studies, he laid the groundwork for expanding the center to where it is today. He will be missed by many here at the MacMillan Center and at Yale."

Foltz was born in Mount Vernon, New York, in 1936. After obtaining his A.B. at Princeton in 1957, he enrolled in the Yale Graduate School, receiving his Ph.D. in 1963. That same year he was hired by Yale’s Department of Political Science, where he spent the rest of his career  — or, as he joked, “made no progress.” In fact, he held only four jobs in his life: mink-trapper, grave-digger, crumpet-baker, and Yale professor.

In a memoir written for Yale’s Koerner Center for emeritus professors, Foltz wrote of his career-long commitment to “crossing boundaries” and to understanding the nature of political power. He traveled and carried out his dissertation and postgraduate studies in Senegal, South Africa, and Chad — among other countries — and learned to value meticulous fieldwork. Early work with Robert Dahl and other mentors at Yale shaped his career-long appreciation for micro-level analysis of power and influence, whether in New Haven or the emerging nations of Africa. He wrote:

“I had started out in an interdisciplinary program as an undergraduate, and I muddled along to work with scholars and government analysts, to cross boundaries and exercise … not power, but the arcane techniques of getting something done at Yale and occasionally in Washington.”

Foltz’s dissertation, “From French West Africa to the Mali Federation” (Yale University Press, 1965), expressed his interest in the nature of political and intellectual boundaries, topics that he would study throughout his career. “Arms and the African,” co-authored with Henry Bienen (Yale University Press, 1985), captured his focus on the role of militaries in political transitions. He also successfully brought together opposing groups to help resolve conflicts in the Horn of Africa and Northern Ireland.

Foltz published scores of articles on a diverse array of topics: from conflict resolution to party politics in sub-Saharan Africa; from a study of ethnic conflict, published in Russian, to several studies of U.S. strategic interests in southern Africa. His work was anthologized in many collections, including a piece on the politics of health reform in Chad, co-authored with his wife, epidemiologist Anne-Marie Foltz, which appeared in a collection on economic system reform in developing countries.

While he wrote extensively, Foltz defined his success in significant measure by the generations of scholars who shared his commitment to careful fieldwork, clear-eyed analysis, and simple, lucid prose. Many of his doctoral students participated in a festschrift in his honor in 2006 on the occasion of his formal retirement, as did one of his two sons — both accomplished academics in their own right. Foltz retired from Yale in 2006 but continued to teach and advise students.

In his role on the National Intelligence Council, Foltz counseled the Clinton administration on its policy towards an Africa in political transition. His service coincided with the first two years of South Africa’s first democratically elected government. As Foltz commented at the time, “My job was to help my government do fewer stupid things in Africa.”

He was the recipient of the Ford Foundation Area Training Fellowship and the Guggenheim Fellowship. He also taught at Wesleyan University, Makerere University College, Uganda, the University of Chad, and the University of Cape Town.

Due to his specialization in International Relations and particularly African politics, he was a frequent consultant to the Rand Corporation and the Department of State. Foltz was a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and served on the National Intelligence Council as the National Intelligence Officer for Africa 1995–1997.

Beginning in 1940, the Yale professor spent his summers in the Thousand Islands, where he and his family literally built their own house on Grindstone Island in 1976. An accomplished musician, he resumed his study of the piano and sang in a senior chorus following his retirement.

He is survived by his wife of 55 years, Anne-Marie Foltz; sons Peter W. Foltz (and wife, Adrienne Lee) of Boulder, Colorado, and Jeremy D. Foltz (and wife, Erin McBride) of Madison Wisconsin; two grandchildren, Miranda Lee-Foltz and William Kieran Foltz; his sister Jean Gibson (and husband, Bob Gibson) of Albuquerque New Mexico; and brothers Robert Foltz of Deep River, Connecticut, and David Devlin-Foltz (and wife, Betsy Devlin-Foltz) of Silver Spring, Maryland; and sister-in law Lisa Strong of Clayton New York.

A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 9, at Dwight Chapel, 67 High St. Donations in Foltz’s memory may be made to the Neighborhood Music School in New Haven or the Thousand Islands Land Trust in Clayton, New York.