College mourns passing of Peter Kaufman, professor of sociology

It is with sadness that we to share the news of the passing of Professor of Sociology Peter Kaufman on Nov. 19. He was 51.

Kaufman joined the SUNY New Paltz faculty in 1999 after earning his Ph.D. in Sociology from Stony Brook University. He received continuing appointment in 2006 and was promoted to professor in 2014.

His teaching touched on a wide variety of topics in sociology, including education, social justice and equity, and the sociology of sport. He was a frequent research advisor for students and was honored with the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2011.

Kaufman was a dedicated writer and scholar. He published frequently and shared his interest in writing with students over many years, teaching a number of writing intensive courses and coordinating the College’s annual Celebration of Writing Day.

In his most recent book, titled “Teaching with Compassion” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018), Kaufman and co-author Janine Schipper offer practical approaches to fostering a caring and empathetic pedagogy. He discussed “Teaching with Compassion” on the Nov. 8, 2018, episode of the podcast “Teaching in Higher Ed.”

“I wrote to Peter last spring about how much I valued his contributions as a faculty member: his balanced commitments to students, to teaching and learning and to high-quality scholarship (in both sociology and teaching and learning), and to university citizenship,” said President Donald P. Christian.

Kaufman performing with Questionable Authorities, “the premier all-professor rock band on the west bank of the Hudson River,” in April 2017

Kaufman was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in 2017. In recent months he chose to be incredibly open about his experience living with an incurable terminal illness. He wrote a moving and personal blog post, “A Sociology of My Death,” for the Everyday Sociology blog, and regularly shared personal musings and conversation with followers on Twitter.

On Oct. 30, 2018, he invited members of the SUNY New Paltz community to participate in this process, at a public discussion titled “On Death and Dying.”

“I just saw this as a teachable moment,” he explained at that event. “These issues aren’t talked about enough. It’s an important issue. It might be a way to foster empathy and compassion.”

“On Death and Dying” took the form of an interview between Kaufman and Rachel Somerstein, assistant professor of digital media & journalism. It was so well-attended that it had to be moved to a room with a greater seating capacity before it could begin.

“Seeing this turnout – that should be the answer to why an event like this,” Kaufman said. “Not just for a teachable moment about death and dying, but the powerful statement this makes that you’re all here as a community. This is a really special community, and part of the incredible sadness for me is that I’m going to be leaving this community.”

Kaufman and colleagues look on as soon-to-be-graduates walk to take their seats at Commencement 2015

[Use this link to view a video recording of “On Death and Dying” in its entirety]

[Use this link to read “A Sociology of My Death”]

[Use this link to view Peter Kaufman’s Twitter feed]

[Use this link to listen to Peter Kaufman’s appearance on the Nov. 8 episode of “Teaching in Higher Ed”]

Kaufman is survived by his wife, Leigh Weaver, whom he met 33 years ago as a student at Earlham College; by his parents, Toby and Barry Kaufman; his brothers, Jon and Joshua, and their families; and his greyhound, Billy.

He is also survived by hundreds of colleagues in the New Paltz community, and thousands more students and alumni, who remember him as a teacher, a researcher, a sociologist, a writer, an activist, a musician, an athlete, and a kind and caring friend.

“Peter was a truly amazing individual: spiritual without ever being dogmatic, kind to everyone, committed to social justice & equality, and deeply committed to education,” said Professor of English Thomas Olsen.

“Peter’s character as an educator was so apparent in his willingness to share with the campus community last month what it meant to be facing his mortality – educating all of us, and drawing support himself from the community,” President Christian said.  “His death is a great loss to the community, and I want to offer special condolences to his many friends and colleagues among the faculty and staff who mourn his passing and to students and alumni who had the privilege of knowing him.”

Kaufman’s family has  no immediate plans for a service. A celebration of Peter’s life will be held at a later date.

Students who feel they would like assistance in processing this loss may contact the Psychological Counseling Center at 845 257-2920. Employees may reach out to the Employee Assistance Program at 845 257-2886.