Von der Mehden, former Political Science Department chair, dies at age 89


Fred von der Mehden, the Albert Thomas Professor Emeritus of Political Science, died Oct. 4. He was 89.

Fred von der Mehden

Fred von der Mehden

He joined the Rice faculty in 1968 as the Albert Thomas Professor of Political Science and spent three decades teaching, doing research and serving in administrative roles. He was acting chairman of the Department of Germanics (1970-72), chairman of the Department of Political Science (1975-78) and director of the Program of Development Studies (1978-83). He also served as editor of “Rice Studies” (1981-85) and of Rice University Press (1985-94). A scholar at Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and an associate of Wiess College, he retired in 1997.

Von der Mehden’s major research interests included the politics of Southeast Asia and Islam, and he completed field studies in the region assessing attitudes toward the Middle East.

In his book “Two Worlds of Islam: Interaction Between Southeast Asia and the Middle East,” von der Mehden made the first extensive effort to assess the changing nature of relations between two important Islamic regions. He investigated the degree to which common religion influenced economic ties, the extent of Southeast Asian political involvement in the Middle East, the extent of Middle East interest in Southeast Asia, and the character and amount of foreign religious thought that reached Muslims in Southeast Asia.

He wrote more than 10 other books, including “Southeast Asia, 1930-1970: The Legacy of Colonialism and Nationalism,” “Comparative Political Violence,” “Religion and Modernization in Southeast Asia,” “Politics of the Developing Nations” and “State of the Study of Islam in Southeast Asia: An Overview of Western Scholarship.” He also wrote more than 100 articles, papers and book chapters that primarily dealt with politics, religion and economic development in Southeast Asia.

“Fred arrived at Rice in the fall of 1968 to take up the Albert Thomas Chair, just one year after Political Science split off from History to become an independent department,” said John Ambler, professor emeritus of political science. “It was quite a coup for us, since he was already a full professor and director of Asian studies at the University of Wisconsin.

“He was a dedicated teacher, chair of both the Political Science and German departments and speaker of the Faculty Council. He had a long and extremely productive scholarly career. Although some of his books, including ‘Politics of the Developing Nations’ and ‘Comparative Political Violence,’ were very broad in scope, he kept returning, throughout his career, to the themes of his first book, ‘Religion and Nationalism in Southeast Asia.'”

“Fred was a not only a great scholar of Southeast Asia, he was a generous colleague and mentor to many graduate and undergraduate students,” said Robert Stein, the Lena Gohlman Fox Professor of Political Science.

“Fred was one of the senior faculty in the Political Science Department when I was hired,” said Rick Wilson, the Herbert S. Autrey Professor of Political Science. “Fred had been at the forefront of using new techniques for studying comparative politics when he came to Rice. By the time I arrived at Rice, he was questioning the value of new methods for telling us anything interesting. Because I was bringing new methods to study of politics, he pressed me on the value of my work. He did this in collegial way. While never letting up in his critiques, he always listened. Although we often disagreed over how to study politics, he certainly made me a more careful scholar. I greatly respected his views.”

Von der Mehden earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of the Pacific, a Master of Arts degree from Claremont Graduate School and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. Before joining the Rice faculty, he was a professor of political science and chairman of East Asian studies at the University of Wisconsin.

Von der Mehden was active in a number of professional meetings and organizations. He served as president of the Midwest Conference on Asian Studies, president of the Southwest Conference on Asian Studies and chairman of the Council of Foreign Relations, Houston. He was also a consultant to various entities, including the Fulbright Commission, Agency International Development and the National Research Council, Thailand.

A private memorial service was held for von der Mehden. He is survived by his wife, Audrey, their two children, Laura and Tori, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. His family has established the Fred R. von der Mehden Memorial Fund in Political Science at Rice. Memorial gifts can be made online at giving.rice.edu or mailed to Rice University, Office of Development MS-81, P.O. Box 1892, Houston, TX 77251-1892.



About B.J. Almond

B.J. Almond is senior director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.