Ambler steps down from teaching after more than 50 years at Rice

Ask most professors about their plans for retirement, and the last thing you’ll hear them talk about is more work. But John Ambler is not most professors.

The beloved political science faculty member came to Rice in 1964, the year Lyndon Johnson won the presidential election. Ambler spent the next 38 years teaching comparative politics and racking up teaching accolades – including the prestigious George R. Brown Certificate of Highest Merit.

John Ambler. Photo by Jeff Fitlow.

John Ambler. Photo by Jeff Fitlow.

Although Ambler officially gave up his tenure-track position at the age of 70 in December 2002, he wasn’t ready to close the book on his academic career.

“I told my department chair that, as long as it was possible, I’d like to continue teaching part-time,” he said.

And teach he has — one class, each semester — for the past 17 years. This year, he’s stepping down for good after more than 50 years.

“I’ve done it because it’s something I have tremendously enjoyed,” Ambler said.

A native of Portland, Oregon, he earned his Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley in 1964 after teaching there for a year while finishing his dissertation. Ambler had an opportunity to interview for a permanent position at UCLA, but decided he would rather teach at a smaller university with more interaction between faculty and students.

“I was looking for a school like Rice, but I certainly wasn’t looking for Rice,” he said. “Rice didn’t have a political science department when I arrived.”

Ambler agreed to an interview inside the hedges only because a friend of his wife who was a Rice graduate insisted he check it out. During his interview, he recalls, he was impressed with President Kenneth Pitzer and his vision for expanding the university. Though the political science presence on campus was nothing more than a committee in the history department in 1964, within three years it became a separate department.

“I wouldn’t have come without him,” Ambler said.

When he accepted the job at Rice, he told his wife that it wasn’t necessarily forever.

“You may not like it, but don’t worry, wait two or three years until my book is out and then we’ll move to the East or West Coast,” Ambler said he told Joyce, laughing as he remembered his words. “That was 1964.”

Ultimately, Ambler said, “I came because of Rice, and I stayed because of Rice.”

He said he’s learned many important lessons from his students, but perhaps the most important was not to judge a book by its cover — his preconceived notions often proved untrue.

“Students can be very surprising,” he said.

During his time at Rice, Ambler watched the world change, and he’s enjoyed having a front-row seat to the transformations unfolding on campus as well — most notably, the growing diversity of the student body. In recent years, students in his introductory comparative politics course often came from countries being studied. And he called the residential college system “a great benefit” to Rice.

“The inclusive nature really contributes to the sense of community here,” he said.

Ambler’s commitment to Rice students has not gone unnoticed by his colleagues. Ashley Leeds, professor and department chair for political science, called his dedication “an inspiration to us all.”

“For John Ambler, teaching is not just a job, but a passion and a calling,” she said.

Now 87 years old, Ambler plans to continue traveling with his wife, Joyce – they’ve visited France almost every year for more than 40 years – and stay involved with challenging discussion groups.

Wherever Ambler’s retirement takes him, he’ll carry fond memories of his years at Rice.

“Teaching is something that has been extremely satisfying to me,” he said. “I have nothing but respect for Rice students.”

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.