‘His door was always open’: Colleagues, students remember beloved linguistics professor

Thursday, January 23, 2020 - 4:46pm

Sam Epstein, a linguistics and cognitive science professor at the University, passed away on November 29, 2019.

Sam Epstein, a linguistics and cognitive science professor at the University, passed away on November 29, 2019. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Sylvie Epstein

When remembering Sam Epstein, linguistics and cognitive science professor, who passed away on Nov. 29, colleagues and students reflected on his brilliance. 

During his 22-year career at the University of Michigan, Epstein was the founding director of the Weinberg Institute for Cognitive Science in 2014 and worked closely alongside Noam Chomsky, famed intellectual and linguist. Colleagues say his work in linguistics and cognitive science propelled forward these departments at the University, and his teaching was recognized by a 2009 John D’Arms Award for Excellence in Graduate Mentoring and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professorship in 2013. 

Marlyse Baptista, Department of Linguistics and the Weinberg Institute faculty member, met Epstein during her time as a student at Harvard University nearly 30 years ago, where he was an assistant professor. They kept in touch when Epstein came to the University, and when Baptista received a position, they were able to continue their close working relationship, which became a life-long friendship. His knack for complex thinking, she said, was one of a kind. 

“If you think of Sam Epstein, one of the first things that come to mind is his brilliance,” Baptista said. “The brilliance of his intellect. And whenever you had a conversation with him, both as a colleague and as a friend, you knew that you were going onto some type of academic journey, whose endpoint would always be so deeply satisfying, because he had that kind of mind. It was always very elegant in the way that he reasoned and argued for a specific point. I don’t know anybody who can match what he had to offer.” 

While Epstein’s excellence as an academic is undisputed, Baptista and other colleagues unanimously emphasized the personality, charm and empathy he brought to campus. He had a unique sense of humor, adored by students and colleagues alike, and a deeply caring nature. Baptista said Epstein’s office door was always open, welcoming in students and colleagues. 

“He would go down to the mezzanine level and pester graduate students, of course in a positive way, asking them ‘what are you up to?’” Baptista said. “And this is their refuge, and every other faculty would respect that space, that it’s theirs, but Sam would just barge in. And he was always very welcome, because he really cared.”

Richard Lewis, current Weinberg Institute director, remembers his first job interview at the University in 2000, where Epstein was one of the first professors Lewis met. Lewis immediately knew Epstein would be someone he’d want to work alongside, and notes Epstein’s integral role in setting a positive climate in the department. 

“He was like a beacon on campus, both for linguistics and the campus as a whole,” Lewis said. “A beacon for humanity. I’ve never met anybody who was such a dedicated scholar, and such a warm, gentle human being.” 

Acrisio Pires, former mentee of Epstein and current linguistics professor, expressed how Epstein’s work, primarily in theoretical syntax, was a catalyst for establishing new groundwork in cognitive science and linguistics. 

“He worked in a framework called minimalist syntax,” Pires said. “One of the goals of this framework is to actually look at what has been done, and what’s still being done in linguistics and say, ‘Look, we can do better theories, we can do theories that are much more unifying and that are really built upon the most foundational aspects of what could represent human knowledge of language.”

However, Pires said Epstein proved science and personality were not mutually exclusive in the learning process. Epstein was a humorous professor who engaged curious students in introductory classes and always remembered their names despite large class sizes.

“People got this sense of him being a very caring person, and very committed to helping them and contributing to their intellectual development — to their scientific development — as people who are doing research and contributing to science,” Pires said. “But he didn’t leave the personal side out. He was able to clearly convey to people that he cared about them as people, that was a very important thing which made a huge difference.”

One of these students was 2018 University alum Claire Butz, a close family friend to the Epsteins, who met his daughter in kindergarten. She decided to take the introductory Linguistics 209 course when she was a sophomore, and ultimately declared cognitive science as her major. She recalled his skill in connecting with people and his “utterly hilarious and goofy” personality while teaching. 

“He did have this incredible academic legacy and this legacy in the field of linguistics, but he was able to meet people where they were at intellectually,” Butz said. “The concepts were challenging but approachable, because of who he is. He had the emotional and social intelligence to communicate really complex things to people who didn’t have his experience and his unbelievable mind.”

Butz said his welcoming nature and natural ability to create a meaningful learning experience is one of his greatest legacies at the University. 

“Anyone who knew him as a professor will remember him as someone who connected deeply with his students,” Butz said. “He was someone who created space for every person in the room, and kept his door open to all students, and who found tremendous joy in others learning what he loved, and being able to see their excitement grow.” 

Butz expressed her gratitude to have known such a special person, and to have a close relationship with his family and loved ones. 

“Nothing made him happier than seeing the people who he loved be happy in such a real way, and I think that was definitely special.” Butz said. “Anyone who knew him laughed more, loved more, and knows more because of him, and has endured a great loss.”

Epstein’s memorial is Sunday at 1 p.m. on the 10th floor of Weiser Hall.