In memory of Michael Cohen

A symposium to honor Michael’s scholarly legacy, September 6, 2013

ICOS, the Ford School of Public Policy, the School of Information, and Administrative Science Quarterly organized a symposium on Michael’s work on September 6, 2013.  Video of the conference will be available soon.  For now, a moving tribute from Jim March is on YouTube here:


Michael Cohen passed away Saturday, February 2 after a long battle with cancer. His family was at his bedside.

Michael was a great friend, a brilliant scholar, a generous mentor, and a powerful community builder. He had a gift for seeing potential connections between people and ideas, and making them happen. His legacy at Michigan includes helping to build the Institute for Public Policy Studies into the Ford School of Public Policy, being a founding faculty member of the School of Information, and building ICOS into an internationally recognized community of organizational scholars.

Michael nurtured countless students and junior faculty to become mature scholars. He was also exceedingly modest and avoided the limelight, letting the power of his ideas carry their own weight. For a (near-)native Californian, he epitomized the Midwestern virtues.

You are welcome to share your memories of Michael here.


69 thoughts on “In memory of Michael Cohen

  1. Reading the posts, I can see Michael observing with a twinkle in his eye, “all rivers run to the sea; you never step into the same river twice.” Qualities of Michael’s that come to mind reflect those shared by so many others: he was a truly wise man, deeply insightful and consistently there for people when it really counted. At the same time, Michael stood out for his ability to connect uniquely in the moment. In office or hallway conversations, he could seemingly always come up with just the right frame to offer fresh perspective and a path forward. How in the world did he do it?

    I’ll always be indebted to Michael for selflessly stepping in to serve as co-chair of my dissertation. In reacting to an early proposal draft he tactfully explained the advantages of making it less of a “bear hunt” and more of a “contract.” As often happened with Michael, not only was his advice on point, his choice of metaphor illustrated a concept that would prove useful for myself and others on multiple future occasions.

    It is remarkable to think of all the lives Michael touched and how different the communities he was a part of would have been without him. He set a great example and will be sorely missed.

  2. I knew Micheal from the years he co-chaired ICOS. I attended ICOS on and off for ten years, and I believe he was the co-chair of almost all the sessions I attended. Micheal’s passion for knowledge was evident almost every time I came in contact with him. Being with him in the audience as he ‘drank in’ the week’s presenter at ICOS was just part of the everyday world. He was always hungry to learn. Always hungry to understand something new.

    Micheal was a powerful community builder. In its first years, ICOS was, in his accont, an underfunded jury-rig. Keeping the lecture series alive required community members to pull funding from many different hats. “ICOS lives by its wits,” he’d say with the twinkle in his eye remarked my many people in these comments.

    What a life he led! Hard to imagine how many different pieces of scholarship his generousity influenced.

    Micheal was also very kind to me. He supported me through the many gaffes and errors that I made as I tried to understand enough organization science to understand my own field. And they were many. He was a good man.

    Two memories most stand out

    Driving back from the ICOS retreat with Micheal and a Chinese graduate student in the early 2000s and listening to Micheal talk about the work he and his friends hoped to do in China. “There is probably no more important task for an American accademic than to help the people of China create a world class university system.” That was the type of man he was.

    Towards the end of my studies, during a difficult time, Micheal went to lunch with me at Bennies, the Greek diner off of Industrial near the Produce Station. I asked him, “Are you sure? The food will meet your expectations, but certainly not beat them.” I don’t remember much of what we talked about, my dissertation, of course, my hopes for it, the usual such things, I guess, but what I remember is how connected he made me feel. It was a small thing, an hour of his time, but it was wonderful to be in his presence.

  3. My condolences to Michael’s family. He was a kind and generous scholar full of passion for the ideas of others. He attended both of my ICOS talks and we remained in touch after each one as he sent me feedback that made my work and my ideas so much better. I feel sad today.

  4. There are a handful of scholars whose ideas and work are influential, but even fewer who are both influential and loved by those whom they have influenced. I was extraordinary fortunate that as an early stage doctoral student at Stanford to have overlapped with Michael who, at the time, was taking a sabbatical at Stanford having just received tenure at Michigan. Michael introduced me into the world of complex adaptive systems and more importantly let me enter the orb of his warmth, caring, and modeling of how to live a life of meaning and engagement. The warm smile, the twinkle in the eye, the simultaneously thoughtful and teasing comment, and most of all the friendship, are memories that I will always cherish and will always enrich my life.

    • Like Dan, I came to know Michael’s work through his strong ties with the Stanford graduate school of business, most notably with Jim March. Although my time at Stanford did not overlap with Michael’s sabbatical, I did have opportunities to interact with him personally. I echo Dan’s sentiment that his work enriches me as a scholar, and memories of our scholarly and personal interactions are fond ones.

  5. Like many of contributors to this page, I am only now beginning to come to grips with soldiering on without the benefit of Michael’s expansive intellect, warm regard and droll insight.
    With Michael, there was no such thing as idle talk. Every conversation we had was hard work; emotionally consuming work not as a means to something else but as an end unto itself. No matter how you prepared for it, meeting Michael meant quickly finding yourself (and learning to delight finding yourself) in unfamiliar and mildly uncomfortable territory. The kind of territory which demanded from you a finely tuned awareness both of your own resources and those afforded by a new intellectual situation. Michael eagerly exercised his remarkable ability to sally forth, and hold ground, on any topic you could care to think up. Consequently my meeting notes read more like maps than outlines; replete with uncharted ground, cryptic notations and promising paths to explore. It still bemuses me to think of the intellectual ground we covered in three short years.
    In my experience, Michael, quite simply, delighted in people. I am deeply grateful to count myself among the many people he made time for during his illness. My doctoral studies and intellectual pursuits will be forever enriched by the conversations we had. He was a remarkable man and I already miss him very much. I extend my warmest regards and sincere condolences to his beautiful family.

    • Michael was and remains a huge and inspiring presence for me. As many have said before me, we can all learn from Michael’s example. So I thought I’d share a few specific memories.

      Small memory #1: ICOS on days when the room was packed to the gills. As the talk was starting, people would still be streaming in, sitting on the floor or standing in the corner trying to blend in. And then there was Michael, lifting extra chairs off a stack in the corner or subtly pointing people to open seats they may have missed.

      This is emblematic to me of how Michael went out of his way to make people comfortable. Physically comfortable in a crowded room. Intellectually comfortable asking not-quite-fully formed questions in a room full of incredibly smart people. Just…comfortable.

      Small memory #2: Words. Coffee with Michael was over the past few years part of my routine (yes, I use this word deliberately) for visiting family in the Detroit area. One of my favorite parts of these meetings was chatting about the meaning of words that I use every day, but had never stopped to think about in the way Michael had. “Immediate” had its origins in “without mediation,” for example, which then led to a discussion of the latest debates on human perception in cognitive neuroscience, and a stack of articles and books that I’d read until our next chat.

      This shows how Michael was fascinated with how things worked, from giant organizations to the intricacies of language. He wasn’t satisfied until he had poked and prodded at things from all possible sides and angles, considered and reconsidered them. He pushed me to do the same (though I can only dream of doing so to the extent that he could).

      Small memory #3: Finishing grad school and leaving Ann Arbor. The umich directory server used to (and may still) have a field for “favorite beverage.” My listing said “Bell’s Two Hearted” (which is still true). On the night I packed up to leave Ann Arbor, Michael stopped by my apartment to say goodbye and handed me a paper bag. In it were 2 bottles of Bell’s Two Hearted, a preference I had never shared with him (as far as I can recall).

      Michael had an eye and memory for details not just about research, but about people. He took the time to learn about people and their families; and somehow kept all these details handy for whenever they might be useful.

  6. Michael’s warm personality and profound scholarly ways left lasting impressions that continue to inspire. I continue to be moved by his passing.

  7. My condolences to Michael’s family.
    I remember Michael, from my days at a doctoral student at UMich, as a scholar’s scholar. Having had the chance to interact a fair bit with Bob Axelrod, I got to meet his then-coauthor Michael a few times as they were hashing out some of the ideas that would become Harnessing Complexity. I remember being struck by the very intellectual ambition and originality of the very concept of putting these two words together – as they can mean so much on various levels. And then, reading it, the breadth of insight was remarkable: evolutionary biology, computer science, social science writ large…
    Before and since then, reading Michael’s work and encountering him at ICOS and other seminars around Ann Arbor, I found Michael an incredibly astute user of concepts. The garbage can, of course; but perhaps more remarkably, given the richness of that literature, his repeated insights into the genesis and transformation of routines. Where Nelson and Winter had brought the concept into strategy and OT with tremendous impact, Michael and his coauthors got closer to the bottom of what makes and changes routines, and that in turn changes one’s view of how to use the concept.
    And then, there was the nimbleness and power with which Michael mastered methodologies. He went with ease from simulations to case studies – I love the recent paper on Organizational Character paper in Org Science for instance – but no method was beyond him. I remember an ICOS seminar where, shades of the time, the concept of closure in network analysis came under the microscope. The discussion went around the table, and then Michael just broke the problem with a few words in his soft tone: to paraphrase, closure made sense if it were absolute, while structural holes could be relative. He had taken on the conversation so quickly, reached to where the presenter had not gone yet, and seen the way forward with the paper. What a mind!
    And finally, the relevance. Handoffs in hospitals, when to learn (and when not to) in complex settings, social choice… An actual application, a social dilemma to be addressed, was never far from Michael’s mind. He would gently point out a flight of fancy, an ecological fallacy… because his work was grounded, his intellectual contributions were that much more powerful.
    The Michigan community and organization research at large will miss you, Michael. Rest In Peace

  8. “what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye.”

    This quote from Life of Pi echoes my feeling when I leaned about this sad news. Michael has been instrumental in my professional development, particularly the transformation of my career, after I left SI more than ten years ago. I have been always thinking to have a chance to sit down and talk to him again about the journey that I have taken after SI, as he was extremely helpful and encouraging when I struggled to find my path in career when I was at SI.

    RIP, Michael. You will always be missed.

  9. I don’t think I ever talked to Michael Cohen, but as a student, I attended ICOS and so appreciated the warmth that emanated from him and Jane Dutton; they were leading it at that time. His brilliance was clear but so was his humanity.

  10. I have only this date learned of my old friend’s passing, as we have not been very closely in touch since our high school days in Long Beach, California. I wondered what was up when I did not receive the handwritten holiday communication that I have been so pleased to get in recent years. I want to thank everyone who has contributed here, for through you I have learned what an amazing person Michael developed into. We only had a handful of physical meetings since HS graduation in ’62, including the day of his marriage to Hilary. He went off to Stanford, and I to Whittier College. I also had some higher academic interests, but opted instead for a different life path. We used to play catch, with a football, and a baseball. We loved our long, speculative intellectual conversations. We talked about girls. He was easily my best friend. He was the one person who by his endowments brought home to me the fact that I might not be as smart as I thought I was. I am blown away by the testimony here, to see detailed what a fine, generous, engaged man he became, and the kind of contribution he made to the world. I also detected a true appreciation, though perhaps understated, of the spiritual life in some of our correspondence over the years. Maybe thus the oft-remarked-upon twinkle. Good to have known you, old friend. New universes to explore now.

  11. I thought that I would write, at least once more, and to the best of my ability, to inspire another round of comments. Let’s go, people.

    I miss Micheal. I will be coming back to Michigan this November, and there is just nothing I would like to do than to come back to ICOS and see him in action. There is so little that is real in this world. So little that is true. Micheal was the real thing. He was someone who truly loved his craft and someone who suffered for it. He was someone who saw his career blow up and carried on.

    “ICOS lives by its wits.”

    I will never forget him. Honestly, I believe I have tenure because I went to ICOS when it was on the third floor of the College of Education and I heard Micheal Cohen say, not once or twice, “ICOS lives by its wits.”

    May the force be with you, Micheal Cohen. May we all be worthy of your example.

    Charlie Vanover

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