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Philosopher of the Air

Michael E. Levine ’62

When he was eight years old, Michael’s family moved a mile and a half from Idlewild (now Kennedy) Airport in New York City. He would stand beneath the flight path of the planes and, as each aircraft took off, thrill to the liveries of the world painted on their wings and tails. It was the first blush of the romance he would have with aviation.

Michael went on to become an authority on aviation and a key player in the momentous decision to deregulate the airline industry in 1978. He devised many of the mechanisms and practices that underpinned deregulation, serving as general director of international and domestic aviation at the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Board during the transition. Later he served as executive vice president at Continental Airlines, executive vice president of marketing at Northwest Airlines—where he forged pioneering alliances with other airlines—and president and CEO of New York Air, guiding that postderegulation airline to its first profit. He served as a member of the Aviation Safety Commission, established by Congress in 1986 to evaluate airline safety following deregulation, and received the Civil Aeronautics Board’s Distinguished Service award. Airfinance Journal named him among the most influential pioneers in the history of commercial aviation.

He also established innovative programs in law and social sciences at Caltech and USC while holding professorships at both institutions, served as dean of the Yale School of Management, and held professorial chairs at Caltech, Yale, and USC. Michael was a faculty member at Harvard and Yale and an academic visitor at MIT, the London School of Economics, the Interdisciplinary Center of Herzliya Israel, the University of Virginia, and Duke University.

Michael’s father had been a student agitator and labor organizer who met his wife at a Communist Party meeting in New York City. He hated turning into a suburban businessman and told himself he was doing it for his wife’s sake—establishing a family myth of the caged intellectual and his wife, the beloved jailer. Having given birth to four children, Michael’s mother returned to school for a master’s degree, was active in local and school board politics, and loved her work. Michael’s youthful takeaway was: don’t work at what you don’t want to do, and don’t allow ideology to close your mind, preventing you from processing what is going on around you.

“A lot of people think of me as a vigorous and in some ways overbearing person because I have pushed things pretty hard, whether it was airline deregulation, or turning around a company or even during my time as dean at Yale,” Michael said. “From those family dynamics I became aware of the importance of thought, but also of its limits. I tried to avoid going down a self-defeating pathway by unexamined commitments to value propositions.”

From an early age Michael learned to think for himself by reading the newspaper and engaging in political arguments with his father. He discovered that sometimes people work late not just to keep their jobs, but because they care about what they are doing. He started college at the University of Rochester, but after experiencing freshman hazing, fraternities, beanies, and not being able to walk on the grass until Thanksgiving unless they won the Hobart game, he realized this was high school all over again.

“I actually pledged a fraternity, because I didn’t want to die a virgin,” he recalled. “But within a month or two, I started looking to see whether there was some place where you could try out being yourself, where ‘yourself’ was a person interested in intellectual things and not terribly socially adept, which I certainly wasn’t.”

He transferred to Reed, where they didn’t care if you walked on the grass.

“Reed,” he recalled, “was small without being oppressive in a small-town way. It was not a place where everyone wanted to mind your business or wanted you to behave like them. In fact, you couldn’t identify an in-group, so there was no question of whether you were in or out. You might, as most young people do, belong to a group or even to a couple of groups. But there was no consensus that this was the group to belong to on campus.”

Entering Reed as a sophomore, he majored briefly in English and psychology, and then dropped out. He returned in January as a philosophy major, and then went to Berkeley in the summer of 1961 to make up credits. There he took a course taught by American philosopher John Searle, which was influential in his decision to study philosophy. Realizing he missed Portland, he returned to Reed.

“At Reed there were a lot of people who had the sense that I did, that they didn’t quite fit into the world as they saw it, and were trying to figure out their place in it, and going through a sort of existential pain about it,” he said. “In retrospect, it was an enormously valuable experience.”

Changing his major to philosophy, he wrote a thesis on proximate cause under Prof. Marvin Levich [philosophy 1953–94], which basically posed the question, “If a whole bunch of things had something to do with making something happen, which one of them, if any, should bear responsibility?” Michael favored the position that the answer was arbitrary and showed his chapter to Prof. Levich, who said, “This is no good. You need to completely rewrite this. You haven’t understood Hart and Honoré’s Causation in the Law.” Michael reread the source material and then rewrote the chapter so it came out the other way—not because Levich had told him to, but because due to his professor’s intervention, he had learned to see both sides of the story and make a judgment about which one makes sense. “It was another demonstration that buying in too quickly to something that seems to explain it all is really a trip into intellectual quicksand,” Michael said.

He went on to study law at Yale. “It allows you to explore all sorts of disciplines and all sorts of intellectual problems,” he explained.

At Yale, he socialized with other Reedies; one of them, Lenny Ross ’63, told him that he should work at the Office of Management and Budget, the most powerful agency in Washington, because every agency reports to it to get budgets financed. Michael got a job as a management intern at the OMB and met his future wife, Carol, a clerical worker at the bureau, at a Director’s Tea in 1964.

After conducting postgraduate research at Yale and the University of Chicago, he began working as an analyst for the Civil Aeronautics Board. Fourteen years later he would be director of the CAB. Because he understood the ins and outs of airline deregulation, he was wooed by airlines to help them maneuver through and build profits. It was a clear case of “follow your passion.”

As a student at Reed, Michael had spent time in the Portland public library poring over Aviation Week. At Yale, he wrote several papers on airline regulation. “I really liked airlines,” he explained, “but it wasn’t what I was going to do. I spent my life running away from being the little kid watching airplanes, and somehow got deeper and deeper into the world of airlines.”

His 1965 article for the Yale Law Journal, which cited the superior performance of the California intrastate airline system to advocate deregulation of the federal system, was a key source for the 1975 congressional hearings on deregulation and was extensively cited by Alfred Kahn in his treatise on the economics of regulation. When Kahn became CAB chairman in 1977 with a mandate to deregulate to the maximum extent possible, he named Levine his senior staff person. After becoming one of the principal architects of deregulation, Levine served as general director, international and domestic aviation, at the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Board and received its award for excellence and distinguished public service.

He once jokingly described himself as the Saint Jude (patron saint of lost causes) of organizations. “I only get hired for desperate cases because I’m a little difficult personally, and you have to really want whatever it is fixed,” he said. “Fortunately, I found a lifetime of those opportunities.”

Michael became a trustee at Reed in 1984 and served for 18 years. He introduced President Steve Koblik [1992–2001] to the Reed community and was on the search committee for President Colin Diver [2002–12­].

Michael and Carol established the Levine Family Fund to support research by Reed faculty.

Carol Stover Levine, Michael’s wife of nearly 40 years, and his two daughters, Sarah Levine and Anna Levine ’99, survive him.

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