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In Memoriam: Michael B. Preston, 80

The professor emeritus of political science started USC’s first course on black politics and produced landmark scholarship on the two most prominent African American male politicians during the 1980s — Jesse Jackson and Harold Washington.

Professor Emeritus of Political Science Michael B. Preston  was an expert in urban politics, dissecting political changes that have shaped Los Angeles since the early 1980s when Tom Bradley was mayor. Photo by Phil Channing.
Professor Emeritus of Political Science Michael B. Preston was an expert in urban politics, dissecting political changes that have shaped Los Angeles since the early 1980s when Tom Bradley was mayor. Photo by Phil Channing.

Former USC Vice Provost for Strategic Initiatives Michael B. Preston, professor emeritus and former chair of political science at USC Dornsife, an expert on racial and ethnic politics, has died. He was 80.

Preston of Baldwin Vista, Los Angeles, died July 27 in L.A., three weeks after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, his family said.

“Our father was loving, kind and supportive, and a devoted mentor to many,” Preston’s five children said in a statement. “He was a bridge builder, connecting countless people to their destinies. We will forever cherish his memory.”

After nearly 30 years at USC, having served on 33 dissertation and masters’ theses committees, Preston retired in April 2013. At the time of his death, Preston was finishing a co-authored book titled California Diversity in State Politics and was co-authoring an article about the 2013 L.A. mayoral race.

Preston’s legacy is filled with teaching, service and mentoring.

In the late 1980s, Preston started USC’s first course on black politics and later led a key initiative shared by USC Dornsife and the Office of the Provost to recruit minority and women scholars.

From 1989 to 1995, Preston served as chair of the Department of Political Science and had served as director of the Center for Multiethnic and Transnational Studies at USC Dornsife.

As a specialist in American, urban and black politics, Preston authored Racial and Ethnic Politics in California, volumes I and II (Institute of Governmental Studies Press, 1991, 1998); The New Black Politics: The Search for Political Power (Longman Group United Kingdom, 2nd edition, 1987); and The Politics of Bureaucratic Reform: The Case of the California State Employment Service (University of Illinois Press, 1984), among other seminal books. Preston researched L.A.'s blacks and Latinos in politics, dissecting political changes that have shaped the city since the early 1980s when Tom Bradley was mayor.

Preston’s accolades are many, including the Frank J. Goodnow Award for Distinguished Service from the American Political Science Association (APSA) in 2004; APSA’s Career Achievement Award in 2013; and Outstanding Black Faculty Mentor Award from the USC African American Graduation Committee in 2013.

He served as special adviser to the provost from 2005 to 2013.

“The USC community has lost a respected academic leader and dear friend with the passing of Michael Preston,” USC Provost Elizabeth Garrett said. “He was an inspiration for scholars of urban politics, and he mentored countless faculty and students throughout his nearly three decades at USC.

“I was fortunate to work with Mike for several years, and I greatly valued his advice, quick wit and friendship. We will all miss him.”

Vice Provost and Senior Adviser to the Provost Martin Levine said Preston was known nationwide.

“Mike's passing has brought deep sadness from those who had the good fortune to know and work with him,” Levine said. “When they heard the news, people across the country have written to us about how they will miss his wisdom, calm presence and love of people and politics, and what a kind soul he was.”

A member and former president of the USC University Club Board of Councilors, Michael B. Preston welcomes fellow board member and then-incoming president Professor of Political Science Ann Crigler to the club's grand-reopening in September 2012. Photo by Ben Pack.

Ange-Marie Hancock, associate professor of political science, and gender studies at USC Dornsife, spoke of Preston’s intellectual contributions during his retirement ceremony held April 4, 2013. Hancock said Preston’s research illustrates how local politics involve more than simply electing the right people. Preston emphasized effective implementation and oversight.

As Preston noted in The Politics of Bureaucratic Reform, while social movements can produce political changes and subsequent legislation, “what is not explained is the form of the final project.”

One of the final products we can analyze from a review of Preston’s research is what happened following the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, Hancock said.

“After working tirelessly to win the election, Obama supporters ignored two things that Dr. Preston’s scholarship would have easily predicted,” Hancock said. “First, they elected to ‘stand down’ and went back to their lives instead of pushing for specific implementation of the ‘change’ they wanted to see. Second, they underestimated the level of resistance to Obama’s very embodiment of the presidency — an indictment of their own susceptibility to arguments that we are now in post-racial era.

“Dr. Preston’s landmark work on the election of Mayor Harold Washington in Chicago presages the kind of model a young man named Barack Obama would use to first become Illinois’ second African American senator, and later president of the United States.”

Ann Crigler, professor of political science at USC Dornsife, called Preston’s passing a huge loss.

“Professor Preston was such a big contributor in the discipline of political science, on campus and in the community,” Crigler said. “He always made people feel welcome. He made introductions to build community spirit and help students and junior faculty to connect with others and forward their ideas and futures. Michael was a strong advocate for underrepresented students and recruited, mentored and placed numerous young scholars.”

Expanding the pipeline of undergraduates from historically underrepresented communities into graduate school is another important part of Preston’s legacy. As longtime chair of APSA’s Committee on the Status of Blacks, Preston helped give more than 400 undergraduates from underrepresented groups courses preparing them for graduate study in political science.

George Sanchez, professor of history, and American studies and ethnicity, and vice dean for diversity and strategic initiatives at USC Dornsife, said Preston is more responsible for the advancement of faculty diversity at USC over the past 30 years than any other individual.

“Michael Preston provided wise counsel to USC provosts and presidents, as well as various deans of Dornsife College, over many years and over a range of topics,” Sanchez said. “He was an inspiration to many USC faculty of color for his commitment to excellence and diversity in the faculty ranks. He was also a superb faculty mentor to undergraduate and graduate students alike over decades of service to USC.”

The author of hundreds of scholarly articles, Preston served as associate editor of the National Political Science Review and Urban Affairs Quarterly; and had been a reviewer for numerous professional journals and the National Science Foundation. He was president of the Western Political Science Association and had served as vice president of the American Political Science Association. In addition, he served on the Board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and on a task force of the L.A. Urban League.

He was a member of the USC University Club Board of Councilors from 2012 to 2014 and a former board president from 1993 to 1994. “Michael Preston was the person responsible for recommending King Stoops Hall to President [C. L. Max] Nikias as the home for the club,” recalled club Executive Director Ed Kasky.

Born Aug. 20, 1933 in Tyler, Texas, Preston was the third of six children. His father was a plumber/electrician and mother, a teacher. He received his doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley, and joined the USC faculty in 1986, after spending 13 years at the University of Illinois-Urbana.

Steven Lamy, professor of international relations and vice dean for academic programs at USC Dornsife, recalled meeting Preston on Preston’s first day at USC in 1986.

“From the first day we met he showed an interest in what I was writing and teaching,” Lamy recalled. “He was not shy about giving advice and it was always useful. When I served as director of SIR, he was always willing to share his experiences and things he had learned as chair of political science.

“He cared for his colleagues and his students. We shared a love for Trojan sports and I still owe him a dinner on a friendly bet. … His scholarship in urban politics will continue to influence many and he will be dearly missed.”

A scholarship in Preston’s honor will be established and awarded to an undergraduate in political science who is studying urban politics or civil rights. For more information, contact Maureen McNulty at or (213) 740-4994.

Preston is survived by son Michael B. Preston; daughters Sherry Coleman, Sonja Preston, Adrienne Fregia and Rymicha Jennings; grandchildren Ashley Coleman, Anthony Preston, Danielle Fregia, Preston Fregia, Aaron Jennings and Rhema Jennings; son-in-laws Larry Coleman, Paul Fregia and Jeffery Jennings; and six great grandchildren.

A memorial is set for Saturday, August 16, 2014. Celebration of life service at 4:00pm, USC Caruso Catholic Center. Dinner reception at 5:30pm, Ronald Tutor Campus Center Ballroom. Kindly respond before August 14 online at (code: Preston) or by telephoning 213.740.1744. For non-hosted parking, enter parking structure D at Jefferson Boulevard and Royal Street.