Susan Tifft, a popular professor of journalism and public policy at Duke University from 1998 through 2009, died today at her home in Cambridge, Mass., after a 2½-year battle with uterine cancer. She was 59.
"Susan was a wonderful educator, a brilliant mind, and an even dearer friend. We will sorely miss her presence in our lives," said Bruce Kuniholm, dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke.
"She was a gifted writer who amazed all of us with her wit and clarity and as she narrated her courageous journey through a series of increasingly difficult cancer treatments," Kuniholm said. "But her greatest legacy is her consummate gift for teaching. She challenged and inspired her students, many of whom followed her example and pursued careers in journalism."
Students consistently gave Tifft high marks in the classroom for her ability to challenge them, set high expectations and give them effective feedback. The Sanford School established an undergraduate teaching award in Tifft's name last year. The first award recipient is to be named at this year's graduation ceremony.
"There is nothing Duke or Sanford could have done that would have pleased or honored me more," Tifft said at the time. "I have loved being a journalist and author, and still get a kick out of seeing my byline, but I have come to treasure teaching more. Nothing compares to the thrill of one mind meeting another, or the light bulb going off in a student's head."
The Sanford School also has established in her honor the Susan E. Tifft Fund for Teaching and Mentorship, which will support research by students in classes offered by the school's DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy or students working with the center's faculty.
Tifft, a 1973 Duke graduate and former young trustee, returned to campus in 1998 as the Eugene C. Patterson Professor of the Practice of Journalism at the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy. She and her husband, Alex Jones, shared the Patterson chair until the fall of 2000, when Tifft became the sole Patterson professor.
Tifft served as an adviser to The Chronicle, the Duke student newspaper, and also served on the advisory board of Duke Magazine since the board was created in 1983.
"At that time it was considered a bold thing to do to have professional journalists guide an alumni magazine," said editor Bob Bliwise, adding the magazine's quality is due in part to "Susan's consistent, strong-minded advice about the imperative to adhere to standards of professional journalism."
Tifft is the co-author, with Jones, of "The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times" (Little Brown, 1999), which won the A.M. Sperber Award for Exceptional Achievement in Writing and Research and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in biography. Her first biography, also co-authored with Jones, was "The Patriarch: The Rise and Fall of the Bingham Dynasty," an acclaimed biography of the family behind the Louisville newspapers (Summit Books, 1991).
At the time of her diagnosis, she had begun work on a book about the longevity revolution and women's special place in it. After taking a medical leave, she returned to the classroom for the 2008-09 academic year.
From 1982 to 1991 she was a national writer and associate editor for TIME Magazine, where she wrote major articles on politics, economics, foreign affairs and education.
Before becoming a journalist, Tifft was a press secretary for the Federal Election Commission and the 1980 Democratic National Convention, and a speechwriter for the Carter-Mondale campaign. She also served as director of public affairs for the Urban Institute.