Robert W. Allan was born on New Year’s Day, 1953 in his beloved New York City and lived a full and varied life until the evening of August 17, 2021. He earned his BS in 1978 at Brigham Young University and his PhD at New York University in 1984. He completed a post-doc at the American Museum of Natural History and was on the faculty at Fairleigh Dickinson University before joining Lafayette in 1991.
An ardent follower of Skinnerian Behaviorism, Bob published influential work extending the matching law (i.e., the tendency for organisms to proportionally match their responses during choice situations to the rates of reinforcement for each choice) to concurrent variable-interval schedules (i.e., reinforcement schedules for each choice were different and each varied the rate of reinforcement from short to long temporal intervals) thereby arguing that all behavior constitutes choice. His dedication to behavioral principles informed his teaching as well. Students were assessed by repeated attempts to demonstrate mastery of material to an objective achievement criterion before progressing to more advanced topics. Bob never denied a student the chance to take one of his classes, no matter how much he had already exceeded the enrollment cap. In recognition of his excellence in teaching, he received the Aaron O. Hoff Superior Teaching Award in 1994 and 1995 (the same year he was tenured and promoted to the rank of associate professor).
Bob was especially eager to share his passion for behaviorism by mentoring students in research. He regularly supervised numerous students in advanced research and honors thesis projects or as Excel Scholars. His love for his pigeons and their behavior was evident to anyone who was willing to listen. As his colleague John Shaw recalled, “In our frequent early morning meetings, Bob would excitedly tell me how Pigeon X did this or did that. He would pull me into his office and show me a scatterplot of pigeon pecks on his computer. I would pretend to understand what we were looking at, and we would both get excited about his newest pigeon data.” Similarly, other faculty members remembered him eagerly showing his pigeons to their children during impromptu visits to Pardee or Oechsle, teaching them what the pigeons did during a research study and matching their curiosity with his own. As passionate as he was about his work, he wanted the same for his students. One former student, Jessie Northgrave Dello Russo ’14 said “I have a career I love—something I find to be meaningful and fulfilling—and it’s all due to Bob Allan. I can name at least 10 people that I know personally who feel the same.”
Colleagues in the Psychology Department remember Bob as a profound thinker and eager conversationalist. Drawing from his wide reading interests, he always made you think when he would stop in your office doorway to talk. Mike Nees remembered that, “He could disagree with you about some abstract idea without ever being remotely unkind about it.” Andy Vinchur added, “Although we never changed each other’s minds even the slightest bit [on the merits of radical behaviorism], we greatly enjoyed the challenge and I always came away with an increased respect for Bob’s passion and intellectual rigor.” Bob was unfailingly kind, generous, and supportive to all of his department colleagues.
Bob was a music lover who could frequently be found singing and dancing prior to the start of class or in his office while working. Growing up, he sang in the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus, attended the High School of Music and Art, and even paid his way through graduate school as a DJ at Studio 54 and other clubs in New York City. His DJ skills were often on display at many campus events over the years, and he also served as the faculty adviser for the College’s radio station, WJRH. He was an accomplished athlete who played baseball in high school and ran nine marathons. Bob was also skilled at carpentry, electrical work, and other trades. In addition to building and maintaining the creatively constructed operant conditioning chambers for his beloved pigeons, he completely renovated a home in New Jersey, and later built his dream-house from the ground up in the Catskill Mountains. As if that wasn’t enough, Bob was also a talented artist. Friends and colleagues have proudly displayed copies of his ink drawings or silk screen printings in their homes and offices.
Bob was truly one of a kind and will be deeply missed.
Prepared by the Robert Allan Memorial Resolution Committee, and presented to the Lafayette College Faculty on date.
Jennifer M. Talarico, Professor and Head of Psychology
John S. Shaw, III, Associate Professor of Psychology
Andrew J. Vinchur, Charles A. Dana Professor of Psychology
President Hurd, on behalf of the Committee, I move that this memorial be filed with the minutes of this meeting, and that copies be sent to members of Bob Allan’s immediate family.