Marc J. Roberts, at 71; Harvard professor had a global reach
Not one to set aside society’s ills while studying and teaching in the confines of Harvard University, Marc Roberts wanted nothing less than to make the world work better, and that led him to his academic calling.
“As an undergraduate, every time I got into an argument about social policy, some [expletive] told me I didn’t understand the economics,” he told the Globe in 1976. “So I decided I had to understand economics.”
In classrooms, Dr. Roberts made judicious use of well-placed profanities to nudge himself off the pedestal and remain approachable. He initially taught in Harvard’s economics department, until colleagues decided he spent too little time obsessing about theory and too much time figuring out how economics could address real-life problems. Finding a more welcoming home at the Harvard School of Public Health, he spent decades teaching economics and ethics, management and statistics, health policy and environmental policy. He also was a consultant to government and health officials around the world, but his students formed a legacy that was lasting and far-reaching.
“My deepest satisfactions professionally come from trying to help, force, push, lead students to see that the world is a more complex and subtle place than they realize, and that wise action requires deeper thought and more self-conscious moral reflection than they are accustomed to,” he wrote in 1989.
Dr. Roberts, who also had taught at the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Law School before retiring last year, died at 71, apparently of a pulmonary embolism, Saturday in his vacation home in Dennis. He had lived in Chestnut Hill.
“Though he was trained in economics, he sometimes referred to himself as a lapsed economist,” said Michael Reich, a professor of international health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health who was a student of Dr. Roberts, and then became a colleague and coauthor. “He ranged widely across disciplines as needed in order to engage people, in order to explore problems, in order to write.”
Dr. Howard Hiatt was dean of the School of Public Health in the 1970s when he hired Dr. Roberts, who he said “was crucial not only in helping to establish the department of health policy and management, but in offering advice in a range of other areas as I attempted to make major changes.”
Dr. Roberts, he added, “was extremely bright with great curiosity not only about economics, but about health care in general. Marc Roberts was a remarkable man.”
About 15 years ago, after focusing much of his career on US health and environmental policy, Dr. Roberts began collaborating on a program for World Bank leaders from ministries of health around the world. Through what is now the Flagship Program, he helped develop regional courses with institutions from Beirut to Budapest, and from Argentina to Iran. He led an initiative to instruct hospital managers in Egypt and worked on another program training South African health officials.
He became a million-mile flier while traveling as a consultant to more than 35 nations, among them Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, and Yemen, where he recalled that taxi drivers tucked 10-inch daggers in their belts.
“It is a long way from the streets of Bayonne, N.J., where I grew up,” he wrote for the 50th anniversary report of his Harvard class. “The first time I was more than a hundred miles from home was when my twin brother, Steve, and I came to Harvard for an admission interview in the fall of 1959.”
Born in Bayonne, Marc Jeffrey Roberts and his twin were the oldest of four children. Their father, Will Roberts, wrote children’s books, and their mother, the former Dorothy Schanbam, was a homemaker. Family meals were a time for vigorous discussion.
“Home is a place where people pound the table and shout a lot,” Dr. Roberts told the Globe in 1976. “There is no such thing as light dinner table conversation.”
Contracting polio as a boy excluded him from sports and left him with a limp that, if anything, reminded him not to be hobbled by physical limitations.
“He had one of the clearest, strongest minds I’ve ever encountered,” said his twin, Steven Roberts, a former New York Times congressional and White House correspondent who is a professor at George Washington University.
“From the time we were small kids, I was always learning something from him,” his brother said. “He was always my model; he was always the one pushing me. I read things and learned things because I wanted to keep up with him. I would have been a very different person without him.”
At the urging of their Bayonne friend Barney Frank, the Roberts twins went to Harvard, which Frank attended.
“He was very bright and very articulate and brought to public health the perfect combination of passion and intellectual discipline,” said Frank, who retired last year after 16 terms as a US representative from Newton. “And he had a great, distinctive laugh. I can still hear Marc’s laugh.”
Dr. Roberts graduated summa cum laude from Harvard in 1964 with a bachelor’s degree in social studies and received a doctorate in economics from Harvard in 1969. Except for a year in England on a Fulbright fellowship and a semester as a visiting professor at Stanford University, he spent his entire undergraduate, graduate, and professional life at Harvard, most of it as a professor of political economy and health policy at the School of Public Health.
In 1963, he married Ann Stein, with whom he had four children. Their marriage ended in divorce.
Among his seven books was 2004’s much-translated “Getting Health Reform Right: A Guide to Improving Performance and Equity,” which he wrote with Reich, William Hsiao, and Peter Berman.
Dr. Roberts advised Democratic presidential candidates such as Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, and Governor Michael S. Dukakis, but never had an opportunity to serve in Washington as a policymaker. Because of that, his consulting work helped quench a lifelong appetite to make a difference outside classrooms.
“He was never a pure academic economist,” his twin said. “He was always interested in solving real-world problems.”
In 1999, Dr. Roberts and Dr. Mary Ann Stevenson, who chairs the radiation oncology department at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, became a couple.
“We spend as many weekends as we can at our little place right on Swan Pond on Cape Cod with our two standard poodles,” Dr. Roberts wrote this year, adding that “in all, life has been very kind to me.”
A service will be announced for Dr. Roberts, who in addition to Stevenson and his twin leaves four children, Dr. Jenna Mammen of Baltimore, Justine of Lee, N.H., Clement of San Francisco, and Zaq of Santa Cruz, Calif.; Dr. Stevenson’s children from a previous marriage, Roxanne and Alexander Calderwood, both of Chestnut Hill; another brother, Glenn of Garrett Park, Md.; a sister, Laura of Cambridge; and eight grandchildren.
Reich recalled Dr. Roberts “had an incredible aptitude for teaching,” and a style as memorable as it was demanding.
“The thing that is remarkable to me is that as I travel anyplace in the world, someone will come up to me and say, ‘Your brother-in-law was my teacher,’ ” said Cokie Roberts, a political commentator for NPR and ABC News who is married to Steven Roberts. “The number of people whose lives he touched is just immense, and they all say the same thing: ‘He was the best teacher I ever had, and he was so funny.’ I think that legacy of teaching is something that will live on forever.”