Sidney Verba, Harvard’s ‘consummate university citizen,’ dies at 86
Sidney Verba arrived at Harvard in the fall of 1949, a first-generation immigrant from Brooklyn, N.Y., who hadn’t even heard of the university when a high school adviser suggested he apply — he had to look it up at a local library.
“It took me six months to realize that perhaps I did not belong there,” he would later write of his freshman year, “by which time I felt I belonged.”
When he retired from the university nearly six decades later — after 34 years as professor, researcher, author and associate dean — an argument could have been made that in a sense, Harvard belonged to him as much as he belonged to Harvard.
Dr. Verba, who was 86 when he died March 4 in his Cambridge home, would have been the last to suggest as much. Self-effacing to a fault, he was quick to emphasize fate’s role in his life.
“I was lucky,” he wrote in “A Life in Political Science,” a 2011 essay.
By his measure, good fortune’s current carried him through a career in which he became one of his era’s most respected political scientists; the go-to administrator for many of Harvard’s difficult challenges, such as leading the drafting of a harassment policy 35 years ago; and the university’s longest-serving head of libraries, coaxing a collection of library fiefdoms into becoming a cohesive single entity.
And though he may have been reluctant to sing his own praises, others were happy to do so.
“He was the consummate university citizen,” said former Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust. “Whenever there was a difficult situation, you wanted to have Sid come in and chair a committee to fix it.”
His presence continued to be felt after he retired in 2007.
As administrators and faculty met to address new challenges, “people would say, ‘We need a Sid Verba,’ ” Faust recalled. “So he became a category of excellence and wisdom and insight.”
Among his many honors, Dr. Verba was awarded the Johan Skytte Prize, which is considered the equivalent of a Nobel for political scientists. He was a former president of the American Political Science Association and had chaired the political science section and the Committee on Human Rights for the National Academy of Sciences.
Over the course of 40 years, Dr. Verba also was an author, coauthor, or editor of more than 20 books, including 1963’s “The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations,” which he wrote with his mentor Gabriel A. Almond.
Considered a classic, “The Civic Culture” was a pioneering work in comparative political behavior. The authors used thousands of interviews from multiple countries, along with data, to examine which factors allow some nations to sustain stable, active democracies.
The result “was one of the most important books in political science in the 20th century,” said Robert D. Putnam, the Peter and Isabel Malkin professor of public policy emeritus at Harvard and the John F. Kennedy School of Government.
And yet, Dr. Verba’s towering status in political science was but one facet of professional accomplishments, added Putnam, whose books include the best-selling “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.”
Dr. Verba, the Carl H. Pforzheimer university professor emeritus, joined Harvard’s faculty in the early 1970s and a decade later became a key administrator as associate dean for undergraduate education for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. In that role, he oversaw the gathering of information about sexual harassment on campus and the creation of a campuswide policy for handling harassment complaints regarding everything from gender, race, and religion to age and sexual orientation.
Then he became director of the University Library. During his tenure of more than two decades, he notably led the initiative to digitize the library’s books and materials to make them available throughout the world.
Through all these roles, colleagues said, Dr. Verba handled negotiations for issues delicate or volatile with tact, warmth, and the kind of humor that defused tense moments.
“Sid Verba was without question the nicest person I’ve ever met in academics,” Putnam said. “He was incredibly gracious.”
Dr. Verba also was a generous collaborator, said Kay L. Schlozman, the J. Joseph Moakley professor of political science at Boston College, who coauthored several books with him.
His undergraduate research assistants, for example, “couldn’t believe how much they were respected. Sidney would be taking notes on what they were saying,” Schlozman said. He never shied from the heavy lifting of research, and “was incredibly generous about coauthorship.”
Dr. Verba also “was always open to working with talented people, regardless, so he had a bunch of women collaborators long before anyone was doing that,” she said.
Born in Brooklyn on May 26, 1932, Sidney Verba was the younger of two siblings whose parents were Morris Verba and Recci Salmon. They were immigrants from what is now the Republic of Moldova, and they ran a small curtain and linen store.
Dr. Verba graduated first in his class at James Madison High School in Brooklyn.
“His mother said she didn’t remember him working that hard. He made everything look easy,” said his wife, Cynthia Verba, a musicology scholar who is director of fellowships for Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
They met as counselors at a summer camp in the Poconos — “the kind of meeting they put in movies,” he wrote for the 60th anniversary report of his Harvard class. She was a music counselor, he was on the waterfront.
He graduated from Harvard in 1953 and went to Princeton University for his master’s and doctorate. They married in 1954 and spent their first year commuting to see each another while she finished her undergraduate degree at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Dr. Verba wrote that he liked to tell their three daughters that after he and Cynthia married, they decided that “we’d try it for a year, and, if it worked, we’d live together. It worked.”
In addition to his wife, Dr. Verba leaves their daughters, Margaret of Mono City, Calif., Ericka of Santa Monica, Calif., and Martina of Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
A service to honor his life and career will be held at 3 p.m., April 13, in Memorial Church in Harvard Yard.
At Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, Dr. Verba initially considered a Foreign Service career but turned to political science instead. He first taught at Princeton, moved to Stanford University in the mid-1960s, and then was on the University of Chicago faculty before heading back to Harvard.
Teaching was a careerlong love. In 1978, a few years after his return to Cambridge, he wrote that “there are few things more gratifying” than tossing an idea out in a class “and watching it bounce around a table of smart undergraduates. It’s good to be back.”
Of his good fortune, he wrote that he “was born at the right time,” when the job market for professors was expanding. Also, “I was born a male; the road for women was much more rocky at the time. And last, I was lucky.”
“That’s another way of Sidney saying, ‘I’m no better than everyone else.’ But he was better than everyone,” his wife said. “He had a knack for doing very well without straining.”
Dr. Verba, she added, “was very, very modest, very humble. He enjoyed every break he got, but he thought it was good luck and thought everyone else deserved it, too.”