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A Scholar in UHall

Sidney Verba

By Thomas H. Howlett

The Harvard Yard stride of many other administrators is more easily recognizable. And some of his Government Department colleagues produce more New York Times op-ed articles. But Sidney Verba '53 is a College official whose increasing influence on undergraduate life at Harvard is rivaled by few.

A prize-winning scholar and professor of Government here for nearly a decade, Verba assumed the position of associate dean of the Faculty for undergraduate education last year. The 50-year-old man of unimposing girth and height became one of the most important occupants of University Hall in the span of one year, initiating several substantive curriculum changes.

What is perhaps most engaging about Verba, who combines a concern for undergraduates with an ability to do something about it, is that he displays little of the arrogance typical of Harvard administrators and professors. Self-deprecating and affable, Verba talks in terms of which issues he has to "worry about" rather than "tackle" or "resolve." His workload often depends on what things suddenly "fall on my desk," he says, looking around his cluttered Coolidge Hall hideaway--a sharp contrast to his stately University Hall digs.

Associate and assistant deanships are often viewed as stepping stones to more powerful positions, but Verba enters the second year of a three-year appointment with none of the usual administrative aspirations. He says he intends to return shortly to full-time research and teaching. "As to the issue of how long I can keep up doing all these things at once," he explains, smiling, "about the early part of this morning, I figured I could make it through till noon."

In contrast to his intentionally low profile, Verba's recent accomplishments are impressive, though the effects will be appropriately subtle. Officials credit him with having worked deftly with the student-faculty Committee on Undergraduate Education in his first year as chairman of the often-sluggish group. Charged with conducting a comprehensive review of undergraduate curricula. Verba has shaped faculty legislation in three important areas. With approval of the proposed changes expected this fall, undergraduates should soon find the College's rules concerning independent work, study abroad and academic honors more unified and less arbitrary than in the past.

Dean of the Faculty Henry Rosovsky diplomatically says that Verba's three immediate predecessors--Robert J. Kiely, Francis M. Pipkin and Glenn Bowersock--all brought special talents and personalities to the job. But other University Hall officials are less elusive, crediting Verba with bringing new authority and effectiveness to his post. "He is supposed to be taking one look at the entire structure," says John R. Marquand, secretary of the Faculty, "In the past, previous associate deans never really had a program."

Curriculum revisions are not the only pieces of legislation for undergraduate life which Verba engineered last year. He also was almost singlehandedly responsible for steering this fall's new Undergraduate Council through choppy Faculty waters. Although student government has in recent years been low on nearly everybody's priority list, Verba averted a stalemate between students and Faculty which could have delayed approval so long that the whole plan would have been scrapped. Stepping into negotiate with students, Verba undertook a job which perhaps should have been handled by Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III or Dean of the College John B. Fox, Jr. '59.

Never missing an opportunity to play down his own accomplishments, Verba claims he inadvertently stumbled into the liaison role which consumed a tremendous amount of time in February and March. "I became one of the mediators be cause in my usual stupid way I shot my mouth off in a Faculty Council meeting, saying the Council was too big to deal directly with the nitty-gritty of the issues," Verba says. "Never make suggestions of that sort because they'll stick you with it. That's how I got involved in that.

Despite his bureaucratic successes, Verba never wavers from his primary dedication to academics. He has cheerfully performed a difficult balancing act with administrative and scholarly responsibilities. "Basically my deanship is supposedly a half-time deanship. It works out to half-time an administrator, half-time a researcher and half-time a teacher--and the rest I devote to recreation."

Verba says that he maintains the break-neck pace--which this year includes teaching two Government courses and completing two books--because of a firm belief in Harvard's tradition of a Faculty-run administration. But he also admits to what he, in predictable fashion, describes as a "problem": "I have the unfortunate capability of getting interested in whatever I do, so I sometimes enjoy a number of the administrative issues." He says that wrestling with the exact shape of the new student government was a nuisance, but adds, "On the other hand, as a political scientist, all the issues involved in the student government were issues that in different contexts I worry about professionally."

Although Government Department colleagues like James Q. Wilson and Harvey C. Mansfield grab more attention, Verba has led a rather celebrated academic career both at Harvard, where he began teaching in 1973, and at Stanford and the University of Chicago. He has won two American Political Science Association awards for recent books. And from 1977-80, he chaired the Government Department here.

"After the next couple of years, I will go back to what I have done all of my life, which is doing teaching and research," he says. "When people elsewhere ask me what I do for a living, I say I'm a professor. I much prefer to be 'Professor Verba' than 'Dean Verba'. I think I can easily remain a professor for the next couple of years without losing my credentials."

In the meantime, Verba has big plans for the Committee on Undergraduate Education for the coming year. He plans to tackle "something that could be described as the quality of undergraduate teaching. More specifically, issues involving the quality of small-group teaching at Harvard, looking at the range of teaching and learning experiences that students have where there is some kind of personal contact with an instructor." Verba perceives sizeable discrepancies in teacher effectiveness from department to department and often within particular courses. "It's not that I would expect to change undergraduate teaching at Harvard, but we are trying to find out ways that it can be improved."

The study will include a comprehensive poll of undergraduates next spring, but Verba acknowledges some concern over maintaining close touch with students during such a project. "I guess I don't have a very clear and single answer to how one finds out what are the issues," he says. He adds, however, that research in the way elected officials monitor constituencies gives him a better sense of the problem than others might have.

Ironically, Verba's early success as a dean may give him just one more thing to "worry about." Although his appointment is finite and the Government professor would like to keep it that way, there are already indications that he may be asked to plow through more projects in the future. Says Rosovsky: "I think he's done an absolutely excellent job, and my hope with people like him is that they stay a little longer." Fox adds that Verba did "a superb job" moderating the student government debate.

With student representatives to the Committee on Undergraduate Education coming from the new 90-member Undergraduate Council this year, Verba will probably become more widely known among students. An increase in his popularity would seem automatic. But as pressure builds for an extended stay in University Hall, Sidney Verba will undoubtedly be yearning for a less-celebrated study in a quiet library corner--hoping he can make it until noon.CrimsonWilliam F. Hammond

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