Government Professor Sidney Verba ’53 — an expert in comparative politics, a leader in library organization, and a creator of policy compromises — died March 4 in his Cambridge home at the age of 86.
Verba, a prolific scholar who wrote more than 20 books, joined Harvard's faculty in 1973 and served in a variety of University positions over the course of the next 30 years. His research spanned the topics of American politics, international relations, and political methodology, with a focus on comparative politics and citizen participation.
Prior to working at Harvard, Verba taught at Princeton, Stanford University, and the University of Chicago. Verba’s early studies with his mentor Gabriel A. Almond involved interviews in the United States, Germany, Mexico, Italy, and the United Kingdom, resulting in their 1963 book “The Civic Culture,” which “more or less invented the field of comparative political behavior,” according to Boston College Political Science Professor Kay L. Schlozman.
Verba and Almond’s book explored what they termed “the political culture of participation.” Verba later went on to co-author “Voice and Equality,” in which he outlined the obstacles in American society that prevented citizens from fully participating in the country’s democracy.
Government Department Chair Professor Jennifer L. Hochschild called his contributions a “foundational teaching,” recalling that one of his works was cited more than 1,100 times in subsequent scholarly writings.
“He’s a Stakhanovite worker,” Schlozman, who collaborated with Verba on a number of books, said.
Schlozman added that her experiences working with him were “fabulous” and a “total privilege.”
“He was the senior collaborator on many pieces for decades, and he always did more than his share, and he never was unwilling to do kind of the nuts and bolts work,” she said. “He wasn’t afraid to do the kind of hands on work that really good research requires.”
Verba launched himself into a variety of different jobs at the University in addition to his political science research, leading various University committees that made policy decisions.
“Anytime there’s a kind of a complicated bureaucratic or substantive issue in the University, one president after the other would appoint a Verba committee to solve the problem,” Hochschild said.
When the University administration in 2003 wanted to create a more unified calendar that would streamline the schedules of its different schools, Verba chaired the committee. The Committee on Calendar Reform made many of the changes that continue to affect the rhythm of the school year, including the requirement that fall semester final exams take place prior to winter recess.
History Professor Lizabeth Cohen — who was a member of the committee — called it “one of the most contentious committees I ever served on in my twenty-plus years at Harvard.” Though the discussion involved a lot of conflicting interests, Verba found a way to diffuse the tension, according to Cohen.
“With a large dose of common sense and his irrepressible sense of humor, Sid shepherded a room full of stubborn and resistant committee members toward common ground — and ultimately a common calendar,” she wrote in an email.
Schlozman — who authored multiple books with Verba — also remembered his use of jokes in other instances to “diffuse any tension” and quotes from Shakespeare to “define the situation.”
“He could understand where everyone was coming from, he made sure that all the voices were heard,” she said.
Verba played a role in some of the University’s initial efforts to investigate the prevalence of sexual assault on campus. He surveyed undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty members in 1983, gathering information about attitudes towards assault, harassment by peers, and harassment by non-peers. He included a section about potential remedies to the issue of assault.
“He was more on top of this issue than probably anybody. Took it very seriously,” Hochschild said.
Verba also served in the position of University Library director for more than 20 years, after his appointment by then-University-President Derek C. Bok in 1984. Though Verba had used the library system to conduct research, he had not had prior experience working in and leading the library system. Nevertheless, “he made a very conscious decision that he was going to make the library his prime interest,” according to Deanna B. Marcum, a former associate librarian at the Library of Congress and who worked with Verba in the Council on Library Resources.
Verba was “forward-looking,” according to Marcum, and he assisted in the development of HOLLIS — Harvard’s online library catalogue — and invited workers from Google to digitize some of Harvard’s resources.
“In many ways, I think his most significant contribution to the library world is that he… moved Harvard from an insular organization to be part of the research library community,” Marcum said.
Verba was an advocate for libraries throughout the country, and he testified before Congress about the number of books falling apart in the nation’s research libraries and about the libraries’ need for federal funding.
“He was able to connect with the Congressmen, so I left thinking, Sid Verba can make everyone feel valued and welcome, and important,” Marcum, who observed the testimony, said. “And that’s a pretty great skill to have.”
Verba held his position as University Library director until his retirement in 2007, but he continued to be active in the Government Department. He retained his office in the Center for Government and International Studies building, meeting with students and working on his book “The Unheavenly Chorus” — which he co-authored with Schlozman and Henry E. Brady.
He sent notes to Hochschild each year, saying that he would be willing to give up his office to newer faculty if necessary.
“Of course, we would never have done that. I would have given up my office before I asked him to leave,” Hochschild said. “But again, it was just a very thoughtful gesture… Nobody else has done that.”
Hochschild said that Verba’s hospitality toward her and her family made her feel welcome when starting at Harvard. She remembered how he and his wife invited her family over to celebrate the holiday of Passover.
“He was really important,” she said. “Both his scholarship and his presence.”
— Staff writer Rebecca S. Araten can be reached at email@example.com.