Sociologist Neil Smelser, campus leader and Free Speech Movement diplomat, dies at 87

Neil Smelser, a distinguished sociologist and higher education leader who navigated the swells of student uprisings during the exhilarating and tumultuous 1960s, died peacefully on Oct. 2 at his home in Berkeley. He was 87.

A Harvard-educated Rhodes Scholar and UC Berkeley professor emeritus of sociology, Smelser wore numerous academic and administrative hats during his 36 years on campus, as well as his 23 years as a professor emeritus.

“Neil was not only one of the leading sociologists of his generation; he contributed greatly to Berkeley in many ways, from the Smelser Report on Lower Division Education to his Clark Kerr Lectures, ‘Dynamics of the Contemporary University,’ ” said UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ. “He was one of the deepest thinkers about higher education and an extraordinary campus citizen.”

During the Free Speech Movement in the mid-1960s, Smelser acted as a liaison between the university administration and student groups. The experience cemented his reputation as an authority on the nuances of political activism.

An outspoken and influential advocate for social and behavioral sciences, Smelser mentored generations of scholars, including UC Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild, author of the acclaimed Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.

“Until a person like Neil Smelser has passed from life, it is hard to appreciate the enormity of the intellectual and emotional space a person inhabits in a discipline, an institution and the lives of many students,” Hochschild said. “For all these other great accomplishments, I know I am one of many graduate students whom he took time to mentor. This he did through his even-tempered positive attitude, his ecumenicalism and his reassuring sense of forward motion.”

More tributes to Smelser from his colleagues and students can be viewed at this link.

From his retirement in 1994 until the last year of his life, Smelser remained a whirlwind of activity on campus and beyond. In addition to authoring seven books and more than 20 research papers, he provided administrative leadership, as well as mentorship to junior faculty and undergraduates, serving as director of the Center for Advanced Behavioral Sciences at Stanford and mentoring Robert Wood Johnson postdoctoral fellows.

He taught classes in the Freshman and Sophomore Seminars program and for the Center for Studies in Higher Education, and this year was awarded a prestigious Constantine Panunzio Distinguished Emeriti Award.

In a Facebook page tribute to his father, Joseph Smelser recalled the empathy and humility his father showed when asked how he would feel if Joseph, then a student at Oberlin College, pursued the theatrical arts instead of medical school.

“We were on a (New York) subway headed uptown when I posed the question, and he said ‘I would be jealous. I was only good at one thing, so had no choice of what field to go into,’” Joseph Smelser wrote. “This coming from one of the most preeminent sociologists of his time: His answer gave me the freedom to follow whatever dreams I have in life, knowing I would have his love and support.”

Smelser was born in Kahoka, Missouri, on July 22, 1930, the middle son of three boys, all of whom went on to pursue careers in academia. His father taught philosophy and drama at Glendale Community College in Arizona, and his mother was a high school Latin teacher.

After attending Phoenix public schools, he was accepted to Harvard University, from which he graduated summa cum laude in 1952. He attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, earning a master’s degree with the highest honors and returned to Harvard, garnering a Ph.D. in sociology.

Smelser joined the UC Berkeley faculty as an assistant professor of sociology in 1958, becoming a full professor in 1962. Three years later, he was appointed Chancellor’s Special Assistant for Student Political Activity to navigate the campus through Free Speech Movement protests.

In 1972, Smelser became one of six faculty members to earn the title of “University Professor,” joining the likes of UC Berkeley Nobelists Glenn T. Seaborg, Charles Townes and Melvin Calvin, as well as acclaimed physicist Edward Teller and UC San Diego Nobelist Harold Urey. The honor allowed them to teach on all UC campuses.

In 1986, he chaired the University of California Task Force Report, known informally as the “Smelser Report,” which called on the UC system to improve the quality of academic life, especially for freshmen and sophomores.

Among other accolades, Smelser was named to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. He was also elected president of the American Sociological Association.

His campus leadership positions included assistant chancellor for educational development, chair of sociology, UC Berkeley faculty representative to the UC regents, chair of the Academic Senate Policy Committee, associate director of the Institute of International Studies, director of the Center for Studies in Higher Education and director of the Education Abroad program in the U.K. and Ireland.

His large body of writing includes Social Paralysis and Social Change: British Working-Class Education in the 19th Century; Economy and Society; The Social Edges of Psychoanalysis; Societal Change in the Industrial Revolution; The Sociology of Economic Life; and Theory of Collective Behavior.

Smelser with wife, Sharin, and grandchildren Delilah, Finn and Ruby. (Courtesy of Sharin Smelser)

Smelser wasn’t all work and no play. His interests outside work included camping, sports and theater, family members said.

“He and my mother exposed my sister and me early in our lives to theater, the arts and different cultures and cuisines,” Joseph Smelser wrote in his Facebook tribute. “Since I can remember, he has inspired me to be the best version of myself that I can be.”

As a student of Smelser in the 1960s, Hochschild recalls that even though her topic, marriage and family, didn’t fall within her mentor’s area of interest, he spurred her on to success.

“Neil had legions of students and mentees whom I’m sure have the same kind of story to tell,” Hochschild said. “So I know I speak for many former students and colleagues, when I say ‘Thank you so much, Neil. We will miss you very much and remember you always.’”

Smelser is survived by his wife of 50 years, Sharin Smelser, of Berkeley; son Joseph Smelser, of Washington D.C., daughter Sarah Smelser, of Bloomington, Illinois; and from a prior marriage, son Eric Smelser and daughter Tina Smelser, both of San Francisco. He is also survived by his brother Philip Smelser, of Glendale, Arizona; and grandchildren Ruby, Delilah and Finn Higgins, of Bloomington, Illinois.

Arrangements for a memorial service are pending. In lieu of flowers, contributions in his memory may be made to the Neil J. Smelser Graduate Student Support Fund. For more information on the fund, contact Michael Schneider in sociology at mschneider@berkeley.edu

Read transcripts of interviews with Neil Smelser conducted in 2011 and 2012 for the UC Berkeley Oral History Center.