UC Berkeley professor emeritus of sociology, peacemaker during Free Speech Movement, dies at 87

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Neil Joseph Smelser, a professor emeritus of sociology at UC Berkeley, died Oct. 2 in his Berkeley home. He was 87.

Over the course of his distinguished career, Smelser earned titles both on and off the UC Berkeley campus, published at least seven books and made notable contributions to the sociology sphere. He is also considered by many to be one of the foremost thinkers in higher education.

After earned a doctorate in sociology from Harvard University in 1958, Smelser began his career that same year as an assistant professor at UC Berkeley, where he stayed until his retirement in 1994. He became a full professor in 1962, and during the Free Speech Movement of the mid-1960s, Smelser served as a liaison between students and campus administration — for which he was appointed special assistant for student political activity in 1965.

“He was a very impressive leader,” said UC Berkeley professor of sociology Claude Fischer on working with Smelser. “I was taken with his ability to work together with people to find common ground and work over conflicts or disagreement — the constant diplomat.”

Smelser’s other titles included campus assistant chancellor for educational development and university professor, which allowed him to teach on all UC campuses. Despite his strong presence on campus, Smelser developed a rich academic life outside of UC Berkeley. He was a trained psychoanalyst and served as the 88th president of the American Sociological Association.

Colleagues, past mentees and students describe Smelser as a profound thinker, capable of grasping the complexities of human behavior in society.

“He had a very lucid mind,” said Jeffrey Alexander, a former graduate student of Smelser and professor of sociology at Yale University. “(He was) one of the most logical and conceptually brilliant sociologists who ever lived.”

During his career, Smelser mentored many graduate students who would go on to spearhead successful careers of their own. Along with Alexander, Smelser mentored Ann Swidler, a UC Berkeley sociology professor and author of at least five academic books, and Arlie Hochschild, who, like Smelser, is an author and professor emerita of sociology at UC Berkeley.

According to both Swidler and Hochschild, Smelser’s mentorship was even-handed, generous and never imposing.

“I felt recognized for the person I am, and he wasn’t trying to direct me in any particular direction,” Hochschild said. “He waited to see the kind of field and approach that I was interested in and helped me be that person.”

Smelser is survived by his wife Sharin, sons Joseph and Eric, daughters Sarah and Tina, brother Philip and a number of grandchildren.

“We are all better people for having had him as a father and grandfather, and I will do my best to continue to live up to the values of the man for whom I am named,” said Joseph Smelser in a tribute to his father.

Contact Adrianna Buenviaje at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @adriannaDC.

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  • Professor Smelser was a truly great sociologist, among the last of American sociology’s greatest generation. May he rest in peace.

  • Barbara Toby Stack

    Typo: After earned a doctorate in sociology