In Memoriam: Vernon L. Greene, pioneer in the study of aging

Vernon GreeneProfessor Emeritus of Public Administration and International Affairs Vernon Greene, who passed away on October 10 at the age of 77, saw the aging process as much more than a person getting old, and his vision helped build Syracuse University’s reputation as a national leader in gerontology, home of the Aging Studies Institute (ASI) and the Center for Aging and Policy Studies (CAPS).  

“Vernon is a bedrock for one of the most distinguished interdisciplinary aging institutes in the nation,” says the Maxwell School’s Dean David M. Van Slyke.  Greene was the director of the All-University Gerontology Center (1988-1993), the predecessor to the Aging Studies Institute.  He was a political scientist by training (M.A. and Ph.D. from Indiana University, Bloomington; B.A. from University of Texas, Austin).  He taught at the University of Arizona before coming to Syracuse University as an Associate Professor of Public Administration in 1986. He was promoted to Professor in 1992 and was the longtime chair of the doctoral program in social science at Maxwell.  

“It is a testament to his work that we have been able to recruit and retain prolific research faculty and talented students who have an interest in aging as a life course and its direct relationship to public policy,” says Van Slyke. “Throughout his career—as researcher, teacher, advisor and mentor—he challenged colleagues and students to question conventional norms and to rethink issues through an interdisciplinary lens and rigorous research methodology.”

That’s what attracted Professor Douglas Wolf to Syracuse University more than two decades ago.  Wolf, now professor of public administration and international affairs and Gerald B. Cramer Professor of Aging Studies, says the interdisciplinary nature of the team and Greene’s approach to teaching reflected “the Maxwell way of looking at the world.”

“Vernon taught his students to ask the ‘central questions’ about the rationale for government intervention in people’s lives,” says Wolf. “He explored implications for public funding and policies involving the safety net, housing, organizational and community support. He included the neurosciences, biology and social sciences in his perspectives on aging.  His lens was broad and analytical.”

Greene referenced this approach in The Gerontologist in December, 1999 in his farewell message as he stepped down from his position as editor-in-chief.  “I have tried to steer a course for the journal that is multidisciplinary in substance and ecumenical in methodological philosophy.  As other journals in the (Gerontological Society of America) have increasingly defined their missions along section and disciplinary lines, I have tried to maintain and enhance the commitment of The Gerontologist to providing a venue for a reflective and scholarly conversation that seeks to broadly involve the Society as a whole.”  (Vol. 39, No. 6, 644).

"His legacy are the students whose work he supervised,” says Wolf.  “He was training people to be exceptionally rigorous in laying out the rationale and the tools for carrying out public services.”

“He was both big picture and a stickler for details,” says Stuart Bretschneider who, along with Greene, taught doctoral students research methodology.  Bretschneider is now director of the Center for Organization Research and Design at Arizona State University.  “Vernon trained a lot of people to do very careful, high quality analytical research.  He had high expectations for his students and worked tirelessly with them to help them achieve those expectations.”   

Sarah Laditka, now professor emeritus in public health sciences, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, was one of Greene’s Ph.D. students. “Vernon was generous in sharing his wisdom and advice, which helped me greatly to succeed in my academic career. Vernon was never too busy to talk with me. When I needed his advice the most, he put meeting with me ahead of everything else. He was a role model for my entire career. I will always be inspired by Vernon’s dedication to mentoring graduate students in research and to promoting the health and well-being of older adults.”

Kristina Lambright, Greene’s graduate assistant from 1996-97, says he “influenced me to become a professor in public administration. The lessons I learned 25 years ago from Vernon about what it means to be a kind, thoughtful and conscientious faculty mentor continue to impact my own work with graduate students today as a professor at Binghamton University.”

Dean Van Slyke recalls that Greene served on his own mentoring committee when he first came to Syracuse as an assistant professor in 2004. “I recall people saying he’s exactly the kind of person you want on your mentoring committee because if you can make it by Vernon Greene, you can make it by most people.  Vernon was seen as a proxy for quality.  He did not suffer fools gladly. He was going to ask hard questions and scrutinize things.”

Bretschneider jokingly recalls that if Greene was in the audience for any research presentation, “he would invariably ask about some endogenous factor in the methodology, inspiring a comprehensive discussion of the issue. Vernon thought deeply about why things happen the way they do. He was a serious scholar who tackled the truly important things in life.”  

Greene is survived by his wife of 42 years, Deborah Monahan, Emerita Professor of Social Work, Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics, their daughter Rachel (Philip Roth) Greene; son, Samuel (Kseniia) Greene; brothers, Geoffrey (Carol) Greene, Mark (Dani) Greene; and several nieces and nephews.

October 18, 2021, By Eileen Korey, SU News