'The University Takes a Dim View . . .'

Liberal Modern Rules Share Stern Puritan Predecessors

One of the cliches of Harvard's official administrative prose goes something like this: "The University takes a dim view of . . ."

And another of the administration's stereotypes paints an even more severe picture: "The University frowns on . . ."

These phrases are normally followed by a recount of some breach of discipline, or simply by the words, ". . . such action."

For more than 300 years now the University has been frowning at, scowling at, and absolutely prohibiting certain practices. In 1636 it took a dim view of almost anything from smoking to putting reptiles in Tutor's chambers; in 1952, the change is evident, and presently the University frowns hardest on breaches of rules relating to women in men's dormitories.

And at midstream, during the Revolutionary War days, the University admonished students against throwing cannon-balls from the windows of Hollis Hall at passing British soldiers.

These rules have had something of the ludicrous, something of the over-vigorous, and, in certain cases, something of the eternal in them. Reptiles will never be sanctioned as dormitory pets, for example, nor will women ever be permitted to remain in men's quarters after certain hours.

One factor has been constant in all codes of discipline: the attempt of the undergraduate to evade or eliminate the rules that bind him, plus the desire to rebel when the rules bind him too closely. William R. Thayer, in his "History of Harvard University," notes that "discontent and rebellion were vehement just in proportion to the burden of repression."


A second constant in a history of disciplinary measures at Harvard is the uprising. Indignant undergraduates in past years have gained, through mammoth and often violent rebellions, more liberalization of rules than is generally recognized: they have also brought to pass the resignation of at least one President of the College, and the expulsion of an entire sophomore class.

Some present-day rules have their roots in much earlier measures. A problem which came up for consideration very recently was a troublesome one as far back as 1886. In that year the Faculty decided to introduce "discretionary supervision" of attendance: students could decide for themselves whether attending lectures was actually worth the trouble. Appropriately enough, this period was tagged the "era of opportunity with responsibility"--with accent on the former and shameful neglect of the latter.

The Faculty was either ignorant of the way undergraduates took advantage of this ruling, or preferred to keep its back turned on the gross mishandling. According to Samuel Eliot Morison, in his "Three Centuries of Harvard," "term-time trips to New York, Montreal, and Bermuda became all too common."

One student chose Havana for his term-time vacation resort, and the series of events which followed this choice put a scowl on the University's physiognomy. The student wrote a series of post-dated letters, addressed to his father, and left them with a friend who was to mail them at certain designated intervals. The friend, however, decided to mail the entire lot at once. Several days later the vacationing student's irate father was in Cambridge. Neither he nor the administration had any idea of where the boy was.

Immediately after this incident, the Faculty had to vote between a morning roll call, or checking of attendance in classes. They chose the latter.

The earliest rules were severe in the Puritan sense, and intended to awe students by using religious menaces or ordinary flogging. The latter was quite popular. In 1674, for example, a student guilty of speaking blasphemous words was brought before his classmates, the officers, and Overseers of the College, where his sentence was read. He knelt down, the President prayed, he was flogged (law permitted no more than ten swipes), and the President ended the ceremony with another prayer.

No Smoke

The "College Bible," a list of rules, had its first entries in 1642. At this date, students were prohibited from frequenting the "society of such men as lead an unjust and dissolute life," and from taking tobacco, "unless permitted by the President, with the consent of their parents and guardians, and on good reason first given by a physician, and then in a sober and private manner."

Towards the end of the 17th century, signs of dissolution began to appear, despite the rigid laws. Drunkenness, idleness, and varous other forms of dissipation led Cotton Mather to declare that Satan had taken up quarters at Harvard College, and would be dislodged only with Cotton Mather's election to the presidency of the school.

A revision of the "Bible" in 1734 introduced a new form of punishment: the levying of fines. The heaviest tariff--2 pounds, 10 shillings, was exacted for the crime of "tarrying out of town one month without leave." Among others were the usual fines for playing cards, opening doors by picklocks, use of profane speech, frequenting taverns, and entertaining persons of ill repute.

Cut in Style

Thayer notes in his history that "transgressions of arbitrary academic or theological requirements are punished more severely than misbehavior which indicates real moral defects: . . . 'neglecting analysing' is twice as wicked as lying; absence for recitation is as blameworthy as drunkenness . . . ."

One year later, "dancing" was viewed upon with disfavor by the University. Thus, "unsuitable and unseasonable dancing in the College" became punishable by anything up to degradation to the bottom of the class, and expulsion when other means failed.

The modes of punishment were, incidentally, especially interesting. As soon as the University frowned upon a student, the machinery for disciplinary action began rolling. Fines, admonitions, and public confessions were first tried, in that order. When these failed, flogging was in order, often accompanied by a public confession like the one described above.

And when none of these were successful, the criminal was degraded to the bottom of the class, his name was stricken from the College lists, or he was expelled.

Occassionally, "rustication" was employed as a punitive measure. The offending student was sent off to some rural area for several months, where he could simmer down and, at the same time, receive individual instruction, usually from a Harvard graduate. In several cases, however, this method also failed. One student, having been rusticated to Groton for his leadership in a dining hall riot to protest the inferior quality of the food, fell in love with the area and refused to return to the College.

Discipline in the early times was handled by, of all people, the President and Overseers. But as the student body grew, and with it the number of offenses, the officers of Immediate Government began to handle affairs. One century after the first record of its existence, the Immediate Government became in 1825 the "Faculty of the University."

Thayer, however, nothes that students "did not submit meekly" to the rules that bound them, Faculty or no.

Tartar Trip

When in 1790, for example, students were required to submit to an annual public examination before the Corporation and Overseers, they tried to defeat this rule. On the morning of the examination, some men poured a tartar emetic into the kitchen boilers, and all but four students were forced to rush from the hall, ill.

The College rules were slated for no liberalization, however. In the middle of the 19th century, some new ones were added. One could not attend the theatre during term-time, keep any animal without Faculty consent, congregate in groups, or make any appreciable amount of noise.

But some time after President Eliot came to Harvard, most of the rules in the "College Bible" were abandoned, and students attained a greater freedom of action.

In place of flogging and fines, new methods of punishment have been introduced--much milder methods, of course. Presently, warning, probation, suspension, and expulsion are the rewards for academic or disciplinary misconduct.

On the whole, Thayer's evaluation of the liberalization of rules is a good one: "When there were many laws, the temptation to break them was too great to be always risisted; when Tutors and Proctors were looked upon as policemen and detectives, the pleasure of outwitting and harassing them was mingled with a sense of superior cunning or with the exultation of successful daring."

He adds, "In old times, students were treated either as servants or as possible culprits; the newer, and true method is (for the University) to treat them like men.