Harvard and the Nation

Expansion of the College: II

War excitement was sweeping the country in the spring of 1917, and Harvard University unhesitatingly responded to the need. The College held special final exams in April so that students could leave for the army; it conferred "war degrees" on undergraduates who had completed only twelve courses; and to Faculty members who entered the service, it gave the difference between their government pay and their former salaries. Clearly, that generation of Harvard men would have little sympathy with those who now assert, as they view the swelling national demand for a college education, that the University has no responsibility to the nation and can simply look the other way.

Yesterday's editorial pointed out that Harvard, a leader in American education, must not ignore the expansion problem that looms before every college and university in the country. To renounce responsibility in this way would be to renounce leadership itself. But national responsibility does not imply--as many expansion advocates, including the Overseers' Committee to Visit Harvard College, seem to assume--that the University's obligation to the country is solely a numerical one. It is not necessarily true that Harvard, as the number of college applicants skyrockets in the coming decades, should try to keep up with the trend by admitting more students each year--just as the Ford Motor Company, reacting to an increased demand for automobiles, might add another assembly line. Education is not that kind of process. The University has won its position of leadership not through the number of men it has graduated--many institutions have turned out more--but through the excellence of its teaching and educational policies. Harvard's responsibility in face of rising national demand, therefore, may involve improving the quality of American education just as much as it implies increasing the number that are educated.

State Is Not Ideal

Ideally, the College could certainly perform a service to the nation by increasing its enrollment and at the same time maintaining high standards. But the current state of American education is far from ideal. Indeed, the troubles that confront colleges and universities in the country are such that for at least the next several years--barring the endowment miracle mentioned yesterday--Harvard can make its most valuable contribution to the nation only by putting aside any thought of immediate expansion.

The increasing difficulty of educating merely those students already in college is well known. Inflation has brought higher costs for personnel and physical facilities, which have led to rises in tuition, which in turn have necessitated larger scholarship funds. Every phase of a college's operation demands more money. Faculty members, meanwhile, have seen the real value of their salaries decrease steadily while income in other professions has soared upward, so that good college teachers are becoming harder and harder to recruit. Thus, the nation's colleges and universities are already up to their neck in financial troubles; at this point the approaching wave of war babies, forcing lowered standards of teaching and facilities, could easily drown American education in a flood of mediocrity.

Even Harvard, with a 450 million dollar endowment, the highest faculty salaries in the country, and a relatively good physical plant, has suffered from the financial squeeze and the difficulty of attracting good teachers. Houses are jammed, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences is under-enrolled, scholarship funds are badly needed to cover both present costs and the impending rise in tuition, and all these factors combine to prevent the undergraduate from learning as much as he might. As yesterday's editorial emphasized, the College must not increase its enrollment until it has conquered these inadequacies.

Improving the Dwelling

But by putting its own house in order--and, indeed, improving the dwelling--Harvard can do more than merely protect its own standards. As a leader of American education, the University can influence colleges all over the country to better their own teaching and facilities--just as the Corporation's defiance of Senator McCarthy bolstered academic freedom on a nation-wide basis. If Harvard announced, for example, that it would not increase its enrollment at all until it had raised faculty salaries by twenty percent and built at least one new House, other institutions would likewise tend to raise their salaries (if only for competitive reasons) and in general to improve their standards. The Administration should take some such stand, assuring both Harvard people and the country as a whole that the College, though hoping and preparing to expand, will take that step only when it can handle the additional students without sacrificing its educational integrity.

Harvard and other private colleges may find, of course, that the cost of maintaining and raising educational standards precludes expansion in the foreseeable future. In this event, the proportion of American youths who attend college need not necessarily decline. State universities will increase their enrollments, and perhaps something like the two-year colleges suggested by President Emeritus James B. Conant could be set up. At any rate, Harvard, in insuring the high standards of American education, will have fulfilled its responsibility to the nation.