When President Killian mentioned in his most recent annual report that Harvard and M.I.T. are combining in a joint program to improve instruction in the sciences, he put the Institute a step further from the former hostility between the two schools.
Although there are few formal agreements, faculty members at both places have mantained much informal contact lately. Joint seminars are frequently given, and occasionally professors from one institute lecture to a class at the other.
On the graduate level, students can take courses at both institutions without paying an additional fee. Many take City Planning or Physics at M.I.T., for example, and study the social sciences or Humanities at Harvard.
Cooperation is especially evident whenever a common problem arises. On January 12, the Harvard and M.I.T. administrators met to discuss possible plans for Urban Renewal. Both agreed that they should cooperate in combatting the slum menace, but since the city must take the final decision on such aid, no definite policy was set up.
The first official joint action by the two institutions since the war came last year when they collaborated on a plan for constructing a linear electron accelerator. Their plan has been entered in an A.E.C. contest, and if they win, Harvard and M.I.T. will construct and operate the accelerator jointly.
But relations have not always been so amicable. In 1870, when M.I.T. was still Boston Tech, proposals for a Harvard-M.I.T. alliance resulted in a half-century of debate and conflict between the two.
On the surface, the issues seemed simple. Boston Tech was young and poor, but independent and thriving educationally, while the Harvard engineering school was older and richer, but had an insecure status within the University and was apparently unable to attract enough students to justify its own existence.
Underlying the proposals for closer cooperation, however, were two deeper issues: whether the natural sciences formed a proper subject matter to replace completely the liberal arts, and whether the technological school should be a professional school within a university or completely independent.
With the selection of Charles W. Eliot as president of Harvard in 1869, these issues came to a head. Labeled by one M.I.T. historian as an "expansionist," Eliot attempted to form some sort of union between the Institute and the University.
But the Tech Administration felt that Eliot overstressed Harvard's fame and wealth in his argument. After Eliot proposed his own candidate for the Tech presidency, asserting that president pro tempore Runkle was "in his way," the plan for union rapidly lost popularity and was defeated.
Although little documentary evidence exists on the next couple of decades, M.I.T. historian Samuel C. Prescott says they were characterized by "subtle attempts to compromise the Institute's independence." In 1898 these culminated in another proposal for closer union.
This time the debate revolved around the possibility of avoiding duplication of industrial science courses at the neighboring institutions. But when Harvard attached too many conditions to the agreement, the M.I.T. Corporation turned it down as violating its independence.
Another attempt--the fourth during Eliot's presidency--was made in 1904 after Harvard had received a bequest form the estate of Gordon McKay for the promotion of applied science.
Responding to the threat of merger, alumni pledged over $200,000 in six months to bolster the Institute's resources. M.I.T.'s fighting spirit was obvious when "Tech Night" at the Pops opened with an improvised song to the tune of John Brown's Body, which asserted that "you can't make crimson out of cardinal and gray."
Fevers soon cooled, however, and M.I.T. and Harvard collaborated on public health education after 1912. On 1915 a joint graduate School of Engineering was set up which even granted joint degrees, but within two years a court declared the plan illegal under the terms of the McKay will.
In the years since, all ideas of merger have been dropped, and replaced by an increasing spirit of cooperation.