Once more the call for deconversion of the Houses and a moratorium on the expansion of the College has sounded. Both the sounders (the House Masters) and the reasons (overcrowding) have become familiar to the weary residents of Cambridge during the last seven years. Yet the familiarity of the trumpet's notes has neither diminished the passion that they always arouse nor explained to the layman the significance of the most prolonged controversy in President Pusey's tenure.
The question of the size of the College first came up in 1954-55 when educators began to discern the impact that booming population might have on the colleges. Many Harvard men were troubled about the higher institutions' lack of preparation for the flood of applications. They felt that Harvard had to respond strongly to the danger, so alerting the rest of the country to it and at the same time handling a small part of it. If we raise the numbers admitted here, they said, we make our contribution. And so it followed that the President spoke of bringing the number of College undergraduates to 5300 in ten years, a projected increase of 20 per cent.
If the "solve the higher education problem" flavor to the early arguments for expansion was naive, so too was its opposition. If a single man were added, it claimed, the spirit and character of the College would be irrevocably altered. The House Masters, who had to live with the over-crowding, were naturally the most concerned, but other Faculty members also were interested in the preservation of an undergraduate life based on a flourishing and unpressured House system.
It might have been expected that the planning before the Program for Harvard College would have settled the matter; actually, it did just the opposite. Although the Administration continued to talk of the need facing colleges in the decade ahead, it carefully refrained from committing itself in any way on expansion and just as carefully noted the need for relieving some of the over-crowding of the Houses. The program called for three new Houses (one and a half have so far been built) but left unexplained whether they would be used more to expand or to deconvert.
The ambiguity was deliberate. It recognized that a strong faction of the Faculty opposed taking into account the idea that $82.5 million could be raised considerably easier if people linked it with the problems of the growing college population. But the uncertainty probably also increased the passion of the contending parties.
By last spring, however, the issue seemed finally land to rest with the completion of Leverett Towers and a partial retreat of the demand for further expansion. The lull came about partly because most people realized that the few numbers the College might take would be nationally insignificant, but primarily it was an economic matter: the sum of $82.5 million no longer looked so big, the numbers of commuters declined sharply, and other areas seemed more profitable for expansion. Consequently, although Pusey said that an increase of ten per cent by 1970 didn't seem unreasonable, Dean Bundy declared in March that the practical limit was a few hundred. And with that the Dean declared the issue merely "theoretical."
Many Faculty members, however, still felt strongly on the subject. And so the subject, which the Faculty had never had a chance to discuss when it seemed most pertinent, was put on the Faculty agenda last Fall. It was neither simple nor (it appeared) irrelevant, and so a committee, headed by Robert McCloskey, was appointed to study the problem and report on it this term.
The debate and the preparation for it brought out some striking facts seemingly pertinent to a decision. Overcrowding had recently reclined greatly, as had the numbers of persons commuting and living outside the Houses. The combined undergraduate population of Harvard and Radcliffe even when compared with those of the better state universities, was not negligible.
But the statistics were not really very pertinent, for the debate has come down to more intangible things: now, all parties regard the important question as one of how well the College can perform a function rather than one of sheer number. The anti-expansionists, led by the Masters, stress that Harvard's role as an educational leader requires a freedom to experiment which can come only if the Houses remain cohesive units, not overburdened with the pressures of crowding. In direct opposition, some administrators feel that a slight increase in needed as a stimulus to educational innovation and as a check against status quo complacency.
Few, however, see any prospect for much enlargement of the College, in view of the cost of increasing residential space. There is no such limit on growth of the graduate school: indeed some consider training (at the graduate level) teachers who can use their talent at other colleges a more valuable process than adding a few undergraduates. This has actually happened during the last five years. The limits of graduate school expansion would be set by strains on Faculty size and on central educational facilities such as libraries. But the prospect of an increase in the GSAS does not soothe the anti-expansionists who worry that the College could become submerged by the values of the Graduate school. Others see that threat as a mere fantasy.
The issue, therefore, appears unlikely to become any less heated or less important in the immediate future. And the planning for the Tenth House can be expected to increase the clamor as the Masters eye the 400 new beds and dreams sweet dreams of deconversion. The local noise level seems most unlikely to abate.