Secretaries Don't Really Run Harvard
But Without Their Help the University Would Be Unable To Survive One Day
A student came into the office and asked Miss Crowe, "Are you Miss History and Lit?"
"I guess I am," she said.
Suppose there was an MBTA strike next week and Mayor Collins asked everyone who was not absolutely essential to his job to take a few days off. Who would show up at Harvard University the next day?
Section men? Perhaps a few, but most would roll over and get some extra sleep. Tutors? Skipping a tutoral wouldn't cripple the careers of America's budding scholars. The Deans? People could go on probation a week later. President Pusey? A perfect opportunity for a well-earned
But one group would show up enmasse. Harvard's secretaries, those invisible people of the University, could no doubt look in their mirrors, shrug their shoulders, and walk, run hitchhike, or even skate to their desks. If any group is truly essential to the day-by-day operation of Harvard, it is the University's 1000 secretaries.
"They make this place go," says Nicholai F. Wessell, Associate Director of Personnel, and he should know. His office fills 300 to 400 secretarial positions a year in a never-ending battle against marriage, pregnancy, and retirement.
Harvard's secretaries come from all kinds of backgrounds and fill all sorts of jobs. Judith Hill, of the Personnel office, who is responsible for hiring most secretaries, has divided them into four general categories. According to Miss Hill, there is the young single girl, the graduate student's wife ("we have a lot of them," says Miss Hill), the woman whose children have just gone to school and has little house-work to do, and the career secretary, a vanishing breed.
For the past ten years, secretary recruiting teams have set out from the Personnel Office to interview girls at about two dozen colleges a year. These colleges are mostly in New England (Miss Hill has just returned from a tour of Smith, Mt. Holyoke, and U.Mass), but every now and then they venture further.
"We go further afield once in a while to see what's in the netherlands," says Wessell. "But we expect the girl at Oberlin to apply anyway."
The Oberlin girl will probably come because she has seen Harvard's recruitment folder, entitled "Harvard Offers More." It reaches over 500 U.S. colleges a year and makes a powerful pitch.
Above the cover words, "Harvard Offers More," is a photograph of the John Harvard statue and a Harvard Yard-ful of mature, serious-looking men. The inside lists all the female job openings, the higher pay rate, the great opportunity for advancement, the responsibility and judgment asked of each employee, and the cultural opportunities of Harvard and the Boston area.
All of this is very true, but if it isn't enough, there's always the famous men. Interspersed with the job data are photographs such as one showing a pretty girl flanked by two handsome fellows and captioned, "A Skidmore graduate enjoys her work as Secretary to the Senior Tutor of Lowell House."
The advantages and the opportunities, financially, culturally, and socially, get the girls here. The Personnel Office then has to decide where to place them.
Who gets a Harvard secretary? Any person or organization that wants one and can afford her salary. It's a process not unlike calling Elsie's for a roast beef special, and specifying "no Russian," A professor, for example, will call up the Personnel Office, say he needs a secretary, and suggest how much he can pay her. He is asked to list, as completely as he can, his secretary's duties. The professor may also request a "type" of girl, such as married. The Personnel Office sends over as many girls for interviews as could possibly fit the "order".
Professor usually specify "married" after they've lost one or two secretaries to the altar. The Government Department, for example, has lost two secretaries in a row to marriage; the male culprit in each case was a Harvard graduate student. Miss Hill reports an embittered professor's "order" for a secretary who was middle-aged, lived in Cambridge, and wore glasses.
When the office of the dean of freshmen placed its order for an ex-executive secretary, it undoubtedly read: "send a motherly-looking woman to calm frightened freshmen confronting the powers-that-be for the first time."
Mildred Powell fit the bill. As executive secretary to F. Skiddy von Stade Jr. '38, dean of freshman, she supervises the work of a small corps of secretaries assigned to the paper-bound problems of the freshman class.
Mrs. Powell herself points out that her motherly appearance was part of what the job called for, as well, of course, as her administrative skill. "The work is drudgery, but every freshman class is a new freshman class," Mrs. Powell says. "Any minute a freshman may come in . . . he may want to drop a course, but he may be a delight. I guess that's what keeps me here."
Mildred Powell is the kind of secretary who returned to her work after marriage. Her eight years in the College pale in the shadow of some of the secretarial 'giants" whose work has given rise to the legend that the secretaries run the University per se.
Martha W. Robinson, secretary of the History tutorial office, will retire this July. She came to what was then the History, Government, and Economics Department in 1936. Her approaching departure is partly responsible for the naming of the first assistant senior tutor of the History Department, as well as a secretarial replacement.
Mrs. Robinson sets up the tutorial assignments for the sophomore, junior, and senior classes. She makes sure that seniors have their these topics set, sees that these are handed in on time, makes sure they reach readers, gets them to the President's office for approval, and determines honors rankings. The records of all the students in Harvard's largest department are in her charge.
Mrs. Robinson's conversation is sprinkled with references to the senior tutor, Elliot Perkins, and his decisions. She is concerned when people think she makes all the decisions herself.
"She has a strong sense that secretaries don't have decision-making powers," says Perkins. He attributes the great sweep of her duties to her experience. Mrs. Robinson simply has had questions answered for her already that send newer secretaries scurrying to professors for advice.
She still brings Perkins any case that isn't open-and-shut to her. "I then say 'what do you think we should do?'" Perkins reports.
Miss Hill observes that the Mrs. Robinson kind of career secretary, the kind that legends and affectionate aphorisms grow up about, is vanishing from the Harvard scene. At least that's the way it seems. Few secretaries, or professors for that matter, come to a job expecting to serve there for 30 years.
One who would fall into Miss Hill's "beginning" category of secretary is Mary Ellen Crowe, who in just 18 months has begun to approach Mrs. Robinson's level of competence. Directing the History and Lit office, she has freed H. Stuart Hughes, chairman of the department, and David M. Kalstone, senior tutor, of most normal departmental paper decisions.
The limited size of History and Lit makes for a more informal office. Miss Crowe knows almost all of the 180 undergraduates. She refers to her job as simply "keeping track" of them.
But because the department has only a small number of tutors, it must restrict its size. Miss Crowe must face the people who are turned down. "That's kind of bad," she says.
Her ability to raised crushed spirits has not gone unnoticed. "She's some-one of extraordinary tact," says Kalstone, referring also to her dual job as Hughes's personal secretary.
A growing group among Harvard's secretaries are the wives of graduate students. Sally Marks, secretary to Francis H. Duehay, assistant dean of the Graduate School of Education, came to Cambridge with her husband,, a student at the Ed School.
In general, Mrs. Marks is typical of most personal secretaries. However, most personal secretaries have not appeared in Glamour magazine modeling suede suits priced at $160. Mrs. Marks has, in the February edition.
Miss Hill of the Personnel Office was partially responsible. She was contacted by the magazine about a feature on the single girl in Boston and asked to round up photogenic Harvard secretaries. Mrs. Marks and Marie Morneault, a secretary in Widener, were selected. Mrs. Marks' wedding ring is artfully concealed behind a pair of white gloves in the photograph. She didn't get to keep the suit.
The recruiting pamphlet, "Harvard Offers More," stressed the individuality of Harvard's secretaries and the responsibilities they carry. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Houses.
Alice Methfessel, Kirkland House's secretary, describes her job as handling "all the stuff about money, parties, dances, stuff like that."
Miss Methfessel came to Harvard in Sept., 1964. She worked in the graduate department of Economics, mostly for Arthur Smithies, Nathaniel Ropes Professor of Political Economy.
When the opening came at Kirkland House in March, she accepted, but only because Smithies was going to take over as Master in the Fall. (Smithies says he insisted on it).
Since then, she's painted her style on the House, quite literally. Upon her arrival she asked to have her office painted blue, her favorite color. There are reports that Buildings and Grounds tried during the summer to ascertain whether Miss Methessel was getting married soon, so that it wouldn't have to repaint the office. The office is now blue.
One of Miss Methfessel's problems is the yearly shift in housing. Leverett House, with the Towers, has solved that problem for its secretary, Sally Rusher, with a lottery that decides room assignments.
But Mrs. Rusher is still faced with the same monies, parties, and dances that confront Miss Methfessel. More important, both Mrs. Rusher and Miss Methfessel serve as the "faces" of their Houses for freshmen and other visitors. They can solve minor problems of administration that the Masters needn't bother with.
Mrs. Rusher originally came to the area to join the Skating Club of Boston. In 1963, she placed third in the Silver Skates Championship now she confines her ice activities in judging.
Richard T. Gill '48, Master of Leverett House, views Mrs. Rusher almost unqualified praise. It seems that Mrs. Rusher is also responsible for the menus at House dinners. "Every once in a while I have to say 'not artichokes again'" Gill says. "Every House secretary seems a favorite food."
And every professor, department, and House seems to have its favorite kind of secretary. The four kinds of secretary that Miss Hill outlined fill all kinds of jobs in the University. None of them, not even mainstays like Mrs. Robinson, really runs the University, but the University not run without them. Only they can chart Harvard's course on its sea of paper work. So if the MBTA strike ever does come off, give a lift to that secretary.