The Graying of Derek Bok

This is the first of three articles.

A little more than two years ago, as the drifts of the Blizzard of '78 slowly melted in the Yard, three freshmen baked a cake in the Union Kitchen. The three had heard that President Bok was celebrating his birthday and they planned to surprise him. None of the three had ever really met Derek Bok--they shook hands in the atrium of the Fogg that September--but they figured it would be a nice gesture.

The students had little trouble gaining access to Massachusetts Hall, but a battallion of secretaries blocked them from seeing the birthday boy. No, they were told, they could not hand-deliver the cake. Disappointed, they trio left the cake with a birthday card and returned to the dorm.

The next afternoon, a visitor knocked on the door of the trio's Greenough suite. One of the three opened the door, and to her surprise, found Bok himself, toting a batch of chocolate chip cookies that he and his youngest daughter had made. The president thanked the three for their gift, chatted for a while, and then headed back to his office.

NOT MANY STUDENTS at Harvard will ever get to know Derek Bok. In a little more than eight years as Harvard's 25th president, Bok has carved a niche as an administrative wunderkind, an effective manager of an institution confronted with increasingly limited means. Ask an undergraduate about Bok and you'll probably get a blank stare, a mumble about "open letters" or "hypocrisy." The last thing the average undergrad would say about Bok is that he "cares about students." And although he has visited every house this year to meet undergrads, the gap, he admits, remains.

It was not always this way. In the spring of 1971, when Nathan Pusey, announced his decision to vacate Massachusetts Hall, the Harvard Corporation embarked on a search for the right man to put the University back together again. Faced with a divided Faculty and an angry, unified student body, his effectiveness as a leader paralyzed the previous spring by his decision to call in the police to quell the student strike, Pusey buckled to demands for his resignation. As Corporation members looked for a new University leader, they realized that the days of a strong-arming, personal presidency had drawn to a close.

For the next six months, the small group of bankers, lawyers and scholars confronted what many labelled an exercise in futility. "The best they can hope for," one cynical alumnus said at the time, "is a man with a mind small enough to take the job and an ego large enough to think he can do it." It was not an easy task in the early 1970s: presidents of major universities were stepping down left and right and the offered job promised many problems and few rewards. Any decision would be seen as political. The Corporation, as one senior faculty member said, was looking for a man with no enemies.

By November, the Corporation had whittled down its list of "possibles" to 69. Included were a number of politicians, as well as several scientists and academics. Two weeks later, the Corporation had trimmed its list to 23. Finally, on the night of December 13, 1970, senior fellow Francis "Hooks" Burr '35 hailed a cab and headed off to Belmont to call on Derek Bok. Ten days later, Bok responded to the Corporation and--save the formalities of January--Harvard had itself a new president.

From the beginning, the 40-year-old Bok had been, in the words of a senior Faculty member, the "most unassailable" choice. Virtually unknown in the College, in his two and-a-half years as dean of the Law School, Bok had acquired a reputation as peacemaker and diplomat. While other parts of the University boiled over, Bok had kept the Law School on simmer. While Pusey had called the cops to break up the occupation of University Hall, Bok had pursued the opposite tack. When a group of protesters held an all-night "study in" at the Law School's library, Bok ordered coffee and doughnuts and thanked the students for "coming to show your concern." Bok's colleagues from his Law School days, including James Vorenberg, professor of Law, clearly remember the "very cool, moderate role" the young dean played in calming a school beset by its share of the heat.

EVEN THOSE students frustrated by what they saw as Bok's tendency to blur and waffle over issues, didn't dislike him. "He is probably more popular with his own students than any other faculty member in the University," The Crimson said of the man who, in the highly competitive atmosphere of the Law School, made room in his popular seminars for students from the lower third of the class. An outspoken opponent of the Vietnam war, and a leader of the opposition to the nomination of G. Harold Carswell to the Supreme Court, Bok possessed strong liberal credentials. At 40, he represented a new start for Harvard, but few knew exactly who Derek Bok was. "That's been the dilemma and the appeal of the man all along," one Overseer said at the time. "He hasn't revealed himself even to some of his closest friends and yet he has the support of everyone from the Corporation to the Crimson."

For Bok, as the president now recalls, the decision had not been easy. The successor to the legendary Erwin H. Griswold--who had left the Law School to become U.S. Solicitor General--Bok had only held the post of dean for two-and-a-half years. Bok rolls his eyes when he discusses the dilemma he faced; after all, he had barely begun his tenure and to leave Langdell meant abandoning his plans. Bok also had to deal with what he calls a "classic problem: how you weigh an opportunity to work in a domain that's smaller and more accessible--where you can deal directly with people's problems--as opposed to a much larger institution with a much greater range of opportunities and challenges and the inevitable difficulty of dealing with people at a greater distance."

Then, too, Bok hesitated to completely abandon the promising academic career he had already sacrificed in large part to become dean. The author of one volume on labor law and co-author of two--Cases and Material on Labor Law (1965), with Archibald Cox, Loeb University Professor, and Labor in the American Community, (1970) with John T. Dunlop, then Dean of the Faculty and Bok's primary competitor for the presidency--Bok, through his writing and services, had established himself as an expert on collective bargaining and negotiation techniques. Since joining the school's Faculty in 1961, he had developed a reputation as a "very serious and very intense scholar," Vorenberg says. "People who looked at him the day before he became dean of the Law School would see a committed academic." Says Bok today: "I did not come into academic life with any idea of taking on administrative functions."

But the temptations--and the pressure from colleagues and Corporation members who could not agree on a second choice--proved too great. In the end, Bok's decision probably hinged on what colleagues alternately label his "strong sense of social responsibility" or "an extraordinary sense of duty." Bok had already shrugged off presidential feelers from Stanford, Amherst and Dartmouth, but this was Harvard, "a quite different case" in Bok's measured words, which drew on "particular loyalties." For the man who called the day after the bust of University Hall (he had urged Pusey not to send in the police) "the saddest day in my life," the decision seemed almost preordained. As Bok told reporters as he and his wife waited for the official phone call on the morning of January 11, 1970 to confirm his selection, "When Harvard asks me to do something, I always seem to be saying 'yes.'"

FOR BOK, the presidency of Harvard represented the culmination of a standard, upper-class upbringing that had several curious twists. Born March 22. 1930 in Bryn Mawr, Pa. to a Main Line Philadelphia family, Bok was the grandson of Edward W. Bok--the first editor of the Ladies Home Journal and author of the classic autobiographical study, The Americanization of Edward Bok. Bok's mother was a member of the Curtis publishing family--and after she and his lawyer/father divorced when he was five, Bok moved to Beverly Hills, Calif. Bok received his high school diploma from the Harvard Military School (no relation) in North Hollywood, Calif. before entering Standard.

At Palo Alto, Bok sprit his time among the Phi Kappa sigma fraternity, his studies and what he now calls a "mediocre game" of varsity basketball. Tall and athletic, Bok, as one classmate from 1951 recalls, "was into a good time" but was undecided about his future. Eventually, Bok opted to return to the East Coast and--following his father, now an associate justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court with a liberal reputation--headed to Harvard Law.

After his first year of Law School, Bok went to India for the summer to travel and study. It was a steamy afternoon in Bombay when Bok--who thought he'd done miserably in first year--learned that he had made the Law Review. He came back to Harvard refreshed and renewed, and divided his last two years between his studies and editing the Review.

While the rest of his classmates rushed into the world of corporate law, Bok traveled to Paris on a Fulbright scholarship to study economics at the Institute of Political Science. Still unsure of his career plans, Bok spent the year studying. There he met a young Swedish student named Sissela Myrdal--daughter of sociologist Gunnar Myrdal. The two were married later that year.

Faced with the choice of a career in the foreign service or the law, Bok returned to the United States to do military service with the Judge Advocate General's office in Washington D.C. It was, funnily enough, not at Stanford or Harvard, but at George Washington University--where Bok was studying part time to get his masters in economics--that he decided on the directions his life would take. "I started getting things together in my mind," he told a reporter 20 years later, "and decided that I wanted to teach." Interested in returning to the West Coast, Bok consulted friends at Harvard Law. Under the influence of longtime friend Kingman Brewster Jr., later to become President of Yale and the man many compared to Bok, he found himself lured back to Cambridge. Now, Bok says that although he has been forced to let labor law go, he retains a particular interest in intellectual and academic questions. "Without knowing it," he says "I had always had an interest in academic things."

Today, ten years after Bok sacrificed academics for administration, his friends say he has changed little. Bok and his wife of 25 years have an unusually close marriage in a community where good relationships do not come easily. "Derek wants to have a family life that is not pro forma," friend and colleague Daniel Steiner '54, general counsel to the University, says. In a position where many would be consumed by their work, Bok tries hard to spend time with his wife--and three children--Hilary, Victoria and Thomas.

Bok is generally described by members of the community as a quiet or private person. While some, including one high University official, complain that he is a plastic politician--an impression easily etched as one watches Bok walk, through the Faculty Club and say "Nice to see you" to the people in the hall-others say he is simply shy. "When Derek and Sissela walk into a party," says one friend, "you've got to ply them away from the people they know." Bok is not sensitive about his private affairs, says Lloyd E. Weinreb, a professor of Law and close friend of the president, "so much as he is a genuinely private person."

Underneath the dignified and suited exterior, however, lurks a man who some say has a quick sense of humor. Bok does not enjoy standing on a platform of dignity, says Weinreb. "We have a very good time together because we can clown around," he adds. And Bok is well known in Massachusetts Hall for joking around. Steiner sees something deeper. "He has an ability to step back from a situation and laugh at the position he finds himself in," Steiner notes. Perhaps that sense of humor is what prompted Bok, in a beige three-piece suit and surrounded by 75 screaming protesters demanding that he divest Harvard holdings in corporations operating in South Africa, to smile demurely and whisper to a reporter: "It's just another day in the life of a university president."