President Bok said this week he will convene a committee this summer to consider changing the time period that archival material is confidential from 50 to about 30 years.
Bok said in an interview Monday that the 50-year rule may be inappropriate for a research-oriented institution such as Harvard.
"There's no magic in 50 years," he added.
The committee, which will include faculty familiar with the University archives, will examine whether the current rule inhibits scholarship of Harvard history.
While a few scholars in the past have asked Bok to waive the 50-year restriction in specific cases, the University has never undertaken a comprehensive study of openness of the archives.
The new committee comes in response to a petition last month signed by 1085 students and organized by Harvard Watch, an activist organization sponsored by Ralph Nader, and the student Committee on University Practices.
In a letter a week ago, Bok told the groups that requests for earlier release of Harvard documents were "valid...in light of experience and practice elsewhere." Bok said that the rule would apply only to future documents and would have no retroactive effect on documents that are already in the University archives.
In recent years, several universities, including Yale, have shortened the time periods that they withhold documents, including those already in their archives.
"My general impression is that 50 years may be on the high side as far as other comparable institutions go," Bok said Monday.
Recently, a Columbia University professor requested that the ban be lifted on documents related to the McCarthy witch-hunts against Communists in the early 1950's. But Harvard refused to do so.
Also in Monday's interview, Bok said that "a half a dozen" professors are currently being considered for tenure. Tenure cases were considerably backed up this spring pending Bok's return from a three-month sabbatical in Europe and Asia.
Bok said the University has offered tenure to "a candidate whom the students all want," but refused to disclose her name. He also mentioned that her tenure bid had been successful at the Undergraduate Council open meeting last week.