Why to drop out of school
Harvard students are a happy bunch. Between course lotteries and Pudding punches, matchbox car-sized cockroaches and papery firedoors, tapered jeans and pocket protectors, what is there not to be thrilled about? Certainly no one ever considers leaving the college. Without that degree, Solomon Brothers won't call. Not will HLS, HBS, HMS or GSAS. Goshdarnit, even Legal Aid will turn you away. And anyhow, the Head of the Charles is coming up.
Yet it happens: People drop out of Harvard. Last year 350 students, including those studying abroad, took voluntary leaves of absence. The Ad Board compelled an additional 20 students to withdraw for varying lengths of time; twelve for "inappropriate social behavior," the three for alcohol or drug-related "inappropriate social behavior," and five for "academic dishonesty." Only one of these students is for-bidden to return; most of the others will gladly come back when permitted. However, most people who drop out or take extended leaves of absence do so voluntarily. Then, of course, there are the cases of Matthew P. Damon and William H. Gates.
back in the day
The "Harvard Dropout Made Good" scenario, however, dates back much farther than Gates' premature departure and subsequnt rise to Mr. Microsoft. Newspaper baron, ever-aspiring politician and "Citizen Kane" inspiration William Randolph Hearst left the college without a degree in the spring of 1885. At his mother's behest, Hearst had enrolled reluctantly in the class of '86, moved into Matthews and suffered from the same culture shock many California transplants experience today. Not relishing his studies (which included, in his freshman year alone, Greek, Latin, Classical Lectures, German, Algebra and Chemistry), he concentrated instead on his position as "the first real business manager of the Lampoon," in the words of Nick C. Malis '99, a member of the Lampoon. When Hearst died in August 1951, the Boston Evening American mentioned that "In two years he increased the magazine's circulation, lifted it out of a deficit and established it firmly in the black."
Not that the University cared; Hearst spent most of his time here in conflict with the Ad Board's 19th century avatar. The Faculty Records from the 1884-85 school year indicate that on September 30, the Faculty voted to keep the inveterate prankster on probation until Christmas. On February 3, they decided to extend the punishment to the end of the year. But Hearst didn't even last that long. John R. Dos Passos '16, in his novel The Big Money, tells the story of Hearst's leave-taking: "He tutored and went to Harvard where he cut quite a swath as business manager of the Lampoon, a brilliant entertainer; he didn't drink much himself, he was softspoken and silent; he got the other boys drunk and paid the bills, bought the fireworks to celebrate Cleveland's election, hired the brassbands, bought the creampies [sic] to throw at the actors from the box at the Old Howard, the cannon crackers to blow out the lamps of herdie cabs with, the champagne for the chorines [chorus girls]. He was rusticated [suspended] and finally fired from Harvard, so the story goes, for sending to each of a number of professors a chamber pot with the professor's portrait tastefully engraved on it."
Lampoon president Matt J.T. Murray '99 calls the chamber pot uproar "the Lampoon's first prank" and maintains that Hearst was not expelled but "expunged," meaning that the college destroyed his entire record and any other traces of his having attended Harvard. Current administrators deny knowledge of any such abrogation, and, in fact, no one struck the boy's name from the Faculty records. On September 30, 1885, the Faculty negged Heart's petition to take special exams in order to rejoin his class; on May 4 of the next year, they denied his request to take the eight exams he needed to become a degree candidate.
Dropped out, kicked out or expunged, Hearst completed his formal education without a diploma. Luckily for him, his father happened to have a paper that he could spare: The San Francisco Examiner. This first of Harvard's famous dropouts managed to double the paper's subscription in just a year; by then, he was well on his way to becoming one of the century's most notorious media moguls. Unlike the new crop of deserters, though, Hearst discovered no latent love of his alma mater in later life; Harvard did not see a cent of the $200 million he left behind. The Lampoon, on the other hand, made out pretty well; Hearst donated most of the cost of the 1909 construction of their castle.
Where have all the dropouts gone?
Harvard's next great dropout, folk singer and activist Pete Seeger, could have been a graduate of the class of 1940, but, he said, "I got too interested in left-wing politics, and I let my marks slip." Seeger had a scholarship that covered 30 percent of his tuition, his family paid 40 percent and he himself worked for the other 30 percent, waiting tables in the Freshman Union. When, in April of his sophomore year, his grades dropped--due largely to his commitment to a newsletter called "The Harvard Progressive"--the school rescinded his financial aid, and neither he nor his family could cover the rest. The singer remembers telling people, "I don't really mind leaving. I feel I've learned everything important."
Seeger now thinks that if he did it over again, he'd study anthropology instead of sociology--or forget Cambridge entirely and head to Columbia's School of Journalism. He's none too enamored of Harvard. When he asked one professor, "Do you really have to use so many long words?" the professor responded, "Well, you have to impress people." His one contact with the administration came late one night. As a freshman, Seeger roomed above the Union dining hall where he worked. He was sitting by his window, playing a small Chinese flute when a policeman arrived and told him to stop, as it was disturbing the University president in his house across the way.
Still, the lengendary folkster harbors some fond memories: his first-year English teacher, nights spent waiting, with the other six boys who lived in rooms above the Union, for the watchman to make his rounds so they could sneak down and get some ice cream--and feeling a bit guilty until, one night, they encountered the watchman having a taste as well.
In the end, though, Seeger never did decide what he wanted to study. As he wrote in his 25th anniversary alumni book (dropouts are alumni too), "I remember thinking when 1940 came along that I was glad I had spent the two years there, that I had learned certain invaluable things, but also that I had learned in two years that I had been away certain things that Harvard wouldn't have been able to teach." As that statement implies, this founding member of intertraditional folk groups the Weavers and the Almanac Singers doesn't have many regrets about the past. "I've always been too busy to think about coming back," he admits. Except, of course, to receive the Arts Medal.
Bill and Matt's Excellent Adventures
Bill Gates (almost class of '77) has become nearly synonomous with "Pay attention in Ec10," "Who needs a diploma?" and "Really fucking rich." A Currierite with a more than passing interest in computers, Gates spent much of his time at the Fox. Amidst that rolicking fun, how could Gates have left? Perhaps even then he sensed that he was actually worth $39.8 billion; maybe he feared that if he hung around any longer he might have to share the wealth. Whatever the reason, he went, and, shortly thereafter, founded the Microsoft Corporation.
Gates is surely the institution's favorite non-grad, as Harvard is one of the few people places or things for which Gates unclenches his tight fist. And when you're making about a trillion times minimum wage, even the slightest loosening counts; Gates recently donated $15 billion to construct a new computer science building and to sponser technological research. There is also a "William H. Gates Professorship" in Computer Science.
Matt Damon, a Lowell House English concentrator, originally scheduled to graduate in 1992, attended the college from 1988-90 and then again from '93-94. Despite the Academy Award-winning screenwriter's negative depiction of arrogant Harvard students in Good Will Hunting, he has been quoted as saying he'd like to come back at some point. For now, though, he's edging in on Gates' territory as most famous dropout; he's in Italy, and even his publicist's too cool to talk.
Yep, Radcliffe's had dropouts too. Both country singer Bonnie Raitt (woulda been '72) and actress Elisabeth Shue (coulda been '88) lived in Cabot House--Raitt while it was still known as South House. Shue transfered from Wellesley, stayed only a year and has since been somewhat incognito in the alumni world. Aside from the occasional pornographic web page, it's hard to find much of anything about her. Raitt, on the other hand, having left after three years for a lucrative record deal, still remembered her alma mater fondly enough to write in her 20th anniversary alumni book: "I've spent the last 20 years having the great good fortune of getting paid to play music I love and to raise funds for various social causes I belive in. No sign of having to get a day job yet." In 1997, she returned to Cambridge to accept the Arts Medal.
Do It Yourself
You, too, could be a famous Harvard dropout. But first you need to leave. It's not hard. Simply show up at the office of your senior tutor or freshman dean, fill out some withdrawal petitions, a cancellation of housing form and some other random sheets of paper that will allow Harvard to keep tabs on you while they can't track your every move via ID card. These all come before the Ad Board, who will hem and haw about whether to let you, a legal adult, definitely above the compulsory schooling age, withdraw from school. Strangely enough, they'll decide it's okay. According to Bonnie Blanchard, the assistant to the senior tutor in Dunster House, all this is "to make sure you don't slip through the cracks." And then you're free! Fame will come with time; it's a tradition now. You've got some pretty good odds. How many famous Yale non-grads can you name? Exactly. Go for it. After all, wasn't it a Harvard professor who said, "Tune in, turn on, drop out"?