The deadline to select a new University president was fast approaching.
The nation had just chosen its own new president. There were many vacancies in top positions at other Ivy League Schools. And at Harvard, the provost was one of the leading candidates in the selection process.
This isn't the presidential search of today in which a select committee will pick Neil L. Rudenstine's successor. It is instead the search of 1953--James B. Conant '13 was preparing to step down and Nathan M. Pusey was standing in the wings.
Since then several generations of Harvard students have entered through Johnston gate, women have moved to the Yard and three presidents have come and gone. But the similarities are striking.
The nation has just voted on a president. Several other prominent schools are picking their heads. And Provost Harvey V. Fineberg '67 is one of the leading contenders for Rudenstine's post.
A Sudden Resignation
Conant's vocal views on the draft, the atomic bomb and intervention in World War II made his name prevalent in American politics.
Nonetheless, members of the University community were surprised when Conant resigned on Jan. 12, 1953 to accept President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower's offer to become the U.S. High Commissioner to Germany.
Moments after Conant announced his resignation, waves of speculation flooded the Yard. Students, faculty, and staff alike wondered whom the Harvard Corporation--the University's chief governing body--would select as a replacement.
Alongside the breaking news article announcing Conant's resignation, The Crimson ran a one-column story that began, "Harvard's next president will,
in all probability, be a white, Protestant, Boston-born, Harvard-educated, University Faculty member, between 36 and 52 years old. At least, all his American-born predecessors have been."
Later in the article, however, the Crimson brought to light what would prove to be a pervasive problem in the presidential search. Because the faculty had become more and more diverse--and the war had hindered some from moving forward with their academic careers--the Corporation had fewer "proper" professors to choose from on their own faculty.
The Corporation's traditional search criteria had, by necessity, become obsolete.
Although they were, for the most part, kept in the dark regarding the
presidential selection process, Harvard students did not hesitate to voice their opinions. After Conant announced his resignation, one student climbed a tree and vowed not to descend until Eliot House Master John Finley was chosen.
Another wrote a letter to the editor in The Crimson, suggesting that Adlai Stevenson, who had just been defeated by Eisenhower in the national election, was ideal Harvard presidential material. He urged the Corporation to "grow up with the times."
Communist Hunt at Harvard
Eisenhower's election as U.S. President in 1952 not only left a vacancy in the Harvard presidency, it also set the atmosphere in which the Corporation would need to select Conant's successor.
With a Republican in the White House, Senator Joseph R. McCarthy directed his anti-Communist investigations away from the U.S. government, and toward other targets. Universities were prime candidates, and Harvard quickly became embroiled in the controversy.
The six Corporation members who had just begun the search for the new president became central figures in the anti-Communist debates engulfing the University.
Three Harvard professors were called before the Congressional committees devoted to hunting down Communists.
In addition to running a presidential search, the Corporation members had to decide how to handle the three professors taking the Fifth in response to the Congressional committee's inquiries.
With the corporation maintaining a tightlipped silence about their candidates, The Crimson could do little more than idly speculate as to whom the University's next president would be. With the secrecy stifling any extensive inquiry into the presidential selection process, the newspaper instead ran a series of cartoons of what the new president would look like.
This "cartoonist's-eye view," jokingly presented as a scientific inquiry, featured artwork by well-known cartoonists such as Chester Gould, the creator of Dick Tracy, and other artists from The New Yorker, The New York Times and Harper's.
As The Crimson offered its comic suggestions, the prominent candidates in the selection process each revealed distinct shortcomings.
Provost Paul H. Buck--the first to hold that position at Harvard--seemed like the obvious choice, but his reputation for being a natural second-in-command weakened his chances. And though they were popular at Harvard, government department prodigy McGeorge Bundy was only 34 years old and therefore considered too young, scientist Paul Doty came from the same academic background as Conant--and the Corporation viewed Finley as too much of a gentlemanly humanist.
A Midwesterner Considered
The Corporation, growing frustrated with the inadequacy of local candidates, greeted the eastern visit of a noted Wisconsin educator with enthusiasm.
Nathan M. Pusey '28 was a late addition to the selection process. Although he had been previously suggested by Brown President Henry Wriston and distinguished academic Victor Butterfield (both formerly of Lawrence College, where Pusey was president), but it was his visit to New York City in May 1953 that finally caught the Corporation's attention.
On May 11, Pusey met with the Corporation over lunch, ostensibly to discuss educational problems at Harvard and possible solutions. He hoped for little more than a grant of scholarship money to Lawrence College.
Even as the meeting dragged on to twice its allotted length, he did not realize that he was being considered for Harvard's presidency.
Although Pusey was slow to recognize his own talents, many said that his past achievements indicated that he would be the perfect successor.
While Conant had brought the University to the forefront of educational reform, Harvard's commitment to its religious roots had waned over his tenure. Shortly after Conant's resignation, the Dean of the Divinity School also resigned, leaving the institution with only three professors and a handful of part-time instructors.
Pusey, a devout Episcopalian, believed that religious education was an important component of college life. At Lawrence, Pusey instituted a mandatory religion course and held monthly convocations with religious themes. He also created a "Freshman Studies" program--a mandatory course for first-year students at the college-- designed to expose student to a diverse range of educational experiences, from Darwin to Dostoevsky.
At Lawrence Pusey had shown a strong interest in the students of his university. He was noted for attending Saturday football games. He contrasted sharply with Conant, who had drawn criticism for spending too much time in the national spotlight and letting Buck take care of matters in Harvard Yard.
This detachment from the University carried over into the fundraising arena, leaving the many areas of the University, especially the college, strapped for funds.
During Pusey's nine-year tenure at Lawrence, the college's endowment doubled, though he was modest about the accomplishment, attributing it to curricular reforms rather than fundraising efforts.
"There has been a growing respect for our aims. There was increasing evidence of the fact that this was a quality college," he told The Crimson.
Pusey directed much of the money towards raising faculty salaries.
A Selection Is Made
After months of heightened expectations but no apparent progress on the Corporation's part, the evening of May 31 revealed a flurry of activity. The 30-man Board of Overseers--in charge of confirming the Corporation's selection--converged quickly upon Cambridge from all over the nation for an impromptu meeting.
By the end of the night, Pusey had been elected the 24th president of Harvard University.
The next morning, the decision was announced to the world.
--Contributing writer Warren S. Adler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Contributing writer Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at email@example.com.
--Joshua E. Gewolb contributed to the reporting of this story.