The cause of death was complications from pneumonia.
Monro, who arrived at Harvard in 1950 as a College administrator, worked to reform Harvard’s financial aid program and recruit minorities. He became dean of the college in 1958, a post he held for nine years.
Former Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III, whom Monro appointed as the College’s first black assistant dean, said Monro’s interest in education issues went beyond just the day-to-day details of administration.
“There are different kinds of deans of this college,” he said. “There are some who just preside. But John was a man who brought about real change.”
It was to the great surprise of many that Monro decided in 1967 to leave the comfort of the dean’s office in favor of the dilapidated classrooms of Miles College outside Birmingham, Ala. He became the director of freshman studies at the historically black college, developing a first-year curriculum and teaching students who lacked basic knowledge that would have been taken for granted at Harvard.
“At the time many people thought, ‘Jeez, he’s leaving this great place to go to this little, unaccredited college in the south,” says Fred L. Glimp ’50, a long-time colleague of Monro’s in the financial aid office and his successor as dean of the College. “But people who knew him weren’t in the least bit surprised.”
At Harvard Monro’s colleagues admired his determination to extend opportunities to all students. As director of financial aid, Monro helped develop new methods of recruiting students and awarding aid—trying to dismantle the “old-boy network” that had long fed privileged students into the nation’s prestigious colleges.
“He had been fighting the struggle to diversify Harvard for a long time,” Epps said. “At the time, there weren’t enough black students here to even protest the lack of diversity. So he started the recruitment process, going out to places like Chicago, finding out who the bright boys were, drinking coffee at the kitchen table with their parents. He turned this place around.”
During his Harvard years, Monro’s interest in black issues was piqued in 1962, when he met Lucius Pitts, the president of Miles College. He accepted Pitts’ invitation to visit and spent his next three summers at Miles, teaching without pay.
One day in 1966, after struggling to quell the protests of a defiant anti-war group at Harvard, Monro pulled Epps aside and said that his mind was set.
“Archie, I feel like a shock absorber in a Rolls Royce—and I don’t think I can stay,” Epps recalls Monro telling him. “What your people are doing down in the south is much more important than what we’re doing here.”
Monro’s passion for change followed him to Miles. Refusing an administrative post, he spent more than 10 hours a week teaching writing, which he saw as the cornerstone of education. He also established a writing program at Tougaloo College in Mississippi after he left Miles in the late ’70s.
Monro became a fervent supporter of black education during his first years at Harvard and slowly came to believe that top-tier schools were reluctant to offer the kind of education that most underprivileged students needed.
He rebelled against the idea that black colleges should be phased out, seeing institutions like Miles as the best hope for black scholarship.
“We are taking students that no one else will take,” Monro told U.S. News and World Reports after his first year at Miles. “And we’re designing programs for the whole spread of students—remedial programs, reinforcement programs, enrichment programs, special curricula in black history, black culture, black problems.”