John U. Monro ’34, a white educator who led Harvard’s early efforts to recruit minorities and later quit his job as dean of the College to work at an underprivileged black school in the south, died Mar. 29 in LaVerne, California. He was 89.
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.”
“Harvard isn’t going to do this,” he added.
“In my mind he was like one of those missionaries who came south after the Civil War who helped to found schools for former slaves. It was in the same zeal,” said David L. Evans, a Harvard admissions officer and former member of the Harvard Foundation, which honored Monro two years ago. “But he was sensitive enough to fit in. He didn’t go down there pontificating or condescending.”
In the early ’70s, Epps visited Monro at Miles, after a Harvard alumna had donated $70,000 to the former dean for his work at Miles.
“He was in this hot basement room,” Epps recalled, “and I asked him what he did with the money.”
“How about some air conditioning?” Epps suggested.
“I gave it to the financial aid office,” Monro replied. “I’m doing fine.”
Born in 1912 to middle-class parents in Andover, Mass., Monro always said he was learning more from his students at Miles than he could teach them.
His social progressiveness was balanced by his seriousness as an administrator, earning him among students the reputation of a disciplinarian. But as he dealt with a flurry of campus controversies—from changes in parietals to a professor’s alleged LSD experiments—Monro strengthened ties between faculty and undergraduates.
In the mid-’50s, as director of financial aid, Monro laid the groundwork for the Student Employment Office and founded Harvard Student Agencies to help needy students pay tuition fees. Later he argued for a freshman seminar program.
As dean Monro held informal meetings with students and in the ’60s helped found the Southern Courier, a paper written by Crimson editors focusing on civil rights issues in the south.
Monro had written for The Crimson as an undergraduate and in his senior year led a revolt against the paper and founded the socially minded Harvard Journal.
Monro earned a Bronze Star while serving in the Navy during World War II. While on the U.S.S. Enterprise in 1948, he was given the task of integrating the black and white sailors on board, following the orders of President Truman.
Following his graduation in 1934, Monro married his childhood sweetheart, Dorothy Stevens Foster, who died in 1984.
They are survived by their daughters, Ann Monro of Winchester, Mass., and Janet Dreyer, of Claremont, Calif., and three grandchildren.