Overcrowded

With college enrollments on the rise, Harvard faced an impending housing crunch

When members of the Class of 1955 settled back into their dorm rooms to take their first semester exams in January of their senior year, University President Nathan M. Pusey ’28, too, was busy studying problems and writing reports after a semester’s worth of rumination.

The most serious problem facing the College, he wrote in his second annual President’s Report to the Board of Overseers, was impending overcrowding.

Though students still fit comfortably into the Yard and each of the eight River Houses in the early 1950s, the population growth phenomenon now known as the Baby Boom was just beginning to make itself heard in the halls of higher education.

In April 1955, Seymour E. Harris ’20, professor of economics, predicted that by 1970 there would be a 75 percent increase nationwide in college-bound students due to the national trend of accelerated population and income growth. Later that month, David W. Bailey, secretary to the Harvard Corporation, reported an upward trend in the number of students accepted to the College in a pamphlet entitled “Notes on Harvard College: Graphic and Statistical.”

But Pusey and other administrators had their fingers on the pulse of the problem before experts released their reports on the reverberations of the Boom. Already concerned by a freshman class size 50 men larger than expected, House Masters and administrators alike were meeting to discuss the projected rise in applicants and exactly how Harvard could absorb the next wave of scholars.

BIGGER, BUT BETTER?

While it became apparent that colleges across the nation would soon be struggling with the same problem, one of the first questions that faced Harvard administrators was how much, if at all, the College should expand both its physical and academic resources to meet the rising demand for private education.

Though some felt the College had a social obligation to accomodate the growing number of college applicants, others objected on the grounds that doing so would compromise the quality of the Harvard experience.

Wilbur J. Bender ’27, then-dean of admissions, told The Crimson on Dec. 11, 1954 that the College’s first responsibility was “to maintain the highest level of liberal education...even more so because of the threat of a serious watering-down of liberal education.”

Though Bender professed himself willing to brainstorm other solutions, he maintained that the College should not expand, noting that keeping acceptances constant in the face of an increased number of applications would allow Harvard to achieve greater selectivity.

But others cautioned that such a strategy could stifle the spirit of intellectual diversity that the College encouraged.

“I’d be worried if Harvard came to the point where it attracted no students other than proto Ph.Ds....We need more, not less contact with the public,” Philip H. Rhinelander ’29, director of General Education, told The Crimson on Dec. 11, 1954.

QUANTITY WITH QUALITY

Administrators were faced with the task of finding a way to allow for growth without losing sight of their sterling academic standards.

“There is no point to expanding,” acting Master of Eliot House Archibald Mac-Leish told The Crimson on Dec. 11, 1954, “if in expanding, you lose what Harvard College is.”

While College officials were charged with the task of constructing a suitable solution, the subtleties of the predicted surge in applicants also weighed on students.