Harvard Resists Reagan’s ’85 Budget

Proposed budget cuts would have axed a large percentage of federal aid and research funds

In early 1985, the winds of budgetary change rippled menacingly through headlines in The Crimson, after the Reagan Administration proposed significant cuts to federal financial aid and research funding for scientists as part of the administration’s effort to scale down its social programs spending.

Had it passed, the legislation would have had crippling effects on Harvard, a university which prides itself on its generous aid programs and its cutting-edge science resources. But Harvard’s own administration, joined by outraged students and political allies in both Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., successfully raised their voices in protest.

Budget issues continue to plague the Obama Administration as well as Harvard—the University’s endowment dropped $11 billion from 2008 to 2009—but both federal and University-wide measures have sought to keep student aid and research funding afloat despite difficult economic times.


The federal budget of the 1986 fiscal year would have slashed financial aid funding, capping money allotted per student on federal grants and loan aid to $4000 and establishing an income ceiling of $32,500 for guaranteed student loan eligibility. The cuts also included a $2.3 billion reduction in financial aid spending. Additionally, the Reagan administration proposed significant cuts to National Institutes of Health funding, one of Harvard’s largest sources of science funding.

“Those were challenging times,” wrote then-Vice President for Government and Public Affairs John Shattuck in an e-mail to The Crimson. “Harvard’s commitment to need-blind admissions was on the line because of the threat of massive federal student aid cuts, research funding was in danger of being slashed, and academic freedom was threatened by the secrecy regulations coming out of Washington.”

Former University President Derek C. Bok took the lead in fighting the cuts, alongside Shattuck and Harvard lobbyist Nan F. Nixon, who was then the University’s director of federal relations. According to Nixon, resistance measures taken by University officials included developing policy papers, building nation-wide support, and listening to student testimonies.

“There’s nothing like the person who’s directly affected to speak to something,” she recalled.

By the end of February 1985, college students were banding together through the Boston Area Student Coalition to organize rallies, postcard-writing campaigns, and petitions to reject the budget proposal. The $32,500 guaranteed student loan cap alone could have impacted two million students nationwide, according to Crimson coverage. Harvard dining halls filled with volunteers from the Undergraduate Council and Radcliffe Union of Students handing out postcards to send to D.C.

A local rally took place on March 14 of 1985, bolstered by statements of support by the late Mass. Senator Edward M. Kennedy ’54-’56, then-Boston Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, and former Representative Silvio O. Conte. The day after the rally, the Senate Budget Committee officially opposed the Reagan Administration’s proposal for cuts to financial aid.

At another event, Mass. Senator John F. Kerry proclaimed that the proposed aid program was “an arbitrary and capricious travesty,” adding that funds devoted to research on Reagan’s controversial “Star Wars” defense project would cover the whole financial aid program handily.


In a dramatic turn of events, cutbacks in federal financial aid were excised from the Senate budget plan in May 1985.

“Thanks to the leadership of President Derek Bok, Harvard survived those times with flying colors,” Shattuck wrote to The Crimson.

Though the University had weathered the budget storm, the fight can never truly be over, Nixon said.