Harvard University, the oldest institution of higher learning in America, celebrates its 375th birthday today, and it will be feted with the fanfare fitting for such a milestone. At its birthday party this evening, Harvard will be serenaded by renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma ’76 and honored with an enormous 8-by-15 foot cake prepared by another notable alum, celebrity chef Joanne Chang ’91.After feasting on a specially prepared dinner (which will include dishes such as hasty pudding), undergraduates will parade into Tercentenary Theatre to celebrate their university’s founding. There will be dancing, munching on hors d’oeuvres, and even an open bar under twinkling lights strung from tree to tree.
It all sounds very grand, but compared to Harvard’s 350th anniversary, the affair is a low-key one. That anniversary was celebrated with a formal dinner, an appearance by the Prince of Wales, and a performance by the Boston Pops. President Reagan was invited but declined to attend.
Today, a question mark hangs over the celebration.
Following World War II, Harvard largely hitched its fortunes to the United States and rode to the top as the country ascended as a world power. In the post-war years, Harvard and the federal government grew closer as Congress appropriated increased funding for scientific research, helping to fuel the expansion of the University.
But now, as America’s star has begun to dim and other countries are diluting United States’ influence on the international stage, will Harvard’s fate be once again entwined with America’s?
THE COMING OF A SUPERPOWER
During World War II, the relationship between Harvard and Washington had grown so cozy that economics professor John Kenneth Galbraith later quipped that the war years were a time “when you could hold a faculty meeting every Friday on the Federal Express bound for Washington.”
Harvard had strong ties with the American government since the nation’s founding—eight Harvard men signed the Declaration of Independence—but this bond took on new meaning during the World War II.
Harvard first received federal funding in the late 1800s as the U.S. government began to focus on promoting education (the Department of Education, then called the Office of Education, was founded in 1867). But federal funding for science research flooded into Harvard during World War II as the U.S. looked to academics and researchers to develop technology that would keep its military competitive with Axis powers.
University President James Bryant Conant, a member of the Class of 1914, a chemist by profession, was instrumental in facilitating this interchange between Harvard and the government during his twenty years in office from 1933 to 1953.
During World War I, Conant had served in the Chemical Warfare Service and headed the research unit that created mustard gas. When war broke out in Europe for a second time, Conant, then president of Harvard, jumped at the opportunity to aid the U.S.’ efforts to update and advance its military technology. He chaired the National Defense Research Council, which oversaw the development of the atomic bomb, from 1939 to 1946. He was an adviser to the Manhattan Project, the secret effort led Robert Oppenheimer to build an atom bomb.
Conant’s work during World War II was part and parcel of Harvard’s expansion in the sciences, and his work helped lay the groundwork for post-war collaboration between American universities and the government.
But other parts of the University also profited from federal funding for science research, which freed up money for the social sciences and humanities. The G. I. Bill, passed in 1944, provided funding that enabled more than two million veterans to attend college, most of whom probably would not have otherwise. With financial support from the federal government, Harvard was a rapidly expanding place during the war years.
As World War II drew to a close, it became clear that America was indisputably the dominant Western power. World War II had ravaged Europe. European nations suffered heavy losses in casualties, finances, and damage to infrastructure. At this unique moment in history, America was a prospering nation while the economies of its former competitors were in shambles, and American universities rode the rising tide of U.S. power to educational preeminence.
“In the 1960s, Americans enjoyed an enormous advantage in terms of the amount available to them,” Professor Louis Menand, a scholar of the Cold War, said. “They used more electricity, consumed more calories, and had more cars than anyone else in the world.”