In the early 1960s, the progressive idealism just taking root on college campuses was beginning to ripple across the larger American political spectrum.
At Harvard, these shifts manifested in a wholly different political sphere—that of student government.
Political clashes between conservatives and progressives on campus became so divisive that, during the first years of the decade, they triggered the demise and rebirth of the undergraduate student government. The months-long saga of these reform efforts revolved around one campus firebrand: two-term Student Council president Howard J. Phillips ’62, an outspoken conservative whose political leanings drove his more liberal peers to take action.
By the 1961-’62 school year, the creation of the Harvard Council for Undergraduate Affairs, touted as a governing body that would better represent its undergraduate constituents, embodied the shift in campus political sentiment and the role of student government on the Harvard campus.
A CONSERVATIVE ON THE COUNCIL
During his terms on the Student Council, Phillips’ political leanings made him an incendiary figure on campus. Many students felt that Phillips had abused his presidential power and that unabashed and vocal conservatism had politicized Council affairs.
During his undergraduate years, Phillips was involved in numerous right-leaning groups such as the Harvard Young Republicans, Massachusetts Young Republicans, and Youth for Nixon-Lodge in Massachusetts during the 1960 presidential election. His leadership of the Council even garnered national attention from outlets such as TIME Magazine and the National Review, according to a Crimson article published in 1965.
“I was getting a lot of coverage for my role as a national leader of the conservative movement,” Phillips remembered.
His politics made him unpopular on campus, according to Phillips, but it was his comportment at a national convention held in the spring of 1961 that would trigger his own downfall and the Student Council’s.
At the conference, which focused on international youth service, Phillip’s name, accompanied by his Council position, appeared in a controversial letter issued by the Committee for an Effective Peace Corps. The letter suggested that individuals aligned with the Communist Party should not be allowed to join the Peace Corps, according to a 1965 Crimson article.
Led by Michael Hornblow ‘62, a group of Phillips’ rivals seized upon this as their opportunity to oust Phillips. After much back-room discussion, the junto made their move against Phillips at a Council meeting in mid-April. The group petitioned the Council to amend its constitution so that its president and vice president could not hold office or act as a spokesperson for partisan organizations—a new rule that could force Phillips’ abdication from office.
Hornblow said that he believed that Phillips’ conservative views had permeated Council activities, but Phillips maintained that “the Council was mostly non-ideological.”
“[Phillips’ detractors] thought he was doing too much partisan politics and using the Council as a platform,” Hornblow said.
But Phillips remembered the political climate of the Council differently. “There were a lot of people with different views, people who were active on all sides of the issues,” he said.
For Phillips, the drama and reform efforts of 1961 were ad hominem attacks.