The Fraught Courtship of Harvard and MIT

Beginning just a year after MIT’s inception in 1861, Harvard introduced several proposals to combine the two schools. Forty-two years later, the schools were considering their sixth alliance attempt, and it looked like this one might actually succeed.

The alumni of three MIT classes—1885, ’86, and ’87—were marching down Huntington Avenue, en route to their annual reunion at Boston’s Symphony Hall, when they began to sing.

You can’t make crimson out of cardinal and gray

As Tech goes marching on.

We don’t give a damn for H-a-a-arvud

As Tech goes marching on.

It was June of 1904, and the alumni were swept up in a controversial plan to merge MIT—then known as Boston Tech—with Harvard University. Their song, sung to the tune of the Civil War ditty “John Brown’s Body,” was a battle cry for independence.

This was not the first plan for a Harvard-MIT merger. Beginning just a year after MIT’s inception in 1861, Harvard introduced several proposals to combine the two schools. Forty-two years later, the schools were considering their sixth alliance attempt, and it looked like this one might actually succeed.

Harvard’s science programs had long been struggling. In 1847, the textile magnate Abbott Lawrence donated $50,000—the largest sum the University had yet received from an individual—to establish a school devoted to “the practical application of science.”

Lawrence was an industrialist, and he saw the increasing economic importance of the applied sciences. He believed that thus far, higher education in America had “been somewhat neglectful in the cultivation” of “men of action,” whose “hard hands [were] ready to work upon hard materials.”

The Lawrence Scientific School was founded a year later. However, it did not become the technical school Lawrence had envisioned. Instead, classes were mainly dedicated to studying the pure sciences, and the year-long engineering program suffered from low enrollment and even lower graduation rates.

Harvard’s educational philosophy still largely espoused the ideals of “learning for learning’s sake.” Theodore Lyman (class of 1855), a wealthy zoologist and Lawrence School graduate, expressed this sentiment in an 1868 letter to his first cousin, Charles W. Eliot (class of 1853). As quoted by Bruce Sinclair in a 1992 essay, “Harvard, MIT, and the Ideal Technical Education,” Lyman writes, “The moment a chemist tells me that such and such facts apply to the manufacture of a thing, there I say goodbye, for of practical things I have more than enough in my daily life.”

Eliot’s views differed. Though he possessed deep, familial ties to Harvard, Eliot was MIT’s professor of chemistry—much to the disdain of relatives like Lyman. He promoted MIT’s new technical education in a widely-read essay titled “The New Education,” published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1869.

“The New Education” helped illustrate the chasm that was developing in educational theory post-Industrial Revolution. On one side stood Harvard: ancient, classical, patrician, a place that, as one MIT alumnus wrote later, “turns out philosophers, capable indeed of becoming tools of the very highest class, but only by means of several more years of training.”

On the other side stood institutions like MIT, just in their infancy, with visions of learning driven by an ideal of practicality. The new technical education would be focused, economical, and decidedly American.

In the same year that he published “The New Education,” Eliot was chosen as Harvard’s next president—on a split vote. He was deeply troubled by the struggling Lawrence School, which had one-third the enrollment of the fledgling MIT, chartered only eight years prior. His solution: incorporate MIT into Harvard.

To MIT’s founder, William B. Rogers, the plan was an “annexation” and “suicide.” While MIT could certainly have benefited from Harvard’s funds, resources, faculty members, and influence, it would lose “its essential character,” as bemoaned in an MIT document, “Considerations Bearing Upon the Proposed Agreement.”

“Why [should] the Institute... sacrifice the traditions and independence which have made her what she is, to enter an atmosphere that has proven stifling and soporific to her rival,” the report questioned, referring to the failing Lawrence School.

Proponents at Harvard argued that a technical education could benefit from the influence of the liberal arts, but MIT rebuffed arguments promoting “well-roundedness”—a disagreement that circled back to the dispute Eliot had examined in “The New Education.”

“Their minds would be confused by the conflict between the ideals of the two institutions,” one MIT alumnus wrote in 1904.

Another condemned this “great intimacy” more bluntly: “If [the plan] is carried out the students at Technology will lose their studious habits by contact with the frivolous influences of college undergraduates.”

MIT’s opposition held strong during the first 30 years of Eliot’s presidency, but the situation changed at the start of the 20th century. Gordon McKay, a multi-millionaire with an engineering background, decided to leave Harvard a massive four million dollar bequest. Now MIT’s president, Henry S. Pritchett, reconsidered the merger.

By April 1904, the infuriated MIT alumni association circled a petition requesting that MIT “entertain no proposition to unite, ally or associate itself in any way, financial or otherwise, with any other educational body.” By May, less than a month before alumni would rally in the streets against “H-a-a-arvud,” the petition had received 1,637 responses—of which only eight supported the merger.

A majority of the trustees from both schools were ready to proceed with the plan, but much to the relief of MIT alumni, it was never actualized. Its success was contingent upon MIT’s sale of its existing campus in Boston’s Back Bay, in favor of the present-day location of Harvard’s Business School; however, in September of 1905, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that selling the Back Bay lands violated the original land grant to MIT, and the merger failed.

In abridged accounts of the MIT-Harvard clash, this is where the story ends. But in reality, by 1909, Harvard and MIT each had new presidents. Pritchett resigned three months after the plan’s demise, and a clean slate was set for re-negotiating an alliance.

By this time, MIT had long outgrown its Boston campus. Under newly-inaugurated President Richard C. Maclaurin, MIT relished in a successful fundraising campaign, which provided for purchasing new property in Cambridge.

Following this triumph, Maclaurin approached prospects of alliance with less skepticism than previous presidents had. Eliot had finally dissolved the Lawrence School in 1906, and Harvard’s new president, Abbott Lawrence Lowell (grandson Lawrence School’s namesake) was willing to shift Harvard’s engineering students, faculty, and funds to the new MIT campus and use three-fifths of the Gordon McKay income for the undergraduate engineering program.

From 1913 to 1917, Harvard and MIT operated joint degree programs, awarding approximately 300 joint bachelor degrees and 50 higher degrees in engineering. The students appeared to work collaboratively—the 1915 MIT Yearbook boasted of a new joint-publication called the Technology Monthly and Harvard Engineering Journal, which benefited from increased content and circulation under the two schools’ alliance.

Regardless, the partnership was short-lived. In 1917, the Supreme Court of Massachusetts ruled that the alliance violated McKay’s original intentions for the money to be used at Harvard. The merger, once again, was nullified.

That three classes of students graduated with joint Harvard-MIT degrees is a fact largely forgotten today. Instead, archival material from both schools focuses on the dramatic cultural clash that characterized this time period, a clash that challenged—and solidified—the identity of each institution.

Today the schools remain separate, but alternative forms of collaboration are celebrated. Just as one MIT alumnus wrote after a failed merger attempt in 1898, “As there is to be no wedding, let us hope for fruitful celibacy.”

—Magazine writer Sonia F. Epstein can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @sonia_epstein.