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Board of Overseers, Watchdog of University, Visits All Departments, Studies Complaints

Group Rejected President Eliot First Time, Has Turned Down Four Men in 100 Yards

By Frank B. Gilbert

Harvard's watchdog is the alumni elected Board of Overseers. Overseer visiting committees are the only outside groups that regularly inspect all sections of the University. Whenever a serious protest arise, over the de-emphasis of Geography for example, it is the Board of Overseers that investigation.

They are 30 very distinguished and diverse watchdogs, including the chairman of the board of J.P. Murgan, the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, and the man who supervised the making of the first atomic bomb.

Of course, the Overseers are more than investigators, for they stand at the top of the entire University administration, having the final decision on all "major policies" and all permanent appointments. But the watchdog role remains the Overseers' greatest contribution. The Board carefully considers the appointments and policies put before it, but it invariably approves the proposals.

On the other hand, and Overseers' report on one of their annual inspections can do much constructively. In its 1949 report on the Department of English, the visiting committee called for two professorships for teachers of writing. The report hit the past over-emphasis on scholarship in the department and said that since tutorial was inadequate, professors were needed who were "primarily" teachers. In its discussion, the committee criticized professors who hoped General Education would die out rapidly and reported there were a number of faculty members who felt that way.

In addition to criticizing, the Board serves as a "bridge between the teachers and the layman." Professors sum up their work and report on departmental progress in their annual meetings with the visiting committee. The committee membership, besides several Overseers, includes other persons interested or qualified in the specialty. With almost 50 of these groups, no section of the University escapes outside interest and assistance.

Departments 'Mislead' Overseers

Times arise, however, when the departments seem to lose interest in the Overseers. Author Walter D. Edmonds '26, a former Overseer, recalls with amusement frustrating attempts to hear several English professors. Warren House sent him to the wrong room, to classes that weren't meeting that day and finally to courses that were having guest lecturers. Edmonds was told a certain professor was in Washington, only to see him an hour later on the steps of Sever. "It is much easier," Edmonds concludes, "if you offer to lecture in place of the professor, since he is then certain to be there."

Overseers could teach in quite a variety of fields; the present board includes six manufacturers, four writers or editors, four lawyers, four doctors, four teachers, and three bankers.

Only One Lived in a House

None of the Overseers is too familiar with the present University from the students' viewpoint. The most recent alumnus on the Board--the only one ever to live in one of the seven Houses--is Dr. W. Barry Wood, Jr. '32, a Crimson football great. The oldest graduate on the Overseers is the retired director of the Fogg Mucsum, Edward W. Forbes '95.

Some members of the Board may hear about student life from their sons in College, and all of them visited the Houses for lunch last May, but the Overseers are more interested in the formal scholastic side of the University.

Aside from reports, the work that takes the most time at the seven annual meetings is the approval of all permanent appointments and those temporary ones of more than one year. Overseers are anxious to make clear that they are no rubber-stamp, but only four men have been turned down in the last 100 years.

President Eliot was one of these four; the first time he was suggested the Board sent his name back to the Corporation, the other governing board, because of his youth. When the Corporation ones again supported Eliot, he was finally approved.

Another one of the four rejections led to the Overseers' present composition. From the Board's founding in 1637 until the middle of the 19th century, the government of Massachusetts had placed a great many representatives on the Overseers. But in 1851 the controversial appointment of Francis Bowen as a history professor was rejected by a straight party vote.

Prior to the ballot, the press had attacked Bowen strenuously because of his unfriendliness to the Hungarian independence movement. He had written articles attacking Kossuth and saying that an independent Hungary would oppress 5,00,000 other people in south-eastern Europe.

Political Vote Rejects Professor

Actually although this was the public issue, Bowen felt his real "mistake" was supporting Daniel Webster and the Compromise of 1850. In the vote, all the Free-Soilers and Democrats who were on the Board because of a state political position opposed Bowen. The Whig political members of the Overseers and all but one of the regular members of the Board backed him, but the final vote was 39 to 33 against Bowen.

The idea of polities deciding a college appointment seemed so wrong to most people that a drive began to free the University of this burden; after 1866 the governor, the lieutenant-governor, and other state officials stopped serving as ex-office Overseers. From that post-Civil War period on, the Overseers have been elected by the alumni--five each year for six year terms.

The franchise has broadened so that any degree holder now may vote in the spring election while in 1866 it was limited to men with an A.B., A.M., or an honorary degree. The composition of the Board has also broadened geographically; after the Civil War only Massachusetts men could serve, while today two-thirds of the Overseers come from outside the state. Beyond the East, there are six from tile Mid-west and two from California.

The distance some Board members must travel, together with the complexity of the University, prevents the Overseers from meeting often enough to handle much of Harvard's business. Many decisions are left to the Corporation and to the faculties of the various schools.

Role of Corporation

The seven-man Corporation must approve any decision before it reaches the Overseers, but its special concern is the spending and investment of the University's money. The Overseers do hold the final control in the financial field, but the money is usually spent before the Board can do anything about it.

When it comes to plicies on student discipline, course offerings, and admission and degree requirements, unwritten practice gives the decision to the individual faculty involved.

Although the Overseers are now investigating the de-emphasis of Geography, that was one decision that never even got to the Faculty of Arts and Sceinces. The Geology Department simply decided to stop offering a program for honors in geography. As that was a departmental province, the matter ended there until the Overseers stepped in.

Even the questions that are supposed to reach the Overseers have a long route to follow. The appointment of RAlph J. Bunche as professor of Government called for three separate recommendations. This was standard procedure in the Faculty of Arts and sciences (the College and G.S.A.S.) since it was a life-time appointment. With a departmental vacancy existing, the Government professors met and made a departmental choice.

'Ad Hoc' Committee System

Then President Conant appointed an "ad hoe" committee which met once, made a recommendation, and dissolved. The "ad hoe" committee, unique to Harvard, has under ten members falling into three categories: Harvard professors from fields related to Government (in this case), Government professors from other institutions, and teaching laymen with a knowledge of government work. Conant presides without a vote at the committee meeting.

The Dean of the Faculty, Paul H. Buck, then passed his own recommendation, together with the others, on to the Corporation. After corporation action, it went finally to the Board of Overseers. There the Bunche appointment waited a meeting and was approved months after the first step was taken.

Through the years the Overseers have stayed mostly a silent force at Harvard. What is said at meetings remains secret, and no particular man is singled out as having been an outstanding member of the Board.

The greatest problem in to keep the Board a living part of the Harvard administration; there were times of controversy when the Overseers' approval or rejection was their most vital function. Now these somewhat-negative and limited duties are less important.

While they cannot initiate proposals the Overseers have kept themselves an active, worthwhile group by watching all phases of the University

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