The last thing James Bryant Conant wanted at Harvard was a school of journalism. A chemist at heart, Conant wrote his speeches in a manner designed to keep a reporter from finding any headlines in it. Consequently, the windfall bequest left to Harvard in 1936 by Agnes Wahl Nieman, widow of the founder of The Milwaukee Journal, came as a complete surprise to Harvard's President.
In fact, many people thought the Nieman choice of beneficiary rather odd. The Boston Globe noted that "Harvard not only had no hint that the Nieman millions were coming its way, but it was difficult to find anyone at Harvard who knew anything about the Milwaukee publishing family which left Harvard one of the largest legacies in its long history.
"It was a surprise, too," The Globe article continued, "to find Harvard--perhaps the only large university in the country which has no school of journalism, nor even a single course in journalism--receiving these millions 'to promote and elevate the standards of journalism.'"
Agnes Nieman's bequest gave Harvard's President and Fellows a virtual carte blanche in devising their own program to utilize the funds.
Out of its clear distaste for journalism academies and their trade school atmospheres, Harvard chose to meet the challenge in a unique and distinctive way.
Conant designated only that a selected group of journalists use the Nieman money to spend a year at Harvard with full access to University facilities. While young graduates left the College to discover the real world, journalists, who had perhaps seen enough of it, could take time to contemplate their discoveries. The Nieman Fellowships would serve as the unique bridge between the worlds of academia and of public affairs and journalism.
The program's success, according to Louis M. Lyons, a member of the first Nieman class and the Foundation's curator until 1964, lies in the "happy coincidence" that universities and newspapers are equally universal--one in the subjects it offers for study, the other in the events that it covers and studies daily.
From the beginning, Conant left the program to develop by itself. Lyons recalls that he usually never said more about it than, "It's going all right, isn't it? That's all I hear."
The extent of his interference with the program, in fact, was his deliberate choice of name and title for the new program: that it be called a foundation and that the person in charge of it be known as its curator. Conant evidently believed that there is a great deal in a name. In his mind, the story goes, the foundation--not department or institute--with a curator--not professor or dean--in charge neatly sidestepped the possibilities that 1) under a director the program might become an institute, 2) under a chairman a department would emerge, or 3) under a dean, Harvard might one day have a faculty of journalism.
The single decision to offer midcareer fellowships for journalists, a novel idea at the time, has translated into distinctive opportunities for newsmen and women and has led to new critiques of the profession.
After 35 years of existence, the Nieman Foundation can boast several Pulitzer Prize-winning alumni and many more top-notch reporters and media executives.
In addition, it has sparked many books and a quarterly magazine, The Nieman Reports (used almost exclusively by journalism schools), which were among the first publications to deal with the responsibilities of the press and the profession's internal problems. These subjects were not considered legitimate when the Nieman Fellowships began, Lyons notes, but have since "soaked in and been accepted" by the profession.
Thus, despite Conant's deliberate restraint, the program he did create has become an institution, albeit a loosely structured and highly individualistic one.
Essentially, the Nieman Foundation grants to 12 American journalists a leave of absence from their work and an academic year at Harvard. The Foundation pays each Neiman Fellow a weekly stipend (which is lower than the average weekly salary of $300 paid by most metropolitan dailies), as well as paying Harvard the full tuition for each.
The Foundation's only stipulations are that Fellows have at least three years' professional experience and be between 25 and 40 years old, that while here they fulfill the academic requirements in one semester course, and that they return to their previous employer upon leaving Cambridge.