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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Harvard takes on the world

By Richard S. Weisman

It has been a peculiar year for the most powerful university in the world.

In the same year that Harvard lost the entire John F. Kennedy Memorial complex to the University of Massachusetts, it also made contracts totalling several million dollars for development and consulting work with at least eight foreign countries.

In the same year that the University was largely unsuccessful in its attempts to influence state and federal legislation, Harvard was able to keep its unions at bay in the halls of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

Harvard has always wielded a unique kind of power in the outside world, and certainly a great deal of that power has always stemmed directly from the vast amount of resources--both human and capital--available to the University. But although Harvard's clout and thus its reputation are considered without equal world-wide, such factors often mean little to critics of the University who have day-to-day contacts with Harvard: while the Shah of Iran may have unmitigated respect for an institution he has never seen, Cambridge Mayor Alfred E. Velluci stands ready to pave over the Yard.

Harvard's once ambitious, if often willy-nilly expansion program into the surrounding community has virtually ceased. "We're not in a stage where we have any significant territorial ambitions," President Bok says. But behind his statement lies the fact that community pressure, increasing governmental antagonism and funding difficulties have combined to prevent Harvard from expanding, even if it wants to.

Harvard is beginning to focus on more distant spots, dispatching an unprecedented number of planners and contractors overseas. With a great deal of excess baggage lying around, funding money rapidly dwindling and job markets tight at home, it seems logical to send people to the same place where all our money went a few years ago--the Mideast, for example.

There is no doubting Harvard's ability to attract big international grant money. Bok says offers are being turned away faster than they are being accepted by the University; they are pouring in even without embarrassing fundraising trips to the Persian Gulf to solicit contracts and contributions for Harvard.

According to one Harvard administrator, the oil crisis and the resultant world redistribution of income caused a mad dash of American university presidents over to the Persian Gulf in search of grant money; presidents were often nonplussed to run into several of their colleagues at once in the lobby of the Riyadh Hilton. But one president nobody ever ran into over there was President Bok. He didn't have to go; they came to him.

"We have no pecuniary interest in all this," Bok says. "We have not made any request for donations from the governments we are dealing with."

The governments Harvard is dealing with all have one thing in common--their countries are underdeveloped and sorely in need of training and technological assistance. For its part, Harvard has embarked on its recent spate of overseas commitments with a missionary zeal--the predominant feeling on the part of most University administrators and faculty members involved in these recent deals is that the projects can only serve to "open up" repressive regimes and to provide a new source of enlightened leaders and technicians.

Harvard's most widely publicized foreign endeavor in recent memory is its two contracts totalling nearly $1 million with the government of Iran to draft a master plan for a 500-student graduate research facility near an Iranian national forest.

The Reza Shah Kabir University (RSKU) project--which involves the dispatching of Planning Office personnel to Iran and the establishment of a permanent base of operations in the nation's capital--has gone "reasonably well" so far, according to Dr. Chase N. Peterson '52, vice president for alumni affairs and development.

The only real difficulty this and other Harvard projects encounter stems from the nature of the foreign regimes. Many members of the Harvard community have argued that if Harvard is to remain faithful to the principle of open inquiry then it cannot ignore the fact that its undertakings may be providing shiny new buildings to house an otherwise closed and repressive educational system.

Bok says he carefully scrutinized the potential Iranian project before giving it the final go-ahead in 1974; he decided that, for various reasons--none of them ideological--the University's role in Iran would remain relatively circumscribed.

"We decided to assist in planning, but not in actual operation," Bok says. "The moral question is a matter we did take up, but, I think that in the long run, our involvement in Iran should be a source of enlightenment." He adds, "Any other view would be self-defeating."

But Bok acknowledges that the Iranian project and several others like it raise questions serious enough to prompt Harvard to embark upon an overall foreign policy re-evaluation during the next few years.

The urgency of such a policy initiative is accentuated by the fact that Harvard is being approached by more foreign governments now than ever before--and, needless to say, by more than any other university in the world.

At this point, the only clear line of policy utilized by Harvard in evaluating foreign projects is a sort of ad hoc calculation of costs, benefits and capabilities. As Bok puts it, "It's a kind of trial-and-error process, and only time will tell whether the kinds of things we are doing are appropriate, or should be repeated elsewhere."

Bok is anxious to put the brakes on projects which would unnecessarily drain professorial and planning manpower away from Cambridge. "I don't think we'd do such a good job if we took on the role of operating an institution so far away once it is planned and built," he says.

Harvard's perception of its role in bringing enlightenment to the underdeveloped world is perhaps best expressed by Edward L. Keenan '57, professor of History, who earlier this year was appointed, on an independent basis, to the RSKU board of governors.

"We reach out to underdeveloped countries, we pass on what we think is good for them, and we respond to their requests for technology and culture as best as we can," Keenan explains. "Harvard doesn't have machine guns--we're not dealing so much with governments as with people, and for the most part, the long-term hope of anybody who believes in universities is that they are good for children and other living things."

Keenan acknowledges that "at a certain point, the University will have to orchestrate the ad hoc positions, maybe get a conductor--we have to face the crucial question of whether this is going to become an international university or not."

There is, apparently, no avoiding the issue of increasing international interdependence, and the ancillary notion that Harvard possesses a desirable, highly marketable commodity. In 1974, the University established the Harvard Institute for International Development (HIID) to coordinate international projects of an interdisciplinary nature. The institute is currently engaged in projects in Indonesia, Bolivia, South Korea, Tanzania, Nicaragua, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, and Iran.

The HIID projects bolster Harvard's status as the world's most respected educational consulting and planning firm. Lester E. Gordon, HIID's director, says the institute "is tending away from large national planning projects toward sectoral projects in health, education, and urban and rural planning." But the conclusion remains inescapable--Harvard has, by any standards, become an international force to be reckoned with. The funding of Harvard's international projects--the $2-million Kenya agricultural deal currently in the works is a good example--is often itself international in scope. (In the Kenya project, the funding is coming from five nations and the United Nations.)

While the HIID projects are not substantially draining Harvard manpower away from Cambridge--HIID recruits most of its technicians and field personnel from outside Harvard--the very existence of the institute raises much larger questions concerning the future direction of the University's role in international projects. Despite the assertions of Peterson and Bok that Harvard's first priority is research and teaching in Cambridge, international commitments seem to be growing. Where they will end--or when they will begin to be governed by a coherent University-wide policy that gives attention to questions of the appropriateness of commitments to particular regimes--remains uncertain.

Many feel Harvard's increasing overseas involvement may be due, at least in part, to the drying up of funding sources at home, and even to the general increase in federal regulation of higher education. According to one participant in a recent abortive Med School-Saudi Arabian project, terminated apparently for a combination of "moral" and financial reasons, "when the [financial] going gets tough, the toughest get going--overseas."

Neither the administration nor Keenan will agree that the need for new financing is the rationale for burgeoning overseas commitments, but few will deny that Harvard does not face as pleasant a situation on the home front as it does in the international sphere. For a University that always seemed capable of getting its own way through subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle pressure on local and national governments, the surrounding community and its unions, the mid-seventies have brought a number of new power configurations that will require Harvard to take a long look at its relationship with the outside world.

The same institution called upon to build research facilities in Third World countries couldn't muster enough political clout in its own community this past year to keep even part of the proposed Kennedy Memorial complex in or near Harvard Square.

Harvard lost a possible half-share of the memorial complex to the University of Massachusetts at Columbia Point in November after protests from Cambridge residents--backed by environmental legislation--forced both the museum and archival portions of the memorial from Harvard Square.

At the time of the Corporation's decision, Charles U. Daly, Harvard's outgoing vice president for government and community affairs, who had spent two months attempting to put together a compromise proposal acceptable to all involved, said that "the library board--not Harvard--had the responsibility of making the decision."

"While I happen to think their choice delivered a severe blow to the President's memorial, my view is not important," he added.

In the final analysis, however, it is clear that Daly was simply unable to muster adequate support for a last-ditch effort on Harvard's part to retain at least some portion of the memorial. Community pressure and federal law combined to fell the Harvard giant.

Hale Champion, financial vice president, supports Bok's contention that Harvard's days of territorial acquisition are largely over. "We are in a steady state," he explains. "We will now try to utilize our existing space, and to reconvert old space to fit our needs, but we are not expansionary in character."

The new calculation on Harvard's part emerges from a number of sobering local developments over the past few years, not the least important of which has simply been the skyrocketing cost of construction.

More important, however, is that almost every project undertaken by the University over the past several years has met with some form of community protest. Community problems surrounding the construction of the new Mission Hill student housing project near the Medical area have only recently been ironed out. A proposed Medical area power plant has met with stiff community opposition on environmental grounds. Members of the Harvard community have criticized the recently opened Soldiers Field Road apartment complex across the river in Allston for its high rents and consequently low availability to students. And, of course, Harvard's most outspoken community critic, Cambridge Mayor Alfred E. Vellucci, who has repeatedly expressed his antagonism towards Harvard, now wants to build a track in the shape of a sausage on the overpass between the Yard and the Science Center.

"We're trying to provide a long-run assurance to the community that we're not going to be buying outside certain boundaries," Bok says. "You have to keep building a certain amount, but I'm anxious to slow that down at this point."

While community pressure on the University increases, governmental pressure on universities in general is growing at what Bok considers an alarming rate. A panoply of government regulations concerning college finance, affirmative action guidelines and access to student files have shattered the once idyllic laissez-faire posture of state and federal governments toward universities.

Bok, who lashed out against federal regulation in his annual report to the Overseers this year, says the University "has changed the line we will be following in its lobbying efforts. Unable to effectively ward off pending legislation, the University will strive to establish subtler points of access to the individuals drafting the enactments affecting Harvard.

Bok says Harvard will increase its policy research in order to "contribute to the legislative process at an earlier stage" and will decrease its apparently unsuccessful attempts to buttonhole legislators in Washington and at the State House.

According to Bok and Michael Brewer, assistant vice president for government and community affairs and Harvard's chief lobbyist, Harvard will coordinate its lobbying efforts more closely with large associations of American universities.

The University has already met with a reasonable amount of success in dealing with the problems of government intervention on a cooperative basis with other institutions. Last year, it was instrumental in forming a 30-member ad hoc consortium to draft a coherent program of finance for higher education. The consortium's report, Brewer says, "was the first major effort on the part of these institutions to confront these problems together."

Brewer is confident that the best representation of the interests of higher institutions like Harvard in the future will be by the big educational combines. "Five years ago, higher education was sacrosanct to the government," he says. "Now, institutions are forced to compete head on with other groups and other needs, and the role of associations thus seems more in tune with political and social reality."

If Harvard has a tough time dealing on a one-to-one basis with the legislative bodies, it hasn't faced too many problems with a regulatory agency like the NLRB. In fact, because of its seemingly "favored" position, the University was forced all year to fend off charges on the part of District 65 of the Distributive Workers of America that Harvard somehow "owns or controls" the labor board.

The District 65 matter has been in the hands of the NLRB both in Boston and in Washington for nearly two years now, and the charges that Harvard controls the board stem from the fact that after lengthy foot-dragging, every decision reached by the board save one has gone against the union. The charges sound like sour grapes to many members of the Harvard administration, as well as to members of the board itself, but they are, in part, grounded in reality.

Although Harvard does not literally control the decisions reached by the board, it is capable of exerting a lion's share of influence on any given matter--indeed, on any legal matter at all--simply by virtue of the quality and quantity of its legal know-how. Daniel Steiner '54, general counsel to the University, and the law firm of Ropes and Gray, working in tandem on the District 65 case, provided a seemingly airtight defense for the University--one which the regional board apparently took so seriously that it chose to quote the Harvard brief at length in its final decision on the case.

With a worsening on-campus labor outlook, Harvard nonetheless appears well-equipped to go the necessary distance with the NLRB. The evaporation of the paternalism upon which Harvard once prided itself notwithstanding, the road still seems pretty clear for the University. As Leslie Sullivan, Medical area organizer for District 65, says, "Harvard is playing with a stacked deck."

Bok puts it somewhat differently: "We see this as simply a muddy area of the law, but the odds are very good that we are right on it."

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