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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

An Academic Free Lunch

A Look at the Society of Fellows

By Michael W. Miller

WHEN THE NOBEL prizes were announced in October, the celebrations were especially spirited in a small yellow frame-house on Mt. Auburn St. Nicolaas Bloembergen, the Harvard laser expert who shared the physics prize, was on hand; so was David Hubel, the Medical School professor who shared the prize in medicine and physiology. From New Haven came James Tobin, the laureate in economics; and from Ithaca, Cornell professor Roald Hoffmann, who shared the chemistry prize, sent regrets. Finally, Paul Samuelson, the 1970 Nobel laureate in economics, dropped by from MIT for the festivities.

For Bloembergen, Tobin, Samuelson, and, in spirit, Hoffmann, the party was something of a homecoming. All had spent three years in that yellow house at the start of their academic careers as part of a remarkable and little-known Harvard research program for extraordinarily gifted young scholars--the Society of Fellows.

Each year, the Society's senior fellows, a group of local professors (nine--including Hubel--are from Harvard, one is from MIT, and one--Helen Vendler--is a visiting professor at Harvard from Boston University), gather to select a batch of eight junior fellows for the society. These eight, according to society literature, must be "persons of exceptional ability, originality, and resourcefulness" in any academic field. Most have completed the course work for their Ph.D.'s, if they have not actually taken the degree.

The chosen eight arrive at Harvard the following fall to begin a three-year term of unparalleled leisure and freedom. In addition to a sizable annual stipend ($11,900 for the first year, with a $500 raise for each of the next two years) the fellows receive a free room at the undergraduate House of their choice, board privileges at any University dining hall, and access to the facilities of all branches of the University.

The gilding on the lily is the fellowship's requirements: there are none. "They are free to devote their time to productive scholarship," says a Society brochure. Generally, the fellows do research for their doctoral dissertations, study a field they will not have time to pursue once they enter the hectic academic market, or simply investigate scholarly questions that fall between disciplines or were left unanswered in earlier courses.

"It's an amazing opportunity just to read--to look back at things we've been interested in," says Nita Krevans, a first-year fellow in classics and comparative literature. "Maybe some little idea or other will get written up and published, but most of all, we're storing up things--acquiring a basis to work from in the future."

Since its inception in 1933, the Society has been almost clairvoyant in selecting promising students. Many of the fledgling scholars who have passed through the Society's doors have gone on to become the country's most successful and influential educators. A good 50 of them are now at Harvard, including Dean Rosovsky, Walter Jackson Bate, William Bossert. Harvey Brooks, John V. Kelleher, Harry Levin. Albert Lord, and E.O. Wilson. Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, was a junior fellow: so was historian and Kennedy scholar Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., MIT linguist Noam Chomsky, poet Richard Wilbur, and McGeorge Bundy, the one-time dean of the Faculty who went on to be Kennedy's national security adviser.

IN THE AUTUMN of 1925, two Harvard professors were weekend guests together at the Connecticut home of a colleague. One was Lawrence Joseph Henderson, a professor of Biological Chemistry of whom George C. Homans and Orville T. Bailey, two former fellows who chronicled the Society's history, wrote. "[His] beard was red but his polities were vigorously conservative. His method in discussion [was] feebly imitated by the pike-driver." Today Homans is a professor of Sociology here.

Henderson's companion was the celebrated philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who had recently left his post as professor of mathematics at the University of London to teach philosophy at Harvard. Whitehead had been a so-called "prize fellow" of Trinity College, Cambridge, an honor that gave him six years of study at the college free from financial burdens and teaching responsibilities.

During the weekend and on the train back to Cambridge, Henderson and Whitehead fell to talking about the problems of American graduate education and the success of the Trinity fellowships. By the time they arrived at Harvard, they had resolved to meet with the University's incumbent president. Abbott Lawrence Lowell, to discuss the possibility of a Trinity-like operation at Harvard.

Lowell liked the idea instantly. Earlier, he had written of American graduate schools, "We have developed into a mass production of mediocrity." In another writing, he stated, "I do not wish to depreciate the Ph.D. but to provide an alternative path more suited to the encouragement of the rare and independent genius."

Soon, he appointed Henderson, Whitehead, and two other University officials to a committee to recommend to him a Trinity equivalent at Harvard. Their report, written in 1926 by Henderson, was the proposal for the Society of Fellows, and Lowell set out to put it into effect.

But when, in 1929, Lowell approached the leading philanthropic foundations of the day for funds to endow the Society, he had no takers. "Perhaps, had I been more clever, I might have made more impression, but it is difficult to demonstrate the imponderable," wrote Lowell, and he set aside the project for the moment. Meanwhile, another Lowell brainchild was becoming a reality--the House plan. Design and construction was getting underway on seven new Houses, and as the architects for Eliot House were drawing up their plans, Lowell quietly pulled them aside and arranged for certain rooms to be designed and left without a specific purpose. The architects obediently laid out plans for a kitchen, a dining room, and a lounge in M-entry, and no more was said about the matter.

In 1932, Lowell resigned as president, and by curious coincidence, later that year, an anonymous donor came up with the million-odd dollars needed to endow the Society. Upon Lowell's death in 1943, it was revealed that he himself was the mysterious underwriter--"It took nearly all I had," he wrote--and the endowment became known as the Anna Parker Lowell Fund, in memory of the late president's wife.

On September 25 of the next year, the first group of junior fellows met for dinner in their Eliot House dining hall. There were six of them, all in their 20s, all chosen on the basis of their exceptional promise, not their past work. Today, members of that first set of fellows have gone on to become the Putnam Professor of Pure and Applied Mathematics, Garrett Birkhoff; the Pierce Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Willard V.O. Quine; and the Pierce Professor Emeritus of Psychology, B.F. Skinner.

IT IS LUNCHTIME on a December day in 1981, and about a dozen casually dressed young men and women are sitting around a U-shaped wooden table in Eliot House, eating a meal of beef stew, salad, and liqueur-laced icecream, served to them by a staff of two who pop in and out of an adjoining kitchen. It is one of three meals the group has each week around the table. The previous night, they donned suits and gowns for a weekly formal dinner; three days later, they will return for another informal lunch.

The various subjects of discussion are much the same as those of any Harvard dining hall: comparing savings banks, rating the previous night's dinner, talking about upcoming parties. But every so often, an anomaly breaks through the chit-chat. "Are you still compiling compilers, or are you indexing indexes?" "Aren't you ignoring some fundamental premises of feminist criticism?" "You're in bargaining theory at Minnesota? Do you know..." "I turned down three job offers to do this. And I'm still not going to stay all the way through--I'm leaving a year early to join the Harvard Chemistry Department."

"You know," says one, "we could be spending all our time lying on the banks of the Charles. But I don't know of any washouts among us. We were all good students--we all did our homework. In fact, I'd say we're the most driven, anxiety-ridden, inferiority complex-ridden group of people any of us know."

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