Seven Seats of Power

Harvard's Highest Governing Board

If the Harvard Corporation ever wanted to "get" the History Department, it could do it. It could block the department's appointments and refuse to OK a budget with any funding. But it never would.

The Corporation, formally known as the President and Fellows of Harvard College, is Harvard's highest administrative organ--save the largely ceremonial Board of Overseers--but instead of getting involved in the day-to-day affairs of the University, it concentrates on long-range planning and only takes direct responsibility for major financial matters.

In many ways the Corporation is unique among university governing boards. Its members serve for life, it is the smallest board in any major university, and it meets more often than any other. However, most of the University has little contact with it.

The Corporation is often referred to as "The Oldest Self-Perpetuating Body in the Western Hemisphere" because it has continually replenished its ranks without outside interference since 1650, as Seymour Martin Lipset and Samuel Eliot Morrison describe in their histories of Harvard. But during the past 334 years its role within the University has changed considerably. The Corporation has always supervised Harvard's finances, but after 250 years of relatively easy management, the job has become increasingly complex in this century.

The Corporation has also eased away from scholarly matters: in its early days it played a vigorous day-to-day role in the academic administration of the College, but today it only exerts a final check on all but the most extreme issues of teaching and research.


Harvard was founded on October 28, 1636, with a grant of 400 pounds from the Massachusetts legislature, but its governing boards did not take their present form until 14 year later. A year after, the College's founding the first Board of Overseers was appointed with six magistrates and six ministers, and they chose Nathaniel Eaton of Trinity College. Cambridge, and the University of Frankener in the Netherlands, as Harvard's first Master (President). But Eaton did not survive his second year, after he was indicted for assault for nearly bludgeoning his assistant to death with a walnut club. The board fired him.

For the next 12 years the College endured great financial hardship. It did secure a few large donations, most notably John Harvard's, but it also depended on the help of the legislature, which granted Harvard the revenues of the Boston-to-Charleston ferry and a special tax called the College Corne--each New England family was required to donate a peck of wheat for the College's support.

The Overseers of the 1640s also established a precedent which would continue for more than 200 years, they of the College's day to-day affairs Harvard's second president, Henry Dunster, was continually hampered by the Overseers intrusion into mundane administrative decisions and the small budget they allowed him.

At Dunster's urging the legislature redefined the College's government in 1650, establishing the bicameral system that has persisted with only one major modification until today. The Corporation, composed of the president, treasurer, and five Fellows, won primary control over the institution. The Board of Overseers became a supervisory group composed of clergy and local magistrates to represent the community. The Overseers were designed as the higher board, but then as today: they metress frequently and were supposed to cede day-to-day power to the Corporation. Until the boards escaped from the control of the state legislature in 1865, the two continually locked horns over who would actually run the fledgling Harvard.

The Corporation has also eased away from scholarly matters: in its early days it played a vigorous day-to-day role in academic administration of the college, but today it only exerts a final check on all but the most extreme issues of teaching and research.

Their bickering reached a height in the 18th century when professors were frequently hired and fired for their personal beliefs. Harvard would have to wait more than 100 years, until the term of President Charles William Eliot, before the University's hiring policy truly reflected respect for academic freedom.

In this period the Corporation was expanding Harvard into the research and teaching institution we see today, and taking greater interest in the University's finances. But one of Harvard's worst financial crises ever occurred during the American Revolution, when noted patriot John Hancock served as the Corporation's Treasurer.

Hancock, one of Boston's wealthiest merchants, gave generously to his alma mater, and the Corporation rewarded him by naming him treasurer. But Hancock had little taste for the job and spent most of his time travelling on business or political missions, neglecting the University's finances. He failed to collect term bills or pay debts, and complicated matters by carrying the University's financial records on his travels.

On April 11, 1775, President Samuel Langdon sent Hancock a letter threatening to replace him, but the treasurer did not respond. A series of follow-up letters went similarly answered, and the Corporation sent a tutor to look for Hancock, then in hiding during the war. He failed and Hancock remained it office until his death, when he left 16,000 pounds for money he had University accounts and a personal debt to Harvard of 1495 pounds, for money he had unscrupulously borrowed.

For a time the financial situation became so severe that academic requirements were drastically relaxed. On July 18, 1780, a student arrived in Cambridge for the first time and paid his 300 pound tuition. That afternoon he passed oral examinations in seven subjects and was awarded his A.B. degree on the spot.