An Evolving Partnership

A History of Harvard's Government

Warburg Professor of Economics Emeritus John Kenneth Galbraith is indebted to the Harvard Band for more than its music.

When the liberal economist's tenure appointment came up before the 30-man Board of Overseers in the spring of 1948, it was met with severe hostility and nearly was rejected. In a dramatic eleventh-hour maneuver, the late U.S. District Judge Charles E. Wyzanski '27 was able to push a resolution through the Board delaying the nomination while many of the anti-Galbraith faction were distracted by the Band which was playing outside University Hall. With the extra time the Galbraith forces regrouped and President James B. Conant '14 scolded the overseers--putting his presidency on the line, some said--and the tenure was approved.

While by no means indicative of the activities of the Board today, the Galbraith incident provides a useful milestone in the history of government at Harvard. A Board comprised of staunch clergymen when it was created in 1642 has over the intervening three and a half centuries acquired a much more diverse complexion--now sporting a wide membership that includes Blacks, women, businessmen, and academics.

Despite a change in composition the overseers still remain the junior governing body to the seven-man Harvard Corporation. Both groups have in recent years turned over their more hands-on involvement in Harvard affairs and taken a long-range policymaking role.

The Corporation used to consider almost all aspects of daily life at the University, including the distribution of parking spaces, but now spends its time mainly dealing with budgetary concerns. Similarly, the overseers, who are elected by alumni, have taken a much less active role in the day-to-day affairs at Harvard. A group which in its early days brought down Harvard presidents became within 20 years after the Galbraith incident a virtually impotent body, which at one time considered its own dissolution. During the term of President Bok the Board has regained a more active role in the University, keeping tabs on academic departments through its visiting committees.


Taken together, the overseers and the Corporation form a bicameral structure that has been complementary, longlasting, and the perhaps the only one of its kind among American universities.

As pro-divestment candidates make their second annual bid for seats on the Board of Overseers, the role of that governing body is coming under increasing scrutiny. Some critics say that, the 30-member board should regain its historical prominence in the government of Harvard.

The overseers, they say, should more intensely pursue their role in governing Harvard as they are the only democratic check on the self-perpetuating Corporation.

Harvard officials, including Bok, are loathe to significantly modify a balance that they say could stand little improvement. In addition observers point out that return to previous administrative responsibilities may be impossible given the major overhaul of Harvard's administration that has moved authority away from the governing boards.

The governing system of Harvard is the outgrowth of a Massachusetts Bay Colony act of September, 1642 that empowered a group of overseers, financed by the bequest of a tuburcular John Harvard, to ensure the "piety, morality and learning" of the students of the College. The act presaged what was to be a significant theme for the first two centuries of the University's history: the strong hold that the state legislature was to carry over Harvard's governing boards, particularly the overseers.

It wasn't until 1865 when legislative interference grew overbearing that alumni were given the vote for the overseers. Even now, some Massachusetts legislation is still binding on the boards, and any structural changes must receive the consent of the legislature.

Fresh from the 1642 founding, the early overseers were left to cope with a university that was experiencing growing pains. One sordid college master, Nathaniel Eaton, beat his students with a cudgel while his wife laced the college pudding with goal dung. A momentary crisis ensued when Eaton fled and the college closed.

Harvard reopened its doors a year later under the watchful eye of the 33-year-old Henry Dunster. Dunster proved to be a critical figure in the brief history of the governing boards. In 1650, the youthful president won a royal Charter from King Charles II that formally instituted a Corporation, comprised of a president, treasurer or bursar, and five fellows of the University whose orders were subject to "allowance" by the overseers. The seven remain the technical owners of Harvard. Hence the enigmatic "Copyright by the President and Fellows of Harvard College" that appears on virtually everything from course catalogs to a recent VES documentary called "Scruffy the Cat."

The body that Dunster shaped has lasted, virtually unchanged, until the present day.

None of which is to say that the overseers and the Corporation coexisted in a state of marital bliss. On the contrary, the two battled persistently over such diverse issues as the rectitude of itinerant evangelist George Whitefield to the quality of the University food.

Recommended Articles