Rudenstine Looking Forward, Bok Looking Back

After Two Decades of Managing Harvard, Bok the Mediator Gets a Well-Earned Rest

When Derek C. Bok became president of Harvard University in 1971, he had learned to expect almost anything from student activists.

He particularly remembers one morning about 17 years ago when he heard a loud ruckus outside his office in Mass Hall. Drums were beating and people were shouting. He peered out into the Yard, and saw an elephant turning the corner of the building.

"At first, I thought it was some new level of student protest weaponry," Bok recalls.

But, to the president's relief, the elephant and the ruckus turned out be part of a Lampoon rally celebrating Vietnamese elections.

"It was a little bit of a turning point," Bok says. "It was the first time a sense of humor had begun to come back on campus."


Indeed, in the ensuing years the atmosphere on campus would change dramatically. While the years immediately before Bok were marked by violent confrontations between students and the administration, the Bok years came to be known for the appearance of greater conciliation.

And although the changing national social climate may have been largely responsible for increasing calm on campus, Bok lived up to the expectations of those who had appointed him, first establishing stability and then presiding over a period of unprecedented growth.

When Bok was appointed to succeed then-President Nathan M. Pusey in 1970, the campus was mired in turmoil. The previous year, students occupying University Hall had been forced out and beaten by police called in by Pusey.

Pusey's decision to summon the police, and his overall handling of student activism in the 60s, cast a shadow of doubt over the administration's overall ability to effectively manage the campus. Much of the anger was directed at the Corporation, Harvard's secretive primary governing board, which was widely perceived as out of touch with student concerns.

All this mistrust led those responsible for appointing the new president to find someone whom students would trust--someone who would have some sense of legitimacy on campus. And that led them to Bok, who as dean of the Law School was already popular with students.

"We were looking for someone who knew the University, and particularly the College, who could handle the obvious pressure that had arisen in the couple of years prior to that," says Dillon.

This article was first published on June 7, 1990, only days after Bok announced that he would resign.