I take up an issue that has stared us in the face for many years. How do we use the diversity in our midst? This diversity is not an end, merely a means to an end. The ultimate and desirable end occurs only when Harvard men and women achieve a "special perspective" from their curricular and extracurricular college experiences.
The most classic statement of that hope was captured in former President Nathan M. Pusey's challenge to Harvard to produce men and women who would add distinction to the life of the world. He wanted students who were trained in critical thinking skills, positive in outlook, and capable of creating and sustaining a more civilized society--starting, of course, with themselves. Their true quality would come from cultivating sensibility, taste and judgment.
Pusey's views originated in Harvard's modern period. President A. Lawrence Lowell, who began that period as Harvard President in 1909, insisted on cultivating a Jeffersonian aristocracy of merit. Lowell's Harvard pursued high academic standards and had cosmopolitan aims; but had little racial diversity. It was Lowell who gave us the collegiate institutions to help us forge a common experience, break down class and regional divisions and work harmoniously within a faculty-driven culture.
Friendships flourish when students live in a community...with other undergraduates of different classes, types, and early associations.
A. Lawrence Lowell '77
According to Samuel Eliot Morrison, "Mr. Lowell disliked the social divisions he found in the college, because they were based on wealth, school, and Boston society, rather than on intellectual ability. The 'collegiate way of living' that our founders in their poverty established had vanished in the sprawling college of 2,200 students, increasing every year. The traditional union of religion, learning, and social life no longer existed."
Lowell studied the social system of British universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, and came to believe that their residential college system was a model for counteracting the social disintegration he saw happening among Harvard undergraduates. From the beginning of his presidency, he took steps that ultimately led to the establishment of the house system in 1930.
Because the houses were opened at Harvard so long ago, the original concept that sustained them had had time to develop in many ways, but the basic reason for their existence remains the same. This is how President Lowell saw the role of the Houses:
Men and women of knowledge and faith..., ready to learn from others, will make an effort at honest appraisal of their culture.
Nathan M. Pusey '28
"New contacts, good talk, wide range of friendships flourish when students live in a community and take their meals in the same dining room, not only with other undergraduates of different classes, types and early associations, but also with the tutors whom they may meet in off hours at breakfast, lunch or dinner..."
Through the first-year program and the house system, Lowell tried to "level up" the entering classes and democratize the college by providing common living experiences that overrode social class and ethnic origin.
Under President James B. Conant, Lowell's successor, efforts were made to extend the principle of selection by merit. The College sought talent nationwide through its admissions program, admitting on merit, regardless of financial need. My mentor, John Usher Munro, Dean of Harvard College (who resigned in the late 1960s to teach in a Black college in Alabama), told me about the early days of national recruiting. He and others would take the trains in Chicago and elsewhere, visiting schools and homes to identify talented students and to persuade parents, most of whom had never attended college, to let their children come to Harvard. The Conant national scholarships made it possible for socially diverse students to enroll in the College. Munro and his colleagues drew no color distinctions. They pursued talent wherever they found it. But their first real exposure to integration came from their World War II military experience.
During the war, Munro was on the bridge of his ship with his captain when orders came from the Pentagon that the armed forces would be integrated. Without warning, the captain turned to him and bellowed, "Munro, integrate the ship! That's an order!" On that day, John Munro began his lifelong dedication to racial integration. His efforts led to a successful campaign to enroll students from every race and continent and to improve the college experience of Black undergraduates by breaking down racial barriers within the College.
The divergent and sometimes conflicting student voices on campus are often signs of vital, even necessary, controversy.