Historians Decry Harvard's '50 Year Rule'

Scholars Say University Archives Policy Limits Academic Inquiry, Permits Secrecy

In the spring of 1954, a Harvard graduate student named Sigmund Diamond received a visit from agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

At the time, Diamond was riding high. After a year of post-doctoral research and administrative work, he had been offered a combined teaching and administrative position by then-Dean of the Faculty F. McGeorge Bundy.

But after the FBI visited, all that changed. Diamond had joined the communist party as a student at Johns Hopkins in the early 1940s, and had remained a member for almost a decade.

The FBI agents asked Diamond to give them the names of those who had been in the party with him; when the young graduate student refused, Bundy withdrew his offer.

Diamond's is one of many stories that raise questions about Harvard's relationship to the government during the McCarthy era, which has become an increasingly hot topic for scholars of higher education.


But 40 years and several speculative books later, historians (including Diamond, now retired from a tenured position at Columbia) say Harvard's strict enforcement of a 50-year delay in the release of records has kept the public in the dark about the extent of the University-FBI connection.

For example, Bundy's notes and papers with respect to Diamond won't become publicity available until the year 2004.

"The principle of such a rule is that the real life concerns of living people ought not to be affected by publicity," says Michael W. Roberts, secretary to the Harvard Corporation.

This '50-year rule" has long been criticized by historians for limiting and delaying scholarship on important pieces of University and local history, from the Sacco-Vanzetti case to Harvard research on the mentally retarded.

And with President Clinton weighing an executive order that would declassify millions of documents and make future classified gov- ernment papers public after just 10 years, somehistorians say the University's policy should alsobe reformed.

The greatest tragedy of the 50-year rule,scholars say, is that some historical details arelost forever. By the time Harvard opens manyimportant papers, the authors are dead and thusunable to explain why they acted as they did.

"In rejecting my request, the University'sjustification was that it would cramp the style ofpresent and future administrators," says YeshivaUniversity historian Ellen W. Schrecker, who wroteabout Diamond's case and others in the 1986 bookNo Ivory Tower, but was denied access torecords less than 50 years old.

"That argument really doesn't hold up," sheadds. "Nobody needs 50 years before theirdecisions can be evaluated."

But Harley P. Holden, the curator of Harvard'sarchives, says that the 50-year rule is necessaryto preserve history. If administrators feel thattheir decisions will be evaluated much earlier,they may not commit their thoughts to writing, andhistory will be less complete, Holden says.

"As an archivist, I think it's great to haveeverything as open as we can," Holden says. "Butif a young administrator thinks he's going to becalled on a decision late in his career, theindividual...may feel a threat and may throw awaythe information, or may not put it in some kind ofpermanent form."

The archives are charged with collecting alltypes of University records--from the privatepapers of faculty members to the minutes andsecret reports of the Board of Overseers.