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Historians Decry Harvard's '50 Year Rule'

Scholars Say University Archives Policy Limits Academic Inquiry, Permits Secrecy

By Joe Mathews

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.

Laurie Sletten, associate curator for recordsadministration and planning in the archives, saysadministrators are very concerned about timing therelease of their records.

"A lot of people ask us about the 50-yearrule...when they send records to us," Slettensays. "So it does seem to matter a lot to them."

Historians counter that Harvard should be moreconcerned with the demands of scholarship thanwith the fear of publicity. Scholars say it ishypocritical for Harvard researchers to pushgovernment and other institutions for data whenthe University is so unwilling to release its ownrecords.

"I found it easier to get top-secret documentson the H-bomb than it was to getinter-departmental correspondence at Harvard,"says James G. Hershberg '82, author of a recentbiography on former Harvard president James BryantConant' 14.

Hershberg says that while the ClintonAdministration is forcing government agencies toshow why documents should be kept from the public,Harvard puts the burden of proof onresearchers--who must prove that certain documentsshould be opened.

"If it's good enough for the government withnuclear secrets, then it ought to be good enoughfor Harvard with educational secrets," Hersbergsays.

Recent Review

The 50-year policy is as old as the archives,according to Holden. It was first formalized in1968 by a vote of the Harvard Corporation. Thevote permitted the viewing of records less than50-year-old, but only if a researcher could gainwritten permission from the archives' curator andfrom the head of the department where the recordsoriginated.

The most recent review of the 50-year rule wassix years ago, when a Corporation committeereaffirmed the 50-year rule after hearingtestimony from students and historians.

That committee produced a report andrecommendations, but under the 50-year rule, theywon't be available to the public for nearly 45years. The Corporation has yet to respond to athree-week-old written request from this reporterfor an exception to the rule.

Then-President Derek C. Bok appointed thecommittee after historians and Harvard Watch, anundergraduate group with ties to consumer advocateRalph Nader, complained about the overly stringentrules.

Harvard Watch went so far as to organize apetition drive calling for "the free flow ofinformation," including free access to thearchives and to the minutes and agendas of theUniversity's governing boards.

"We want to see the University match its idealsabout an open community of scholars and a freeflow of information with reality," Harvard Watchhead Robert Weissman '88-'89 said in March 1987.

But former Dean of the Faculty Franklin L.Ford, who served on the committee six years ago,says the review led to increased restrictions onthe archives, not to greater access. Student andpersonnel records, he says, are now covered by an80-year rule.

Ford says the committee, which also includedthen-Secretary to the Corporation Robert Shenton,heard testimony from students and professors,including Krupp Foundation Professor of EuropeanStudies Charles S. Maier. Efforts to reach Maierwere unsuccessful.

"Two students came to testify to the committeebelieving that the archives should be much moreopen," Ford says. "But after they testified andanswered questions from the committee, they hadchanged their perspective."

Ford says the committee agreed that theUniversity should be flexible in grantingexceptions to the 50-year rule. For example, Fordsays he would like to see the release ofadministration papers from the period of campusunrest in April 1969, when Ford himself came undersharp criticism from students and faculty.

But Ford acknowledges that it will still behard for historians to secure access topresidential and Corporation papers.

"The closer you get to real power, especiallywith the people who come in as outsiders, there'smuch more of a tendency to not make exceptions, togive categorical responses," Ford says.

Ford says he accepts the reasoning behind the50-year rule. The limit on access to the archives,he says, will preserve the historical record.

"There's never been a tradition around here ofgetting out the old shredder after a bigdecision," he says. "But it wouldn't take manycases of irresponsible release [of archivaldocuments] for that to happen."

Information Controls

Despite these arguments, some scholars remainbitter about the review process. One Harvardhistorian, who spoke on condition of anonymity,notes that at the same time the committee wasreaffirming the 50-year rule, the University wasactively publicizing a report severely criticizinggovernment restrictions on the flow ofinformation.

The report, "Government Information Controls:Implications for Scholarship, Science andTechnology," was authored by then-Vice Presidentfor Government, Community and Public Affairs JohnShattuck and then-Director of Policy AnalysisMuriel Morisey Spence.

It charged that "a broad system of nationalsecurity controls" and a "broadened classificationsystem" had set back scientific research,"increased the need for compartmentalizeddecision-making" and boosted the risk of"substantial abuses of executive power."

"That report [on the government] isinteresting," says the historian, "because onecould make the argument that Harvard's secrecy,particularly with regards to the archives, hassimilar effects."

The Historian says Harvard's rules have theeffect of isolating the University from studies ofhigher education.

"I'm particularly concerned that the 50-yearrule makes it difficult for historians to includeHarvard in historical studies of multiple schoolsbecause you can't compare stuff from otheruniversities to Harvard. [Harvard] won't give youthe historical records as fast."

Other Schools More Flexible

What many scholars find most irksome is thatother schools have far more open archivalpolicies. Dartmouth and Brown don't have firmaccess policies, and Cornell opens up all records,including those of its governing boards andpresidents, 30 years after they were created,according to former Cornell archivist HerbertFinch.

Finch says Cornell chose 30 years because thatis amount of time many federal agencies waitbefore releasing their papers.

Columbia, which is in the early stages oforganizing its archives, also has a 30-year rule,although an official there says an effort isunderway to lessen that restriction.

"I happen to think 30 is way too conservative,"says the official, who spoke on condition ofanonymity. "So you could say I disagree withHarvard's rule."

Scholars label the University of Pennsylvania'spolicy, which was adopted in 1990, as one of themost progressive. According to Penn archivesdirector Mark Lloyd almost all university recordsbecome public after 25 years, excepting individualeducation records of living students, individualemployee records and documents which have beenrestricted by their donors.

Not all Ivy League schools have such openpolicies. Taking their lead form Harvard, Yale andPrinceton also close the records of theirgoverning boards for 50 years. But accessing otherrecords at those universities is still easier thandoing so at Harvard.

Yale has a 20-year rule on presidential andmost administrative papers, according toUniversity archivist Richard V. Szary. AtPrinceton, there is no set time limit for release;archivists and administrators evaluate requestsfor documents on a case by case basis, withindividual departments setting various standardsfor release.

"My standard rule of thumb is to get thedepartments and deans to agree to a 20-to 25-yeardelay," says Ben Primer, who runs Princeton'sarchives. "Not everyone is willing to do that,however. Until the trustees establish some generalpolicies, I have to go with what the departmentheads want."

Primer says that Harvard's policy influencesthe thinking of Princeton and other universities,inflating limits on university archiveseverywhere.

"I wish Harvard's policies were different,"Primer says, "because it would make somedifference in our policies."

No Ivory Tower

Schrecker, the Yeshiva University historian whowrote No Ivory Tower, says the Universitywas uncooperative in giving her access todocuments that were 40 or even 45 years old.

Her book, she says, suffered because the50-year rule made it difficult for her to evaluateand to contextualize the decisions Harvard madeduring the McCarthy era.

"What I was interested in was not so much wholooks good, who's right," Schrecker says. "What Iwas interested in was the quality of thedecision-making. As a historian, I was especiallyinterested in what were the issues--what didpeople think was important--with this at thetime."

Schrecker suggests a "20- or 25-year rule"because "that amount is enough to transfersomething from a current case into history."

"To legislate a longer period of time thanthat," she says, "is just Harvard exceptionalism,again."

No Ivory Tower, in some ways, isincomplete because of Harvard's policy. The book'ssources include heavily redacted FBI documents andinterviews with many academics who feel they werebetrayed by the University.

Schrecker also received important help fromformer Corporation member William Marbury, aBaltimore lawyer. Marbury refused to give herCorporation documents, but he tried to helpconfirm some of Schrecker's facts by consultinghis own files from the period, the historian says.

Marbury's reluctance was based wholly on theUniversity policy. Schrecker writes in a footnoteto No Ivory Tower: "William Marbury had acomplete file on the cases and, though he wouldnot show it to me because he did not want to goagainst the University's policy, he referred to itthroughout the interview..."

Schrecker says several avenues remainunexplored because of the 50-year rule. "We don'tknow about the nature of Harvard's contacts withthe Defense Department during the McCarthy era[and] the Cold War, for example," she says.

Other important historical facts may be buriedin the archives, she adds. "We don't know what'sin many of these records because the Universityhas been unwilling to open them."

An Irony

Hershberg says the nature of the FBI'srelationship with Harvard during the McCarthy erais just one of the issues that cannot be fullyexplored because of the 50-year rule.

Hershberg's biography grew out of hisundergraduate thesis, which he submitted in 1982.When he resumed his research for the biography,Hershberg was able to convince Harvard to make anexception to the 50-year rule and give him limitedaccess to papers of Conant that did not relatedirectly to the University.

Conant, a prominent figure in the Manhattanproject, was president of Harvard from 1933 to1953. He died in 1978.

Hershberg says the 50-year rule kept him fromConant's papers from during and after World WarII. He says he found the rule most frustratingwhen he attempted to research Conant's role as "aCold War educator" between 1950 and 1952.

"The irony is that Harvard is a place allegedlydevoted to scholarship," Hershberg says. "But ithas the least developed policy for permittingscholarship on itself."Crimson File Photo

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.

Laurie Sletten, associate curator for recordsadministration and planning in the archives, saysadministrators are very concerned about timing therelease of their records.

"A lot of people ask us about the 50-yearrule...when they send records to us," Slettensays. "So it does seem to matter a lot to them."

Historians counter that Harvard should be moreconcerned with the demands of scholarship thanwith the fear of publicity. Scholars say it ishypocritical for Harvard researchers to pushgovernment and other institutions for data whenthe University is so unwilling to release its ownrecords.

"I found it easier to get top-secret documentson the H-bomb than it was to getinter-departmental correspondence at Harvard,"says James G. Hershberg '82, author of a recentbiography on former Harvard president James BryantConant' 14.

Hershberg says that while the ClintonAdministration is forcing government agencies toshow why documents should be kept from the public,Harvard puts the burden of proof onresearchers--who must prove that certain documentsshould be opened.

"If it's good enough for the government withnuclear secrets, then it ought to be good enoughfor Harvard with educational secrets," Hersbergsays.

Recent Review

The 50-year policy is as old as the archives,according to Holden. It was first formalized in1968 by a vote of the Harvard Corporation. Thevote permitted the viewing of records less than50-year-old, but only if a researcher could gainwritten permission from the archives' curator andfrom the head of the department where the recordsoriginated.

The most recent review of the 50-year rule wassix years ago, when a Corporation committeereaffirmed the 50-year rule after hearingtestimony from students and historians.

That committee produced a report andrecommendations, but under the 50-year rule, theywon't be available to the public for nearly 45years. The Corporation has yet to respond to athree-week-old written request from this reporterfor an exception to the rule.

Then-President Derek C. Bok appointed thecommittee after historians and Harvard Watch, anundergraduate group with ties to consumer advocateRalph Nader, complained about the overly stringentrules.

Harvard Watch went so far as to organize apetition drive calling for "the free flow ofinformation," including free access to thearchives and to the minutes and agendas of theUniversity's governing boards.

"We want to see the University match its idealsabout an open community of scholars and a freeflow of information with reality," Harvard Watchhead Robert Weissman '88-'89 said in March 1987.

But former Dean of the Faculty Franklin L.Ford, who served on the committee six years ago,says the review led to increased restrictions onthe archives, not to greater access. Student andpersonnel records, he says, are now covered by an80-year rule.

Ford says the committee, which also includedthen-Secretary to the Corporation Robert Shenton,heard testimony from students and professors,including Krupp Foundation Professor of EuropeanStudies Charles S. Maier. Efforts to reach Maierwere unsuccessful.

"Two students came to testify to the committeebelieving that the archives should be much moreopen," Ford says. "But after they testified andanswered questions from the committee, they hadchanged their perspective."

Ford says the committee agreed that theUniversity should be flexible in grantingexceptions to the 50-year rule. For example, Fordsays he would like to see the release ofadministration papers from the period of campusunrest in April 1969, when Ford himself came undersharp criticism from students and faculty.

But Ford acknowledges that it will still behard for historians to secure access topresidential and Corporation papers.

"The closer you get to real power, especiallywith the people who come in as outsiders, there'smuch more of a tendency to not make exceptions, togive categorical responses," Ford says.

Ford says he accepts the reasoning behind the50-year rule. The limit on access to the archives,he says, will preserve the historical record.

"There's never been a tradition around here ofgetting out the old shredder after a bigdecision," he says. "But it wouldn't take manycases of irresponsible release [of archivaldocuments] for that to happen."

Information Controls

Despite these arguments, some scholars remainbitter about the review process. One Harvardhistorian, who spoke on condition of anonymity,notes that at the same time the committee wasreaffirming the 50-year rule, the University wasactively publicizing a report severely criticizinggovernment restrictions on the flow ofinformation.

The report, "Government Information Controls:Implications for Scholarship, Science andTechnology," was authored by then-Vice Presidentfor Government, Community and Public Affairs JohnShattuck and then-Director of Policy AnalysisMuriel Morisey Spence.

It charged that "a broad system of nationalsecurity controls" and a "broadened classificationsystem" had set back scientific research,"increased the need for compartmentalizeddecision-making" and boosted the risk of"substantial abuses of executive power."

"That report [on the government] isinteresting," says the historian, "because onecould make the argument that Harvard's secrecy,particularly with regards to the archives, hassimilar effects."

The Historian says Harvard's rules have theeffect of isolating the University from studies ofhigher education.

"I'm particularly concerned that the 50-yearrule makes it difficult for historians to includeHarvard in historical studies of multiple schoolsbecause you can't compare stuff from otheruniversities to Harvard. [Harvard] won't give youthe historical records as fast."

Other Schools More Flexible

What many scholars find most irksome is thatother schools have far more open archivalpolicies. Dartmouth and Brown don't have firmaccess policies, and Cornell opens up all records,including those of its governing boards andpresidents, 30 years after they were created,according to former Cornell archivist HerbertFinch.

Finch says Cornell chose 30 years because thatis amount of time many federal agencies waitbefore releasing their papers.

Columbia, which is in the early stages oforganizing its archives, also has a 30-year rule,although an official there says an effort isunderway to lessen that restriction.

"I happen to think 30 is way too conservative,"says the official, who spoke on condition ofanonymity. "So you could say I disagree withHarvard's rule."

Scholars label the University of Pennsylvania'spolicy, which was adopted in 1990, as one of themost progressive. According to Penn archivesdirector Mark Lloyd almost all university recordsbecome public after 25 years, excepting individualeducation records of living students, individualemployee records and documents which have beenrestricted by their donors.

Not all Ivy League schools have such openpolicies. Taking their lead form Harvard, Yale andPrinceton also close the records of theirgoverning boards for 50 years. But accessing otherrecords at those universities is still easier thandoing so at Harvard.

Yale has a 20-year rule on presidential andmost administrative papers, according toUniversity archivist Richard V. Szary. AtPrinceton, there is no set time limit for release;archivists and administrators evaluate requestsfor documents on a case by case basis, withindividual departments setting various standardsfor release.

"My standard rule of thumb is to get thedepartments and deans to agree to a 20-to 25-yeardelay," says Ben Primer, who runs Princeton'sarchives. "Not everyone is willing to do that,however. Until the trustees establish some generalpolicies, I have to go with what the departmentheads want."

Primer says that Harvard's policy influencesthe thinking of Princeton and other universities,inflating limits on university archiveseverywhere.

"I wish Harvard's policies were different,"Primer says, "because it would make somedifference in our policies."

No Ivory Tower

Schrecker, the Yeshiva University historian whowrote No Ivory Tower, says the Universitywas uncooperative in giving her access todocuments that were 40 or even 45 years old.

Her book, she says, suffered because the50-year rule made it difficult for her to evaluateand to contextualize the decisions Harvard madeduring the McCarthy era.

"What I was interested in was not so much wholooks good, who's right," Schrecker says. "What Iwas interested in was the quality of thedecision-making. As a historian, I was especiallyinterested in what were the issues--what didpeople think was important--with this at thetime."

Schrecker suggests a "20- or 25-year rule"because "that amount is enough to transfersomething from a current case into history."

"To legislate a longer period of time thanthat," she says, "is just Harvard exceptionalism,again."

No Ivory Tower, in some ways, isincomplete because of Harvard's policy. The book'ssources include heavily redacted FBI documents andinterviews with many academics who feel they werebetrayed by the University.

Schrecker also received important help fromformer Corporation member William Marbury, aBaltimore lawyer. Marbury refused to give herCorporation documents, but he tried to helpconfirm some of Schrecker's facts by consultinghis own files from the period, the historian says.

Marbury's reluctance was based wholly on theUniversity policy. Schrecker writes in a footnoteto No Ivory Tower: "William Marbury had acomplete file on the cases and, though he wouldnot show it to me because he did not want to goagainst the University's policy, he referred to itthroughout the interview..."

Schrecker says several avenues remainunexplored because of the 50-year rule. "We don'tknow about the nature of Harvard's contacts withthe Defense Department during the McCarthy era[and] the Cold War, for example," she says.

Other important historical facts may be buriedin the archives, she adds. "We don't know what'sin many of these records because the Universityhas been unwilling to open them."

An Irony

Hershberg says the nature of the FBI'srelationship with Harvard during the McCarthy erais just one of the issues that cannot be fullyexplored because of the 50-year rule.

Hershberg's biography grew out of hisundergraduate thesis, which he submitted in 1982.When he resumed his research for the biography,Hershberg was able to convince Harvard to make anexception to the 50-year rule and give him limitedaccess to papers of Conant that did not relatedirectly to the University.

Conant, a prominent figure in the Manhattanproject, was president of Harvard from 1933 to1953. He died in 1978.

Hershberg says the 50-year rule kept him fromConant's papers from during and after World WarII. He says he found the rule most frustratingwhen he attempted to research Conant's role as "aCold War educator" between 1950 and 1952.

"The irony is that Harvard is a place allegedlydevoted to scholarship," Hershberg says. "But ithas the least developed policy for permittingscholarship on itself."Crimson File Photo

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