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Pusey Left With Class of 1970

Harvard President Was Criticized for `Lack of Understanding'

By Jonathan N. Axelrod

After 17 years of service, Nathan Marsh Pusey '28, the 24th president of Harvard University, announced that he would retire in June from the post he had held since 1953.

The president, 62 on February 16, 1970, still had three years left before he would have been forced out of office by mandatory retirement policies. But he finally decided he had had enough.

"The next change in presidents should occur fairly soon, preferably near the beginning of the fresh chapter rather than three years from now when I shall have reached the mandatory retirement age," Pusey wrote in a letter to the Corporation, the University's top governing board. "The time has come for a renewed effort which will enlist the energies of many younger Harvard men."

The announcement did not come as a surprise to many--while some on the campus said they would mourn the loss, a large number said they were pleased that Pusey was leaving.

Though originally a popular president, Pusey had been met with growing resistance to his decisions as his term drew on--and especially as it came to a close during the tumultuous years of the late 1960s.

Pusey believed in and put to practice the overriding power of the presidency to form policies--a trait that would not sit well with the students of the late 1960s, whose radical political beliefs often led to protests and other forms of public demonstration.

One of the Black students who participated in the sit in and take over of University Hall in April of 1969 describes the feelings of many students of that era.

"I thought Pusey was affable enough, he was working in a difficult time. But he made a big mistake bringing the police onto the campus," says Kenneth R. Manning '70.

Other students are less understanding in their assessments of Pusey's actions of that time, however.

"Pusey created just as much of a problem ripping apart the Harvard community as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) did," says Robert D. Manz '70. "He created a situation he never recovered from."

In the opinion of Deborah A. Frank '70, the problem was a division between the administration and students so deep that the two groups would not be able to reconcile during that time.

"There was a complete cross-generational lack of understanding between Pusey and us," Frank says. "He literally thought that evil was in us--he was a very religious man--and we just couldn't figure him."

"There was a deep mutual non-comprehension," Frank adds. "I was glad he resigned. He couldn't understand how we could be so unpatriotic, so violent. We couldn't understand that he couldn't see what was wrong.

An Embattled Tenure

Many believe that by 1970 Pusey's impending departure had been made almost a necessity. The breaking point between the president and students came when he decided to call in the police to curb student protests.

In the spring of 1969, student demonstrations grew more violent as Students for a Democratic Society achieved broader influence on campus.

On April 9, 250 students--many of whom were SDS members--stormed University Hall and forced administrators out of building.

With the protesters still staging a sit-in the next day, Pusey called in the police, who arrested scores of students while gassing and beating them.

The event led to a massive mobilization of students. Many who had not supported the protesters condemned Pusey's actions.

Accompanying widespread incredulity that Pusey called in the police to act against his own students, the feeling spread across campus that Pusey--an avowed opponent of the liberal protesters--was out of touch.

Pusey heightened the controversy when he established the Freud Committee to examine possible misconduct among members of the Faculty during that period--a move which many called the first witchhunt since the McCarthy era.

Among the student organizations crusading against Pusey was The Crimson, which continually derided him for what its editorial board deemed his excessive conservatism and inability to deal with the issues facing students.

When Pusey announced his retirement, many professors reportedly said they hoped it would have a "calming" effect on the Faculty and allow it to channel its energies elsewhere since its prime obstacle would be removed.

Even some of the more conservative professors by that time said they hoped Pusey would soon depart.

Other issues played into the general perception of Pusey as a man inconsiderate of student needs.

When he became president of Harvard in 1963, tuition was $800. By September of 1964, it had more than doubled to $1,760, and it was set to increase to $2,600 in September 1971. Pusey had been a major advocate of these increases and said he believed they were necessary to raise faculty salaries.


Though the end of his tenure was marked by strife and bitterness, Pusey's earlier tenure had been considered almost "heroic" by many of the same faculty members and students who later derided him.

Pusey won high praise, even from his staunchest foes, for his support of academic freedom during the McCarthy crusades.

His fight to keep the government out of the University and his defense of professors during the communist hunts of the 1950s was instrumental both in preserving intellectual integrity at the University and demonstrating to the entire country that the hearings could be resisted.

In 1954, McCarthy telegrammed Pusey and demanded disciplinary action in the case of Associate Professor of Physics Wendall M. Furry, who was accused of being a member of the Communist Party.

Pusey responded that although the University was opposed to Communism, there were no communists on the faculty and a scholar had to "be free to pursue his own hunches."

The president also consistently won high praise for his management and fund-raising abilities, as well as his choices for deanships and other high-level University posts.

The Man

Pusey was chosen to head the University after serving as president of Lawrence College in Appleton, Wisconsin for nine years. Partly because of the college's obscure location, he was considered a dark-horse candidate for the University's top officer.

Pusey succeeded James Bryant Conant '14-'13, who led the University through World War II and later resigned to become the United States High Commissioner in Germany.

Pusey, who was a self-avowed champion of the "liberal education," was already considered a specialist in general education at Lawrence.

There he had set up a required course for all first year students that focused on "great works" of Western civilization, covering topics within social sciences, philosophy, natural sciences, religion and the arts.

The Council Bluffs, Iowa native concentrated in English and Comparative Literature as an undergraduate at the College, graduating magna cum laude in 1928. He received his A.M. in 1932 and his doctoral degree in 1937--both from Harvard.

The first University president born west of the Mississippi, Pusey was in some sense symbolic of Harvard's evolution into a truly national school.

Farewell Address

In recognition of his years as president, Pusey was asked to give the Baccalaureate address at the commencement exercises of 1970.

In his speech, Pusey compared liberal radicals to extreme conservatives like McCarthy.

"The big lie let loose among us began to take shape; that is, that the University, is a hopelessly bigoted, reactionary force, which serves the interests of a hideous military-industrial complex by doing its chores and by intellectually emasculating the young," Pusey said.

In his address, Pusey accused both radicals and the moderates who supported them of "distortion and misrepresentation designed to magnify indignation and sow distrust."

Pusey said student demonstrators threatened to destroy "the values and models of living of the enlightened society based on reason, tolerance and the advancement of science which humane people have dreamed about and through generations have been struggling to create."

For many, Pusey's speech encapsulated the stance he took that so alienated students. It reinforced the beliefs of many that Pusey's time had passed.

"Pusey has come to feel that young radicals are neo-fascists," The Crimson later wrote. "We knew how he feels anyway, particularly from Harvard's increased commitment to political repression of students on campus and in the courts."

The University resolved to find a successor to Pusey who could boast a decidedly more modern outlook on campus life.

The Search

The search for the next president began almost as soon as Pusey's resignation was announced, although short-lists of 69 and then 23 candidates would not be released until the fall.

Initially, every group who felt slighted by Pusey stepped in to voice preferences for his successor.

The Faculty Council passed a resolution asking to be consulted in the appointment process--and students echoed the same sentiments.

Early on there were many who were considered favorites, including Archibald Cox '34, a law school professor and later the Watergate special prosecutor, McGeorge Bundy, a top member of the Kennedy-Johnson brain-trust and former dean of the faculty, Robert D. Cross '47, dean of Swarthmore College, Dr. John D. Knowles, director of Mass. General Hospital, Edward M. Purcell, University professor and Nobel laureate and Derek C. Bok, then dean of Harvard Law School.

In the end, Bok, a young recently appointed dean of the Law School was chosen as the University's 25th president and the first leader of the University who had not attended Harvard as an undergraduate.

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