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History and Change at Harvard

The Long View

By Adam I. Arenson

In the final chapter of his 1990 book The University: An Owner’s Manual, former Dean of the Faculty Henry Rosovsky relates the dictum by which he became infamous in certain circles. “I was addressing the role of various groups in our community and said: ‘Remember you—the students—are here for four years; the faculty is here for life; and the institution is here forever.” Rosovsky writes how the quote became a mantra for The Crimson in those years and was soon spoofed on campus, being used to advertise that Diamonds, rather than Harvard, are Forever.

I begin with this quotation for two reasons: the first is that some readers may feel that Rosovsky’s “banality,” as he termed it, indeed reflects how they have felt here: ignored, undervalued and perhaps prisoner of one of Rosovsky’s creations, the Core program. No need to feel a mere lurking distrust from your local adviser or senior tutor or dean; one in the past had the temerity (or foolhardiness) necessary to say it outright. But to use it that way it really just an excuse: the seven principles Rosovsky proposes in his book are actually quite good insights on how to change Harvard for the better. As students, it is better to understand those principles, critique them if necessary and then call the Faculty and administration to account.

Like our next president, Rosovsky was an economist by training, and so tends to think of interests in influence in those terms. He does defend the infamous aphorism, in a slightly different form: Rosovsky claims universities cannot and must not be democracies. As the greatest number of people are students spending the shortest amount of time here, their desires must be seen in that light, and permanence—tenure, a long degree program, a long record as an employee—must trump the energetic whim of the student body.

Rosovsky notes that “how wealthy foundations and enterprises are is of legitimate concern to all sorts of people, inside and outside their walls,” and that the large chunk of university funding that comes in the form of government-sponsored research builds in a level of accountability to the public’s interests. Finally, he suggests that student evaluations, genuine power held by department chairs over their faculties, an ability to appeal one level up to a review board on any issue, and a concern for the university’s role in society can serve as the best yardsticks for the goals of the University. Ultimately, “the real element of contention,” Rosovsky concludes, “is not lack of change. Rather, it is types of rates of change that concern our critics... By emphasizing length of commitment and knowledge, we discourage excessive consideration of short-term issues.”

All well and good, if everyone can agree on what short-term is. No matter what we do know as students, we lack perspective: in my time here, the rampant issues have been randomization, the withering away of Radcliffe, the anti-sweatshop campaign and now the living wage. The year before I arrived, a rally to save the Phillips Brooks House Association drew many hundreds—the majestic photograph sits in PBH now, where, just as those people feared, the administration’s Assistant Dean for Public Service now has her office. The House Masters of the pre-randomization era have left; only a handful of people on the entire campus lived in the Houses in the time of reputation and application.

Before the current action, the most infamous sit-in was in 1969, and by the time it was over there was blood on the steps of University Hall; the diversity that Harvard now cherishes would make the many of the Houses’ namesakes shake in their graves, whether Increase Mather, Class of 1656, who left this conservative Puritan school for a more conservative Puritan community in New Haven, or A. Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877, who hoped to maintain the Brahmin finishing school by creating maximum quotas for undesirables like Jews. University President-to-be Lawrence H. Summers is coming from the Treasury and University President-soon-that-was Neil L. Rudenstine is going to work for an online art consortium; these facts are only strange outside of the context of the revolving door between Washington and Harvard in the 1940s, when President James B. Conant got Secretary of State George C. Marshall to deliver his plan for Europe as the commencement address, and without knowledge of the spending being placed into online ventures by all kinds of educational foundations.

Though I disagree with some of what Rosovsky actually did for the College, his axioms on how this university runs should be heeded. To paraphrase another Harvard graduate, we must know our history in order to repeat its successes and avoid its dark moments. Students need to act to change Harvard within the trends that stretch on before and after them, so first they must learn what those traditions have been. Perhaps they can learn it in the Core program Rosovsky helped create. Anyone up for teaching Historical Studies A-1636: “Harvard from Origins to the Present”?

Adam I. Arenson ’00-’01 is a history and literature concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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