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Reinventing the Wheel

Five centuries of Harvard controversy

By Nicole B. Usher, Crimson Staff Writer

Sixty-seven years later, a distinguished group of learned men felt that Harvard had slipped—that it had lost its way as the New World’s center of scholarship.

They founded Yale in 1703.

The road from a single building, Harvard Hall, in 1636 to the world’s most famous university has not been an easy one. It has been constantly mined with criticisms and questions of self-doubt, relevance and purpose. Today’s critics are only the latest to ask whether Harvard is falling behind.

While the presidents have changed 27 times and countless faculty and students have passed through Harvard’s doors over the past 366 years, the themes of the questions and debates have remained largely unchanged.

“Each hundred years has brought a crisis of sorts to the University,” observes Plummer Professor of Christian Morals Peter J. Gomes, who taught a course on Harvard’s history this spring. “But in many ways Harvard has seen the same problems over and over again, from lazy students to disgruntled faculty to problems in the community.”

Nevertheless, Harvard has survived it all—scandals, embezzlements, fires and student unrest—and it has thrived and prospered. By the College’s 250th anniversary in 1886, an academic from John Hopkins noted, “We measure everything today by the standard of Harvard.”

This past year, Yale President Richard C. Levin underscored the 1886 comment, saying, “It is to Harvard that the whole world looks for leadership.”

What has made the difference over the last five centuries of change and evolving academic purposes have been a few strong and visionary presidents—and, more recently, the strength of the Harvard name.

“The importance of strong leadership through the president of the University, in many respects, has continually helped Harvard be at the forefront of progressive ideas,” says Morton Keller, co-author of Making Harvard Modern.

Tracing Harvard’s mythic role as a university whose “name drips in gold” requires stepping back to examine the foundation of the University, according to Stephen Shoemaker, who is writing a dissertation on Harvard history and was the teaching fellow for Gomes’ Harvard history course.

Humbling Beginnings

Although Harvard is America’s oldest university, it hasn’t always been considered a standard bearer for academic excellence. Harvard only began to be recognized as the preeminent university in the nation two-thirds of the way through its history, according to Gomes.

Even as late as the 1920s, Princeton and Yale eclipsed Harvard’s academic reputation, Keller says.

Financial problems and scandal almost shut Harvard down in the first few years of its existence, when allegations arose that the school’s first master, Nathaniel Eaton, had embezzled funds.

When his poor stewardship of the academy was discovered, the first Board of Overseers chased him out of town, causing him eventually to ship back to England.

“It was not certain the College could survive his bad reputation and the bad blood caused by the loss of money,” Gomes says.

For several terms the College sat dark and shuttered, before the election of the first president, Henry Dunster, who rebuilt the school from scratch.

Given wide latitude by the overseers, Dunster seized control, recruited faculty, instituted checks and balances, adopted modern teaching techniques and ensured the University’s early viability.

His 14-year tenure as president transformed Harvard from a backwater seminary to an academy on par with England’s great universities at Oxford and Cambridge.

Standardizing Standards

Since students have always been at the center of Harvard, president after president has struggled with the question of how to measure their achievement.

Over the last hundred years, Harvard’s “grade inflation” has made headlines multiple times—and forced each 20th-century president to address the issue.

The debates began during Reconstruction, when the rigidity of the earlier College—where students were graded every week on class performance and behavior and chapel attendance was mandatory—had fallen away in the years after the Civil War under President Charles W. Eliot, Class of 1868.

Eliot “turned the College over like a pancake,” according to Keller. He instituted a free curriculum, whereby students could take just about anything they wanted.

“It was the first big modern change,” Keller says.

However, by the time A. Lawrence Lowell took office, many questioned the College’s free curriculum—too many students just took easy courses, now called “guts,” but then referred to as “bow-wows,” Gomes explains.

Lowell came to office with a mandate to combat grade and honors inflation, increase the size of the Faculty and expand the University—a mandate strikingly similar to that given to University President Lawrence H. Summers in the last year.

Lowell, dissatisfied with student performance, instituted the first comprehensive final exams and tutorial system.

But even as late as the early years of the administration of James Bryant Conant ’14 in the 1930s, the University had not accumulated the clout it now holds. Admission to the University was simple—1,200 students applied for the 1,000 slots. Beyond that, though, Harvard’s critics saw the University as out-of-touch and pointed to who was attending the College.

“There was a sense that the College had become too much of a rich boys’ school and didn’t have the kind of students it should have,” Keller says.

Buffeted by charges of elitism and a lack of diversity, Conant expanded scholarships and tried to draw more students from the Midwest.

“Conant made it clear that it was no longer acceptable for Harvard to be filled with rich boys,” Shoemaker adds.

Over the coming decades, the school’s diversity expanded as more blacks, Asians and women were admitted to the College—but even now it has not entirely shaken the old boy’s club image.

Fickle Faculty

The tension between teaching and scholarship has always been at the forefront of Harvard’s identity—and the quality and relative happiness of the Faculty has long been at the center of its campus quarrels.

In the first two centuries of Harvard, faculty retention was nonexistent as teaching fellows spent between one and five years instructing students. Little more was demanded from those who became assistant professors.

“There was the sense that if you had put in a few years of good work and had a brain, the University owed you an assistant professorship,” Keller says.

While Harvard had always attracted good faculty, under Eliot, the University developed its first superstar departments—including the nation’s best philosophy and history departments, boasting William James, George Santayana, Charles Pierce and, in history, A.J. Gurney.

Despite the preeminence of the University of Chicago in economics and John Hopkins University in sociology in the early 1900s, major changes to perpetuate an environment of academic excellence were underway.

Lowell recognized that the former star departments could no longer carry the University, and that in order to ensure quality and excellence in his hires, he had to expand the number of endowed chairs.

He revamped the tenure system and instituted the now-traditional eight-year terms for assistant professors.

In his reforms, though, he emphasized a somewhat unique aspect—presidential culpability. By forcing the president to agree to all hiring and tenure decisions, he made the president ultimately responsible for the school’s quality.

“What made the big difference for Harvard’s reputation in modern times was the president having to care about the quality of the Faculty,” Keller says.

Presidents since Lowell have had to pay attention to their faculty and who is being hired—a power they have wielded judiciously with an eye not towards flash-in-the-pan academic trends but towards long-term quality.

“Harvard is blessed with the broadest and deepest assembly of intellectual talent and academic resources in the world,” Yale’s Levin said last year.

Now, the task of hiring has fallen to Summers, who discussed with Harvard’s governing Corporation during the presidential search last year the need to hire dozens of new professors in the years ahead.

“The major task ahead of Summers is faculty building, as members of this generation of faculty retire,” Gomes observes. “He has to appoint faculty responsibly for the next decade.”

To attract faculty, Summers will offer them research funds, office space and the other basic trappings of tenure. However, he will also have the so-called “H Bomb” on which to draw.

Harvard’s reputation for excellence—built up president by president over the preceding centuries—has developed into almost mythic proportions.

“People buy myths, they don’t buy facts,” Gomes says. “Harvard is a name brand recognized all over the world—it may not be the best education, but when all is said and done the myth will support you twenty years from now and you will never have to explain it.”

—Staff writer Nicole B. Usher can be reached at

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