Reinventing the Wheel

Five centuries of Harvard controversy

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.