On the day before commencement 50 years ago, James Bryant Conant ’14 and Nathan Marsh Pusey ’28 met for the first time.
They arrived together by chance at Logan Airport—in the outgoing Conant’s opinion, “a most inappropriate place to meet Harvard’s next president.”
Pusey was returning to Harvard in June 1953 to celebrate his 25th class reunion and to take over from Conant as Harvard’s 24th president.
Conant, who hailed from an old Massachusetts family, was a prominent faculty member when he began his presidency in 1933. He spent 20 years transforming Harvard into an intellectual mecca whose faculty members were the best in their fields.
Pusey, an Iowa native and the first Harvard president born west of New England, was the deeply religious president of tiny Lawrence College in Appleton, Wis., in 1953.
His selection was a surprise to most people inside and outside the University, but the move was deliberate on the part of a Corporation that wanted a greater focus on undergraduate teaching.
He would hold the position for 18 years, leading the University closer toward the need-blind meritocracy and financial powerhouse it is today, through the ’50s and into the turbulent 1960s.
By the time he retired in 1971, the College had transformed into a predominantly liberal, modern campus.
A Different Direction
The six Corporation members who chose Pusey aimed for a sea change from Conant, a jet-setting chemist who worked on the Manhattan Project and left Harvard abruptly in January 1953 to become President Eisenhower’s High Commissioner for Germany.
“After 20 years of Conant, with his emphasis on research and his involvement in world affairs and national affairs, they wanted someone who would really focus on the school and the College,” says Morton Keller, a Brandeis historian who co-wrote a book on 20th century Harvard history, Making Harvard Modern.
“They liked his being religious, being a humanist, being a college man, in other words they liked everything about him that distinguished him from Conant,” Keller says.
Pusey had graduated from the College in 1928 and earned a doctorate in classics in 1935. After several years of teaching, in 1944 he became president of Lawrence College, a small school in Wisconsin that emphasized teaching rather than research.
Fred L. Glimp ’50, who served briefly as dean of the College under Pusey and has worked in various administrative positions at Harvard over the last 50 years, says Pusey’s selection was something of a surprise.
As the story goes, Glimp says, Corporation member Thomas S. Lamont ’21 took a trip west of the Mississippi to evaluate some candidates. After meeting with Pusey, he was so impressed that he immediately recommended the Lawrence president for the position when he returned to Cambridge.