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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
Archie became dean of students of a mostly white men’s college; he retired as dean of students of the nation’s greatest coeducational, multiethnic college. He was not just an observer but a principal architect of the changes that occurred during his tenure.
Archie stood for certain things; he was a man of principle, and everyone knew what those principles were. He was, first and foremost, an unapologetic and outspoken integrationist. He believed that our similarities are more important than our differences. He said it best in his introduction to the essays he had freshmen read: “We believe that ethnic differences are permeable, not separate boundaries that divide. Our diversity is a means to an end, which is the construction of a ‘special perspective’ that characterizes a Harvard student. Harvard is a place where the individual is supported no matter the background. The most important goal of a Harvard education is a philosophy of life that brings dignity and honor to human affairs.”
He was not unaware of the depth of ethnic divisions in America; he was, after all, a child of Louisiana and a scholar of Malcolm X. But his ideal was that Harvard should be a place where race did not determine anything. He worked to achieve that ideal, and was not shy about articulating it to students who wanted to stress the differences over the similarities.
Archie also believed in the sanctity of the individual. It was not for nothing that Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” was the one essay he wanted all freshmen to read. He had no patience for those, students and College administrators alike, who preached that you were what you were and you should not let Harvard change you. For Archie the opportunity to change at Harvard was essential to Harvard’s mission. Here you were in a place where you could be what you wanted to be, where you could lose your history; at Harvard you were not prisoner to your past.
College policies reflected these fundamental values. The principle that all student organizations must be open to all students was Archie’s invention. Choral groups and athletic teams, but certainly not social clubs, were sanctioned exceptions. The physicality of music and sports bind these two naturally, but it also seems to me that Archie fostered the flourishing of student musical performance at Harvard for the same reasons that athletics have sometimes been so respected, for the lessons taught about teamwork and leadership.
This principle of openness assumed enormous significance in 1977, when Radcliffe College delegated to Harvard responsibility for management of the undergraduate affairs of women students. That “non-merger merger” was subsequently the subject of varied interpretations by the Radcliffe and Harvard administrations, but in Archie’s mind there was only one way to understand the language: everything open to men had to be open to women. Every group except the Final Clubs eventually accepted that principle, and in the course of that transition Harvard became, in a very few years, a fully coeducational College. Recognizing the special situation of women students in the still lopsided Harvard world, Archie was instrumental in the birth of the Women’s Leadership Project, still today one of the most vigorous groups dedicated to advancing women’s issues. To an extent that is rarely noted, Archie should be given credit for the equalization of the status of men and women at Harvard.
Archie also had a strong sense of propriety and of “dignity,” again to quote from his introduction to the freshman essays. In Archie’s view, Harvard represented the best, and he wanted students to know that they were in a special place. The bow tie, the lapel flower, the dignity of his discourse were all part of that. So was the insistence that the subject of racial differences be introduced to freshmen in the context of discussion of texts between faculty and students, an exercise rich in questions and short on dogmatic answers. The exercise respects the intelligence of those participating in it. This is what you should expect here: not finger-shaking didacticism, not preaching by the College that there was only one way to think about things, but a genuine intellectual exercise. Harvard was a city set on a hill; if you wanted either to petrify it or to tear it down, you were in the wrong place.
Though it is the self-reliant Emerson that Archie insisted we know, at this sad moment it seems to me more appropriate to tie him to another Emerson, the observer of the Harvard Bicentennial quoted on the Thayer Gate: “Cambridge at any time is full of ghosts, but on that day the anointed eye saw the crowd of spirits that mingled with the procession in the vacant spaces, year by year, as the classes proceeded; and then the far longer train of ghosts that followed the company, of the men that wore before us the college honors and the laurels of the state—the long winding train reaching back into eternity.” He joins indeed the long procession of those who have shaped, nay even saved Harvard; I hope that generations to come will remember how and why.
Harry R. Lewis ’68 is McKay professor of computer science and former dean of Harvard College.
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