Turning a New Page

Dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study Drew Gilpin Faust will be the 28th person, and the first female,
By Elizabeth M. Doherty

Dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study Drew Gilpin Faust will be the 28th person, and the first female, to take the helm of Harvard in its 371 year history. Like her 27 predecessors, she will attempt to steer the school and its students toward that ever-elusive (and often nebulous) destination: “VERITAS.” Yet the methods, goals, and beliefs of Harvard’s past presidents have not always reflected the selfsame notion of truth.

Harvard’s first leader and only “master” was sent to court for assault. The namesake of Lowell House attempted to place quotas on student admissions in an effort to solve “the Jewish question.” A more recent offering suggested that intrinsic differences in intelligence may account for the lack of women in science.

One might wonder...to what veritas were these leaders aspiring?

According to the Reverend Peter J. Gomes, Plummer professor of Christian Morals, Pusey minister in the Memorial Church and resident Harvard historian, the only institution with which the Harvard presidency can be properly compared is the Papacy.

Gomes’ assertion that the president–like the Pope–is “a curious and singular individual” is difficult to deny. With no official job description other than the nebulous statutes put forth in the charter of 1650, Harvard’s presidents often paved their own path—a path that will lead to Harvard’s first female president on July 1, 2007.


Alongside a cow pasture in 1636, what would one day be a world-renowned institution—Harvard College—was born. Things got off to a shaky start. The school’s first leader, Master Nathaniel Eaton, neither spared the rod nor spoiled the child. In fact, he beat a child severely.

In August of 1639 “the Master” battered a student with a “wal-nut tree cudgel” so thoroughly that, in a time when a little physical discipline was common, he was sent to court for assault, according to the book “Three Centuries of Harvard” by Samuel E. Morison. Eaton was also accused of embezzlement. The “rogue,” as Gomes calls him, was dismissed, and Harvard risked closing its doors. It would take the able leadership of Henry Dunster to keep them open.

Appointed Harvard’s first official president in 1640, Dunster’s reign would last until 1654, during which he managed to operate the un-endowed University with an annual budget of 175 pounds. In 1650 President Dunster secured Harvard’s charter from the General Court of Massachusetts. The sheep-skin document, which outlines the basis of Harvard’s governing body, is used to this day.

The statutes, according to Gomes, do not contain a job description for Harvard’s president, which accounts in part for the different approaches to leadership that have characterized the post throughout the school’s history. Gomes believes that the president was the prevailing force on campus until well into the early 19th century. Dunster was no exception. He was bothered when Harvard’s Overseers interfered with his governance, and with only 50-60 students in 1654, he was able to rule with relatively little resistance. He was forced to resign, however, for his illegal—and radical—opposition to the doctrine of infant baptism. Instead of recanting his position to maintain the presidency, Dunster began a tradition of eschewing the status quo.

Over the next 30 years, four more presidents—all English-born clergy—would keep Harvard afloat. While conservative by today’s standards, Harvard was already being influenced by more liberalizing forces. Not everyone, however, was willing to be pushed with the tide.


“The” Increase Mather, class of 1656, became president in 1692 and would serve until 1701. The first native-born American to become Harvard’s leader, Mather was also the recipient of America’s first honorary S.T.D. (Doctorate in Sacred Theology) from Harvard College in 1692.

Mather was blazing trails. He was also (indirectly involved in) burning witches. In 1684, he published “An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providence,” which, among other things, defended the existence of those pagan priestesses. Although he would later question the methods of the witch trials, he would never denounce them.

A Puritan through and through, Mather saw Harvard as a training ground for Congregational ministers. But he went unsupported in his attempt to insert a clause into the college charter that required future presidents to be orthodox New England Congregationalists. Mather’s attempted sacrifice of the college’s well-being for his own personal beliefs was characteristic of an earlier view of leadership. But changes were on the way.


As the world teetered on the edge of an Enlightened age, Harvard’s new presidents dove right in. After a brief interim leader, John Leverett, class of 1680, was appointed in 1708 and would preside until 1728. Leverett, a lawyer and politician, was the first lay president to hold the office. While Mather was predictably nonplussed with the secularizing move, his protests went unheeded.

Morison credits Leverett with having “founded the liberal tradition of Harvard University,” as recently noted in The Harvard Gazette. Leverett may have proposed a liberal education, but he remained true to his religious roots: his many biblical expositions illustrate a man who dwelt on profundity. Titles include “Africa always offers something new” and “Discussion of whether China was under the great flood,” among others.

As reason and logic lofted Harvardian minds to new heights, the school decided to do away with antiquated methods of discipline. Edward Holyoke, class of 1690 and president from 1737-1769, ended the custom of flogging students. More importantly, Holyoke was instrumental in a movement towards valuing merit over social class, planting the seeds of an egalitarian tradition that the University would strive to expand throughout its history.

Not everyone, however, was pleased with such developments.

George Whitefield, a revivalist preacher, went so far as to call Harvard a “house of impiety & sin” in the 1740s. Holyoke fought back with the snappily titled “The Testimony of the President, Professors, Tutors and Hebrew Instructor of Harvard College, Cambridge, Against the Reverend Mr. George Whitefield, and his Conduct.” This ignited a war of words—with pamphlets as weapon of choice—that would last for a year.

The “house of impiety and sin” did some spring cleaning when it shooed out President Samuel Locke, class of 1755. Inaugurated in 1770, Locke would last a mere three years in office before a sudden resignation and banishment to the western part of the state, according to Gomes. His crime? Fathering a child with his maid.

In 1780, under the direction of interim president Samuel Langdon, class of 1740, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts officially recognized Harvard College as a university. A sign of Harvard’s increasing strength as an institution, the recognition came at a time of growing unrest among Harvard’s students. Just miles from the Yard, young men were dying for the Revolution. No longer physically beaten by their instructors and increasingly recognized for their merit, students were taking a stand and trying to take control of their school. The president was becoming increasingly accountable; the sparks of the modern university were ignited.


The American Revolution marked the beginning of a turbulent time on campus. Students relocated to Concord as Yard buildings were used to house soldiers, smallpox broke out in Cambridge, and many could not afford to pay tuition. Furthermore, students openly opposed Langdon’s efforts to instill more theology into their lives. Tired of being treated like children, the students declared him unfit for presidency in August of 1780. Langdon, unable to hold imperial rule over the school, took the hint and stepped down. Langdon’s fall from grace marked a change in the power dynamics between Harvard and its president.

Rather than fall into a state of chaos, however, the University was able to rebound after the end of the war. After the relatively calm administrations of Joseph Willard, class of 1755, (1781-1804) and Samuel Webber, class of 1784, (1806-1810), the university entered what has been called the “Augustan Age of Harvard.” Under the administration of John Thornton Kirkland, class of 1789 and president from 1810-1828, the Law School (1817) and the Divinity School (1819) were formally established. Kirkland also removed a brew house, wood yard, privies, roaming sheep, and the college pig pen from the Yard.

According to Morison, Kirkland was the only Harvard president who was ever loved. As Oliver Wendell Holmes put it, his “‘shining morning face’ was round as a baby’s,” and he spoke “with smiles for accents and dimples for punctuation.”

Kirkland’s pleasant demeanor, however, may have ultimately led to his downfall. According to Gomes, Kirkland lost disciplinary control because he was “so nice.” In 1823, student riots and fights broke out over who was to give the commencement address. In a not-so-nice move, he expelled half of the senior class.

To make matters worse for Kirkland, smiles and dimples weren’t enough to manage University finances: the school ran into an enormous deficit. At a Harvard Corporation meeting, a member attacked him for his habit of “ignoring the votes of the corporation with which he did not agree.” Problems with listening and collaboration were to remain a continuing affliction of Harvard presidents. In 1828, still ill from a stroke he suffered in 1827, Kirkland resigned.

DON’T TELL ME WHAT TO DO (16 year old males take over campus)

For the first time in over 100 years, a layman—Josiah Quincy, class of 1790—took the oath of office. A tough politician, Quincy tried to lay down the law. In response, the students burned him in effigy in the Yard.

So what were students so angry about? Bad food, says Gomes. “Sometimes they rebelled for the sake of rebellion”; most students were under the age of 16. According to Gomes, the boys should have been expending these energies in activities like “fishing, farming, going out to sea.” Instead, they turned to riots. One student even died as a result of a hazing incident in 1834.

That year, the president suspended the entire sophomore class. He later faced a threatened boycott of commencement exercises by the seniors. When the smoke cleared from an 1841 explosion in the chapel, the words “A Bone for Old Quin to Pick” were found written on the wall. A few years later, Old Quin quit picking bones with students and stepped down. While Quincy’s tempestuous reign pushed the institution of the president even closer to the edge of the pedestal, real accountability was still nearly a century away.

The chaos did not subside with Harvard’s next president, the ineffectual Edward Everett, class of 1811. “Old Granny,” as students unaffectionately called him, was also killed in effigy in the Yard—this time by hanging. Although Everett was hired to help settle US/Canadian border disputes, he couldn’t settle the unrest in his own university.

Top down discipline didn’t seem to be working; students were unengaged and not impressed. What was a president to do? Perhaps angry young white males found new outlets for their aggression—the Civil War—because the next four presidents didn’t encounter much opposition. It wasn’t until Charles W. Eliot, class of 1853, took office in 1869 that the University actually reigned in and took off.


In the era of Reconstruction, Harvard was in need of its own rejuvenation. The Corporation chose Charles William Eliot as president in 1869 after he published an article titled “The New Education” in The Atlantic Monthly. This “new education,” emphasizing more personal choice and practicality, would need a special kind of leader. The 35-year-old Eliot considered himself that kind of man.

Eliot was controversial at first. Asked at a Harvard Medical School meeting why old ways of doing things had to change he answered that, “There is, sir, a new president.” Initial controversy subsided, and Eliot’s reign was marked by progress. In the spirit of change and optimism, the school adopted an innovative elective system. The “new president” was progressive for his time, and worked to create more racial diversity in the student body. Eliot was equally passionate in his hatred for football, which he saw as war practice.

After Eliot’s forty year term—the longest in Harvard’s history—A. Lawrence Lowell, class of 1877, would take the reins. While Lowell broke with the past in his love of the macho sport of football, he despised organized cheering. In a 1911 Crimson article, Lowell described the practice as “barren, poor, and meagre,” and “with less modulation, less means of expressing degrees and varieties of emotion of any kind than any other form of expression—with the possible exception of the fog-horn.”

“The last in a long line of imperial leaders,” as Gomes calls him, didn’t need a fog-horn to get his message across. Lowell’s vision spoke through his actions: concentrations, tutorials, honors, and the house system were all conceived by this man. Gomes believes that we still live in Lowell’s university. “It’s amazing how much of Lowell’s world is still here,” he adds.

Thankfully, much of Lowell’s world has also ceased to exist. Lowell attempted to ban black students from the Yard and place quotas on Jewish admissions. He publicly opposed the appointment of Louis Brandeis—a prominent Jewish lawyer—to the Supreme Court, and was involved in the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti.

Gomes says that in spite of his controversial legacy, one can’t deny the viability of Lowell’s contributions. “The great irony,” he adds with a laugh, “is that he wouldn’t approve of me, but I approve of him. But I am here, and he is dead.”

In 1933, James Bryant Conant ’14 would take office. As world politics took on an increasingly global preoccupation, university politics, too, would witness drastic changes. The age of the imperial leader had ended, and Harvard entered the age of collaboration, a tradition in which early indications suggest Faust will flourish.


Although Roxbury Latin School had tried to keep Conant out—his mother said he couldn’t spell—Harvard invited him in. Until 1953, the chemist and self-made man would promote the sciences, standardization, and academic scholarships, and often worked off-campus on the Manhattan Project. Conant’s successor Nathan M. Pusey ’28, had a strong presence at Harvard, and not just for academic reasons. An August 8, 1953 headline from the Boston Globe stated that, according to the “girls,” Pusey was “the best-looking head ever at Harvard.”

There was more to Pusey than just charming good looks. According to Gomes, the difference between Conant and Pusey was that of the absent scientist versus the present humanist; Pusey had a “very fresh perspective.” But Pusey’s progressiveness was not enough to shelter him from the tumult of his era.

In 1969, a group of students took over University Hall in response to the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps’s (ROTC) presence on campus. Pusey had them arrested. After this controversial move and the subsequent outcry, Pusey chose to step down rather than to prolong an embattled atmosphere on campus.

Pusey was not alone—the presidents of Boston University, the University of Massachusetts and Brandeis University also resigned amidst the turmoil of the 1970s. According to a February 1970 statement from Louis M. Lyons of WGBH-TV & -FM, “None of these men had reached the time of retirement. [Pusey] asks to be relieved in June 1971 instead of holding on to 1973...on the ground that Harvard must open a new chapter of development that calls for younger leadership.”

Rather than assert his own power—as his presidential predecessors may have done—Pusey peacefully acknowledged a need for change. The following presidencies would continue to promote a sense of collaboration for the greater university good. Derek C. Bok, a faculty minded man, would hold office from 1971 to 1991. Neil L. Rudenstine, who Gomes says “tried to restore humane ideals,” served from 1991 to 2001. Students and faculty were, for the most part, content.

In 2001, Lawrence H. Summers took office.

Controversial, outspoken, and always his own man, Summers was—in the words of Gomes—“a throwback to an earlier era.” Vintage style, however, isn’t always to the tastes of students and faculty.

“The age of the dominating personality is gone and not likely to be repeated,” says Gomes. Gomes compares Summers’s attempt to bring back the trend to “putting toothpaste back in the tube.”

Summers’ presidency only lasted five years, the shortest term since the mid-19th century. He left the University in a state of discontent and disillusionment. Harvard stood at a pivotal moment in its history.


Less than a week ago, the long chain that began with a crotchety “Master” was formally introduced to its newest link, a Civil War historian with a reputation for fostering community.

Victor S. Thomas Professor of Divinity Leila Ahmed was “absolutely delighted and amazed at the wisdom of the committee.” She notes that Faust’s background at Radcliffe and awareness of feminist and gender scholarship bring a special perspective to the presidency. Professor of History of Art and Architecture Ewa Lajer-Burcharth wrote in an e-mail that Faust “has a special leadership style, which I would describe as gentle but determined: she knows what she wants.”

While Faust’s gender is an important indicator of the drastic changes the institution of the president has undergone, it is reductive to harp on it too much; its not what earned her the accolade, and it certainly isn’t what will decide the success of her term. If anything is to be learned from her predecessors, it is that the president’s personal attributes are secondary to his or her ability to respond to the needs of the community.

Gomes reflects on what it takes to fill the office. “You don’t have to be the brightest person in the world,” he says. You also shouldn’t be “paranoid or pathological.” One should, however, “trust the faculty and work with them; recognize talent and reward it.”

And do not flog your students.


Increase Mather, class of 1656, received America’s first honorary S.T.D. (Doctorate in Sacred Theology) from Harvard College in 1692.

Samuel Locke, class of 1755, resigned when he learned that he impregnated his housekeeper. He was banished to the western part of Massachussets.

Edward Holyoke, class of 1705, outlawed the practice of flogging students. Finally!

Josiah Quincy, class of 1790 (burned)
Edward Everett, class of 1811 (hung)

George Whitefield, a revivalist preacher, called it one in the 1740s

Third president Leonard Hoar, class of 1650, (1672-1675) was accused of cruelty towards students. Amidst other problems, he resigned.

Mrs. Nathaniel Eaton, wife of Harvard’s first leader, denied putting it in the students’ hasty pudding.