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'Against the Root of Privilege'

The Dawn of Meritocracy: A Profile of President James Bryant Conant

President Conant
President Conant By Wikimedia Commons
By Clio C. Smurro, Crimson Staff Writer

On December 2, 1942, James Bryant Conant—Harvard University President and the chairman of the National Defense Research Committee—received a phone call from prominent physicist Arthur Compton.

“The Italian navigator has landed in the New World,” said Compton—an improvised coded message to notify Conant of the first successful nuclear chain reaction, a crucial step in the development of the atomic bomb.

“How were the natives?” Conant responded without missing a beat.

“Very friendly,” Compton replied.

With this short, impromptu exchange, Conant became one of the first people in the world to learn of the military technology that would end World War II and change the course of human history.

President of Harvard from 1933 to 1953, Conant is remembered for his decades of service to both the University and the nation. Ever committed to meritocratic principles, Conant increased financial aid and promoted the expansion of standardized testing at Harvard, while simultaneously maintaining involvement in several government projects during and after the war. In this way, Conant’s legacy extends beyond Harvard to encompass the society in which he lived. More than a powerful university president, he was a quiet yet profound leader of Cold War America.

The first in his family to attend college, Conant’s socioeconomic background represented a significant departure from those of his immediate predecessors, Charles William Eliot and Abbott Lawrence Lowell, both of whom came from established Boston Brahmin families.

Born in Dorchester, Mass., in 1893, Conant graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard in 1914 with a degree in chemistry, earning his Ph.D. in 1917 and later becoming a professor.

When Conant was appointed University president in 1933, one of his top priorities was to “swing an axe against the root of privilege” through the expansion of financial aid, which he believed would allow for greater socioeconomic diversity in the student body. At Conant’s very first Harvard Corporation meeting in September 1933, he proposed a major fundraising effort, later known as the 300th Anniversary Fund, which supported the creation of national scholarships for talented students regardless of their financial backgrounds.

Conant was also a firm believer in the power of standardized testing to help college administrators identify and admit qualified students based on merit rather than social connections or class. He was a strong advocate for the widespread adoption of the Scholastic Aptitude Test and, later, for the creation of the Educational Testing Service, for which he served as the founding chairman.

Conant’s role in reshaping standardized testing was one of many endeavors that reflect his overarching commitment to issues of national importance. Over the course of several decades, Conant testified before U.S. Senate committees on topics ranging from federal aid to education, the creation of the National Science Foundation, and the development of the Lend-Lease Program—an important wartime initiative that allowed the U.S. to supply its allies with military resources during World War II, moving away from its previous policy of isolationism.

As the U.S. became increasingly drawn into World War II, Conant’s involvement in government projects intensified. In 1941, he was appointed to chair the National Defense Research Committee, which directly supported the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb, and was present at the bomb’s first testing in New Mexico in July 1945. He also worked as a special deputy to the head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development Vannevar Bush, who was also Vice President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a close personal friend.

Conant also supported the American war efforts in subtler ways. He conferred with President Franklin D. Roosevelt on military issues and traveled to England as an emissary for defense research. In July 1944, as the war was drawing to a close, Conant allowed the U.S. State Department to use Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks Research Library in Washington, D.C. for a conference on postwar security. The conference resulted in the Dumbarton Oaks Proposals, which helped create the charter of the United Nations. Personally concerned with postwar nuclear safety, Conant traveled to Moscow shortly after the end of the conflict to participate in talks with Great Britain and the Soviet Union about nuclear weapons controls.

Concurrently with his wartime political projects, Conant led a significant review of the undergraduate curriculum at Harvard in the 1940s. With Provost Paul H. Buck, Conant developed the General Education Program to encourage study in a broad array of liberal arts, laying the foundation for the current General Education curriculum. In particular, he advocated the development of the history of science as an academic discipline. Shifting the emphasis of the standard curriculum away from the classics, Conant focused on instruction in the sciences and current affairs.

In 1945, he published a summary of the program entitled “General Education in a Free Society,” a text that later became colloquially known as the “Red Book.” The principles of Conant’s pedagogical philosophy extended beyond universities and impacted both high school and college curricula around the country.

During his 20-year tenure, Conant also oversaw important changes in the physical and pedagogical structure of the University, including the construction of Houghton and Lamont libraries and the creation of the Graduate School of Design, the Graduate School of Public Administration—later renamed the John F. Kennedy School of Government—and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism. The integration of female students at Radcliffe College into Harvard College classrooms—initially a temporary wartime measure—also occurred under his presidency, as did the creation of University Professorships, special academic distinctions awarded to distinguished faculty members to support interdisciplinary research.

“The University salutes all who are leaving Harvard to serve the nation,” said Conant on a cold winter morning in a valedictory address to the Class of 1943, whose graduation ceremony had been hastened so that the young men could enter the military service earlier.

“[Every man] feels it in his bones that men ought to be free,” he said, reminding the students of the importance of defending liberty, the greater purpose behind their sacrifice.

Like the young graduates, Conant dedicated his life to serving both Harvard and the nation. His legacy of establishing an academic meritocracy at the university level and protecting American democracy at the national level reflects a man who valued liberty in all its forms and appreciated its worth down to his very bones.

arvard University, the oldest institution of higher learning in America, celebrates its 375th birthday today, and it will be feted with the fanfare appropriate for such a milestone.

At its birthday party this evening, Harvard will be serenaded by renowned cellist YoYo Ma ’76 and honored with an enormous 8-by-15 foot cake prepared by another notable alumna, celebrity chef Joanne Chang ’91.

After feasting on a specially prepared dinner (which will include dishes such as hasty pudding), undergraduates will parade into Tercentary Theatre to celebrate their university’s founding. There will be dancing, munching on hors d’oeuvres, and even an open bar under twinkling lights strung from tree to tree.

It all sounds very grand, but compared to Harvard’s 350th anniversary the affair is a low-key one. That anniversary was celebrated with a formal dinner, an appearance by the Prince of Wales, and a performance by the Boston Pops. President Reagan was invited by declined to attend.

Today, a shadow hangs over the celebration.

Following World War II, Harvard largely hitched its fortunes to the United States and rode to the top as the country ascended as a world power. In the post-war years, Harvard and the federal government grew closer as Congress appropriated increased funding for scientific research, helping to fuel the expansion of the University.

But now, as America’s star has begun to dim and other countries are diluting United States’ influence on the international stage, will Harvard’s fate be once again entwined with America’s?

THE COMING OF A SUPERPOWER

During World War II, the relationship between Harvard and Washington had grown so cozy that Economic Professor John Kenneth Galbraith later quipped that the war years were a time “when you could hold a faculty meeting every Friday on the Federal Express bound for Washington.”

Harvard had strong ties with American government since the nation’s founding—eight Harvard men signed the Declaration of Independence—but this bond took on new meaning during the World War II.

Harvard first received federal funding in the late 1800s as the United States government began to focus on promoting education (the Department of Education, then called the Office of Education, was founded in 1867). But federal funding for science research flooded into Harvard during World War II as the United States looked to academics and researchers to develop technology that would keep its military competitive with Axis powers.

University President James Bryant Conant, a chemist by profession, was instrumental in facilitating this interchange between Harvard and the government during his twenty years in office from 1933 to 1953.

During World War I, Conant had served in the Chemical Warfare Service and headed the research unit that created mustard gas. When war broke out in Europe for a second time, Conant, then president of Harvard, jumped at the opportunity to aid the United States’ efforts to update and advance its military technology. He chaired the National Defense Research Council, which oversaw the development of the atomic bomb, from 1939 to 1946. He was an adviser to the Manhattan Project, the secret effort led Robert Oppenheimer to build an atom bomb.

Conant’s work during World War II was part and parcel of Harvard’s expansion in the sciences, and his work helped lay the groundwork for post-war collaboration between American universities and the government.

But other parts of the University also profited from federal funding for science research, which freed up money for the social sciences and humanities departments. The G. I. Bill, passed in 1944, provided funding that enabled over two million veterans to attend college, most of who probably would not have otherwise. With financial support from the federal government, Harvard was a rapidly expanding place during the war years.

As World War II drew to a close, it became clear that America was indisputably the dominant Western power. World War II had ravaged Europe. European nations suffered heavy losses in casualties, finances, and damage to infrastructure. At this unique moment in history, America was a prospering nation while the economies of its former competitors were in shambles, and American universities rode the rising tide of U.S. power to educational preeminence.

“In the 1960s, Americans enjoyed an enormous advantage in terms of the amount available to them,” Professor Louis Menand, a scholar of the Cold War, said. “They used more electricity, consumed more calories, and had more cars than anyone else in the world.”

Today, Harvard receives over $600 million in funding from the federal government, and that number jumps to $1.2 billion if Harvard-affiliated hospitals are included. While the government’s commitment to Harvard may have not wavered much in recent years, the United States is no longer the superpower it once was. China and India have become economic powerhouses as the U.S. economy has been wracked with recession and downturns.

And amid economic headwinds and a growing desire for fiscal belt-tightening in Washington, that funding may now be in danger. Several political leaders—including President Obama—have made promises that funding for research will not land on the chopping block, but that is far from certain in the current political climate. Continued instability in the markets and the threat of another recession only heightens the possibility that Harvard will face a shortfall of funding in coming years.

More broadly, a general sense of American decline—and the rise of other countries—threatens the sense of American superiority that has buttressed Harvard’s standing. But professors say that Harvard should be able to maintain its international prestige even if American power is eclipsed on the international stage and its economy weakens.

“I don’t think the University’s standing is dependent on the perpetuation of American economic hegemony,” said James T. Kloppenberg, chair of the history department and a scholar of American history. “The persistence of Harvard’s excellence is dependent on whether we continue to attract the best and brightest, and not so much if America continues to be the economic juggernaut it has been.”

“As long as people think that they can find the best education anywhere here at Harvard, and as long as they’re willing to come to Cambridge that position of dominance should not be too threatened,” he added.

Others say that while the support of the American government and America’s position on the international stage are important for Harvard to retain its standing, they suggest that Harvard’s reputation will in large part be dependent on its “cultural capital.”

“The problem of maintaining status, something that Harvard and many leading U.S. institutions face, is huge,” said Michael Tworek, a graduate student in the history department who teaches a seminar called “The University and Society.” “Harvard’s position is dependent on a combination of two factors: political support and cultural capital. These are essential in terms of allowing Harvard to keep its preeminent place in the world.”

Tworek and Kloppenberg said that as long as Harvard’s alumni and faculty continue to be innovators and leaders, American decline would not necessarily extend to Cambridge.

“Universities are best judged by the products it produces,” Tworek said.

Or to put it in economic terms: “Higher education is an export commodity, and it’s very much in demand,” Menand said. “People all around the world want to come to Harvard, because most countries don’t have the liberal education that you can get here.”

LEGACY OF REFORM

Hic in silvestribus et incultis locis angli domo profugi anno post christum natum CIC IC C XXXVI post coloniam huc deductam vi sadientiam rati ante omnia colendam scholam publice condiderunt conditam christo et ecclesiae dicaverunt.

In the dark wood above the stage in Sanders Theatre are inscribed the following words:

“Here in wooded and uncultivated places Englishmen, fugitives from home, in the year after the birth of Christ 1636 (and) after the colony was founded here, the sixth, because they thought that wisdom was to be cultivated before all else, founded a school by public enactment and when founded dedicated (it) to Christ and his Church.”

Today, Harvard bears little resemblance to the place described in these Latin lines, and Harvard’s legacy of reform and change may also help the University remain resilient in if the United States’ decline continues.

As Conant pointed out in 1936, Harvard has undergone many transformations in its lifetime.

“Harvard was founded by dissenters,” he said. “Before two generations had passed there was a general dissent from the first dissent. Heresy has long been in the air.”

Among the most significant of these dissenters were Conant’s two predecessors, Charles William Eliot and Abbot Lawrence Lowell. Eliot, who served as president from 1869 to 1909, made great strides in bringing Harvard from the Protestant religious seminary founded in 1636 to the modern university it is today.

“The university must accommodate itself promptly to significant changes in the character of the people for whom it exists,” Eliot said during his presidency.

Inspired by German universities, Eliot revamped the College’s curriculum and academic structure, creating the elective system. He created academic departments and shifted focus from the classical learning model to one that emphasized more practical pursuits.

“Eliot asked if what the University was providing as training was preparing students for society’s needs, and this was a very important shift within Harvard,” Tworek said. “And he saw that Harvard was not fulfilling the larger needs of society.”

“We seek to train doers, achievers, men whose successful careers are much subservient to the public good. We are not interested here in producing languid observers of the world, mere spectators n the game of life, or fastidious critics of other men’s labors,” he said on another occasion.

Lowell, who held office from 1909 to 1933, furthered Eliot’s modernization of Harvard and created the concentration system, which remains in place today, though it has been adjusted since Lowell’s time.

Lowell also began to push for greater meritocracy, a priority also adopted by Conant. Under the latter, meritocratic reforms were put in place to open the University to students and faculty who were from what were then considered non-traditional backgrounds.

“The rise from its earlier status from bastion of the New England elite to a broader stage had everything to do with the opening up of the faculty and student body,” Kloppenberg said.

And these academics say that this spirit of reform will help Harvard remain on top.

“Harvard I think in many respects has recognized that an evolving curriculum is crucial,” Tworek said. “Curriculum allows students to be players in the global marketplace, the global sphere, and that, in turn, benefits the University’s reputation.”

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