Former FAS Dean Reflects on Harvard’s Past and Present

Henry Rosovsky, who led the Faculty of Arts and Sciences from 1973 to 1991, muses on current campus discussions

Former Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Henry Rosovsky mused recently on current issues on campus, as well as his time at Harvard, articulating persistent problems in academia—including cases of sexual and gender-based harassment, the artificial rankings of higher education institutions, and the challenges of retaining top professors—as well as their current manifestations at the University.

“It always seems inevitable that when you look back, you say, ‘Gee, you know, in my day, things were really much, much better,’ but that’s just a human condition,” said Rosovsky, who during his tenure at the University was Chair of the Economics Department, a member of the Harvard Corporation, and twice the acting University President.

During his time at the helm of Harvard’s flagship Faculty, from 1973 to 1991, Rosovsky said final clubs and single-gender organizations did not seem to have large memberships or even to cross the minds of many students, faculty members, and administrators, in comparison to recent administrative pressure on the social groups.

“I came as a graduate student in 1949, so I’ve seen the place for a long time, and I don’t remember a period where final clubs existed,” Rosovsky said. “I lived in Kirkland House for quite a few years, so it’s not that I was divorced from undergraduate life… But I don’t remember these things.”

In 1984, during Rosovsky’s deanship, College administrators cut ties with final clubs, citing their exclusion of women and, in turn, announcing their status as unrecognized social groups. The Bee, the first female final club, was founded in 1991.


Last spring, the College announced sanctions on unrecognized single-gender social organizations. Starting with Harvard’s Class of 2021, undergraduate members of such organizations, including final clubs, fraternities, and sororities, will be banned from holding leadership positions in recognized student groups. They also will be ineligible for College endorsement for top fellowships, including the Rhodes and Marshall.

Rosovsky questioned the lack of Faculty-wide conversations that took place before the announcement of the new policy.

“I think—this is looking from the outside—my impression is that this policy or change in policy was never discussed on the Faculty, and I don’t know why,” Rosovsky said. “There may be very good reason.”

Twelve professors in May spoke out against the policy, issuing a motion that resolved, “Harvard College shall not discriminate against students on the basis of organizations they join.” The Faculty is slated to discuss that motion at next Tuesday’s monthly FAS meeting.

Although professors emeriti cannot speak or vote during FAS meetings, they can attend and listen to the discussion. Rosovsky said he would be interested in hearing the different sides discuss their views.

“The questions are fairly obvious, but I mean I assume that ‘the administration’ has thought about these issues and is prepared to talk about it,” he said.

Rosovsky also emphasized how unclear it is whether a Faculty vote in favor of the motion would override the College policy.

“I don’t know what the answer is,” Rosovsky said. “Some people think that if the Faculty votes against this, it has to disappear. Other people tend to—you know, these are administrative decisions. I really don’t know.”


Rosovsky also said the current economic situation at Harvard also differs from the financial conditions during his deanship. In the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s, Rosovsky said the endowment saw rapid inflation and very little growth—or “stagflation. “ This year, the endowment lost $2 billion.

He added that since current FAS Dean Michael D. Smith assumed the position in July 2007, just as the nation’s financial crisis erupted, the priorities of the job have been very different from that time through today.

“I have a feeling that a great deal of his time has been spent dealing with the consequences of [the crisis]. I didn’t have that particular problem,” Rosovsky said. “Doesn’t mean that we felt rich, but it was a very different kind of situation.”

During his own time as FAS Dean, Rosovsky said he was passionate about growing and developing the Faculty.

“The thing that really interested me about all this was the academic part: the faculty, the quality of the faculty, the quality of education,” he said. “You don’t want to get caught up in all of the administrative, and all of the side issues.”

Today’s professors and administration appear to pay more attention to pedagogy in the classroom, how they teach and what their students learn, Rosovsky said, adding that such careful examination of curricula seems to happens every few years.


Over the past several years, campus dialogue has centered around sexual assault and gender-based discrimination—problems administrators have described as “deeply disturbing.”

Though the specific issues were specific to his time, Rosovsky also described gender-based segregation in Harvard’s classrooms in the mid-20th century. As a graduate student in economics in the 1950s, Rosovsky taught female-only sections of the department’s introductory course, Economics 10: “Principles of Economics.”

“If you were unmarried, the chairman of the Economics Department always assigned you to an all-female section. That must seem a little strange, but it’s true,” Rosovsky said. “Lectures and things like that were integrated, but not the sections. I can’t tell you why.”

In an increasingly competitive market for top professors, universities including Harvard also consistently have faced problematic external rankings of higher education institutions, Rosovsky said.

“I really don’t like rankings,” he said. “I’ve never understood how you can reduce a university to an index number.”

For some administrators, rankings and how they influence professors’ decisions to accept or reject offers, are a cause for concern.

In recent years, many professors and administrators have worried that Rosovsky’s former department, Economics, has lost its top-notch footing. In the fall of 2015, for example, Raj Chetty ’00, a MacArthur Prize-winning economist, traded Harvard’s ivy tower for Stanford’s sunny, buzzing campus.

“I also know that there are these tensions in the Economics Department, with the administration, but I don’t hang around the corridors of power,” Rosovsky said. “I really don’t know quite what all the inside story is, and I’m not particularly anxious to get involved.”

“Unless you are in the seat of power, you never understand what all the pressures are,” he added. “Unless you’re there, unless you have the responsibility, it’s really hard to know what the full story is.”

All colleges, moreover, has advantages and drawbacks for the faculty who choose to teach there, Rosovsky said, and sometimes the differences among schools may be difficult to discern.

“I realize that it’s very competitive and comparative. I do think that when we lose people, as we have, that should be a matter of concern,” Rosovsky said. “Now you know there are all sorts of reasons why people move. I moved here from Berkeley for very good reasons, and that’s fine. In general the thing that really concerns me is the fact that public higher education is under such tremendous pressure.”

—Staff writer Melissa C. Rodman can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @melissa_rodman.


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