From Harvard to the Hill: Chuck Schumer’s Years at the College
UPDATED: May 3, 2018 at 2:36 p.m.
The 115th Congress boasts more than 40 Harvard graduates split between the House and Senate. But, at Harvard, no connection reaches as high as Senator Charles E. “Chuck” Schumer ’71 of New York, the Democratic Leader.
The former Adams House resident became the Senate’s top-ranking Democrat in 2017—coming into the role on the heels of President Donald Trump’s victory and during a period of historic political polarization.
As a top congressional leader, Schumer has met with University President Drew G. Faust multiple times during her lobbying trips to Washington, D.C., where she's argued for protections for immigrants and research funding, and against a recently passed tax on some University endowments.
But before he hobnobbed with the University's president, Schumer was just another undergraduate at the College.
Like many of his classmates, much of Schumer’s political ideology was molded and shaped while in college. The senator received his bachelor’s degree from the College and a J.D. from the Law School before formally launching his political career. Long before he ran for office, he was a Social Studies concentrator and a Harvard Democrat.
“People often ask me what Chuck was like in college and my answer is—and I really think it’s true—basically the same as he is today,” David A. Barrett ’71 said about his old college roommate.
When Schumer first moved into Matthews Hall in fall 1967 after attending a working class high school in Brooklyn, he planned to pursue a science-heavy education. Schumer filled his schedule with advanced life science courses, before discovering his true passion: politics.
In the spring of 1968, Schumer tested the political waters by volunteering on the presidential campaign for Democratic senator Eugene J. McCarthy. McCarthy was narrowly defeated by the incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson in the New Hampshire primary.
Schumer wrote in an email that he credits McCarthy’s campaign with Johnson’s ultimate decision not to seek re-election—and to the development of his own interest in politics.
“I said to myself, ‘Wow. A ragtag group of students and other assorted nobodies toppled the most powerful man in the world. This is what I want to dedicate my life to,’” Schumer wrote.
Returning to campus in the fall, the future senator changed his concentration from Chemistry to Social Studies and quickly became an influential voice on Harvard’s highly politicized campus of the late 1960's. Among other roles, he served as president of the Young Democrats Organization.
Schumer’s political involvement was not limited to extracurriculars, but also seeped into his academic interests, which eventually culminated in a thesis on congressional politics entitled, “216 Congressmen; a study of Congressional activity and time allocations.”
While the Committee on Degrees in Social Studies has evolved since Schumer’s time at the College, Anya B. Bassett, the Social Studies director of studies, stressed the importance of the curriculum to gaining an interdisciplinary understanding of complex social issues.
“Many [Social Studies students] leave Social Studies and go on to lives of service in law, medicine, non-profit work, activism, teaching, and politics” Bassett said.
Bassett said Social Studies has a long history of producing politicians from the national level to the local level.
“Schumer’s newest political heirs in Social Studies are David LeBoeuf ’13, who is running for State Representative in Massachusetts this year, and Chloe Maxmin ’15, who is running for State Representative in Maine,” Bassett added.
Schumer looks back fondly on his time at the College, where he at one point took the equivalent of Economics 10: “Principles of Economics.”
He described it as “one of the most important classes I ever took,” along with writing his senior thesis on the nuances of congressional time allocation. He maintains, however, that his most enlightening time at Harvard was spent amongst peers.
“The best education I got was at the Adams House Dining Room where we’d sit for hours and hours and talk about the great problems, great challenges and great opportunities in life,” Schumer wrote. “I learned so much there, the Harvard student body was frankly the best teachers that I had.”
Schumer carried this affinity for a dining hall education into his political career, according to Barrett.
“That genuine interest in people and ability to remember people without index cards is something that you actually see today,” Barrett said. “He really cares about interacting with people and what makes them tick, what are their problems and that’s very genuine and I think it existed at that time.”
Schumer wrote the Harvard he entered as a freshman "changed dramatically" over his four years at the College.
“When I was a freshman you had to wear a jacket and tie to breakfast lunch and dinner," he wrote. "Women were allowed in the rooms from two to five on Sundays and you’d get suspended or even booted from Harvard if you violated those rules.”
The period was also a tumultuous time for Harvard, with frequent student protests in and around the Yard. Campus politics were mired in national issues, like the tension over the Vietnam War and the military draft. According to Barrett, Schumer sometimes utilized his position in the Young Democrats Organization to calm the waters.
“Chuck was always very much a moderate. Understanding I think the way that both sides felt but trying to sort of steer a middle course in a constructive way which is what I think he still tries to do politically,” Barrett added.
Schumer attributes the political environment on Harvard’s campus during this time to the formation of his own ideology.
“I was president of the Harvard Young Democrats and we were mainly involved in the anti-war movement; planning rallies, writing letters and making phone calls and doing all of that. And so it had a major, major effect on me,” Schumer wrote.
Campus tensions boiled over in an incident in spring 1969 when student protesters took over University Hall and were violently "busted" by state and local police. The event, dubbed by students at the time as “The Bust,” left a lasting mark on Harvard students, including Schumer.
Barrett recalled one of most exciting moments of the strike and resulting bust. It was 6 a.m. when the local and state police confronted the protesting students.
“I remember all four of us were running over from Adams House to the Yard to see what was going on and it, you know, was a very very fraught thing,” Barrett said.
Schumer wrote that, not only did the College change during his undergraduate years, but the world around it changed too.
“The world dramatically changed, within a few years there was co-ed education, women and men living in the houses together and many other changes that I’m sure people are familiar with,” Schumer wrote.
“While it has changed dramatically, learning from your fellow students and making lifelong friends at Harvard has remained the same and it’s one of the best aspects of the Harvard education,” he added.
Now, more than four decades after his graduation, Harvard has returned to Schumer. In a period of tension between elite universities and the federal government that has escalated in recent years, Faust has stepped up her advocacy in Washington. In February 2017, Faust met with Schumer and Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, to discuss research funding and immigration policy in the wake of Trump’s inauguration.
As Harvard’s President-elect Lawrence S. Bacow takes the University’s helm this summer, he will likely continue Faust's struggle to make the case for Harvard before a Congress and presidential administration often at odds with the University’s goals. Bacow has already indicated his intent to lobby on Harvard’s behalf—a task that will likely involve help from a Harvard graduate, the Senate’s top Democrat.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: May 3, 2018
A previous version of this article incorrectly indicated David A. Barrett ’71 called Charles E. “Chuck” Schumer ’71 a "nodder." In fact, Barrett called Schumer a "moderate."
—Staff writer Benjamin E. Frimodig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Isabel M. Kendall can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @IsabelMKendall.
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