At the turn of the 20th century, the chasm between rich and poor Harvard students was becoming impossible to overlook, as it threatened to engulf the campus in revolt.
Some students arrived at Harvard “with allowances of fifteen thousand dollars a year pocket money, with automobiles and servants, living in gorgeous suites in palatial apartment houses”; while others in the same class “starved in attic bedrooms,” wrote journalist John S. Reed, who graduated from Harvard in 1910.
During Reed’s senior year, the tension between students with servants and those struggling to afford food erupted in a “democratic revolution,” as Reed later termed it. An election for student government became a war between the rich and poor — between “the Street,” named for their private apartments on Mount Auburn, and “the Yard,” for the less well-off students who occupied dorms in Harvard Yard.
Walter Lippmann, class of 1910, led the charge for the Yard. Lippmann had co-founded the Harvard Socialist club in 1908, which discussed socialist philosophy, agitated for change in workers’ rights on campus, and even drafted socialist bills and sent them to the state legislature. The unequal representation in student government for residents of the Yard was an issue suited for Lippmann’s attention. At a meeting on the issue of the “The Yard and The Street,” Lippmann gave an impassioned speech to the 800 students in attendance – a whopping one-third of the entire student body. Lippmann’s speech left the hall in a hush.
Reed, Lippmann’s contemporary, had oscillated between trying to win the acceptance of the Harvard elite and associating himself with the rising group of rebels. Reed came from a well-off family in Oregon, but was not part of the aristocratic scene at Harvard; he had been rejected from the exclusive “waiting clubs,” in his sophomore year, which funneled members into “final clubs” as juniors and seniors, and came to scorn the elites alongside Lippmann. But Reed still courted the appeal of aristocrats and never became a member of Lippmann’s Socialist Club. Reed’s “social conscience was still dormant,” his biographer Eric Homberger wrote. And this time, in the 1910 student election, Reed aligned himself against Lippmann — with the aristocrats.
In the battle between Yard and Street, the Yard — the poor — prevailed. The Yard, Lippmann’s biographer, Ronald Steel writes, “asserted their numerical strength,” capturing most of the student offices.
After graduating, Reed disavowed the aristocracy once and for all: He went on to report from the frontlines of the Russian Revolution and is one of three Americans buried in the Kremlin. Lippmann, on the other hand, turned away from revolution and towards incrementalism, and never wrote about his victory in the war between rich and poor at Harvard.
These forces of class conflict on campus surfaced under the longest-serving president, Charles W. Eliot, class of 1853, who led Harvard from 1869 to 1909.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries under Eliot, Harvard’s student body became more heterogeneous than peer schools like Yale and Princeton. Due in part to shifts in admissions criteria, the University began to draw from a wider variety of socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. A 1910 book surveying the “great American universities” asserted that while Princeton strove for homogeneity, “Harvard’s ideal,” simply put, “[was] diversity.”
President Eliot opened up the gates of Harvard to more and different kinds of students. But opening up the gates led to stratification within them. With the changing composition of the student body came fragmentation along lines of class and a broader tension between cohesion and diversity that would long outlast Eliot’s tenure.
President Charles W. Eliot came to Harvard by way of the Boston elite. A descendant of early “Boston Brahmin,” Eliot attended the Boston Latin School and Harvard College. He became a member of the Harvard faculty and, disillusioned with the strict requirements for students during his time, implemented sweeping changes when he became president.
Most central to Eliot’s ideology was freedom, which for him meant flexibility for students to craft their own academic futures. Eliot instituted the elective system, under which students had leeway to choose courses from a variety of subjects. He also abolished compulsory chapel and did away with attendance requirements in classes.
Eliot’s notion of freedom and individualism applied to the realm of admissions, too, easing open the Harvard gates: “The poorest and the richest students are equally welcome here, provided that with their poverty or their wealth they bring capacity, ambition, and purity,” he proclaimed in his inaugural address in 1869.
Though imperfectly, Eliot followed through on his initial promises over his 40 years as president, adopting some policies that benefited the less-wealthy.
At the beginning of Eliot’s presidency, the admissions test was far from flexible. In the 1880s prospective students descended on Sever Hall to take three days of exams, the majority of which were fixed in topic. Day One of exams in 1884 began with sight-reading Caesar from 9-10 a.m., and continued with “Latin Translation at Sight and Composition” from 10-11 a.m., and “Xenophon at Sight” from 11:30 to 12:30 p.m. The latter included the “translation at sight of easy passages from Xenophon.” Easy, that is, for those who attended the private schools that taught Greek and Latin, such as Andover, Groton, or St. Marks, or one of a handful of public schools that did, like Eliot’s alma mater, Boston Latin. The entrance exams were held only at Harvard and a few private schools. The afternoon of Day One brought little relief for a boy ill-versed in the classics: It ended with a choice between reading Cicero, or Virgil and Ovid, or composing in Latin.
It was Eliot’s long-standing mission to remove the required Greek and Latin tests from entrance examinations: He thought students should be able to select the subjects that they were most interested in and pursue them without restraint.
But the faculty wouldn’t let Eliot eliminate the classics requirements without a fight. In 1875, the president brought “The Greek Question” to a vote among the faculty, proposing alternatives for the Greek section of the entrance exam. He was sharply defeated: The resolution received only six faculty ayes and a whopping 18 nays. One of the nays wrote that a background in Greek and Latin classics was crucial to the success of any potential Harvard student, inculcating in the mind “vigor and precision of thought and clearness and grace of expression.”
After years of protracted debate, Eliot finally prevailed. In 1886, Harvard no longer required Greek in the entrance examinations.
By changing the required subjects for the entrance exam, Eliot made Harvard more accessible to students from public schools. In the 1904-1905 academic year, toward the end of Eliot’s tenure, Harvard also joined the College Entrance Examination Board. The Board, formed in 1900, produced standardized exams for admission to the leading American colleges at the time. The test tripled the number of exam locations, allowing more public school students to apply. According to “The Chosen,” Jerome B. Karabel’s ’72 history of admissions at elite universities, 45 percent of the College was composed of students from public schools by 1908, Eliot’s last academic year in office.
Eliot’s admissions changes didn’t occur in a vacuum: They were enacted at a time of great demographic shifts in the United States and at Harvard itself.
The end of the 19th century saw the fastest growth yet of Harvard’s student body, and with it, new challenges to maintaining cohesion. For the first two centuries of Harvard’s existence, each incoming class had fewer than 100 students, but in the last two decades of the 19th century, enrollment expanded astronomically. The incoming class size reached 100 students in 1860, but by 1906, in the final years of Eliot’s presidency, there were more than 600 students in the incoming class.
President Eliot credited Harvard’s increasingly flexible admissions system with attracting more applicants. But elsewhere, he acknowledged that even with the alternatives to Greek and Latin, the exam was still quite demanding, quipping that “only a small proportion of boys and girls… take kindly to advanced mathematics.” While marginally more accessible, the barrier to entry remained high.
The more likely explanation for the rapid expansion, then, might have to do with broader demographic shifts in the United States in the late 1800s, as historian Laurence R. Veysey suggests in “The Emergence of the American University.” A college degree gained more value in the late 19th century, as established Anglo-Saxon families began to distinguish themselves from the waves of newly arrived immigrants by earning degrees. A degree, Veysey wrote, “especially one which no longer required the bother of learning Greek or Latin, could become a tempting trademark… increasingly accessible to any family affluent enough to spare the earning power of its sons in their late teens.” A college education, he suggests, functioned as “an insurance policy against downward mobility.”
But with the new changes in admissions standards, those same Anglo-Saxon families could no longer insulate themselves from the changing social landscape of the United States within Harvard’s gates. With more students came what Veysey describes as a “new and democratic’ element” at Harvard. After the mid-1880s, Catholics, Jewish students, and the occasional black student began matriculating to Harvard in greater numbers. According to Karabel, the class which entered in 1908 included 29 black students and 60 international students — a dramatic shift from just half a century prior.
Under Eliot’s presidency, philosopher William M. James suggested in an address given at the time, students hailed from “the remotest outskirts of our country, without introductions, without school affiliations.” His speech was entitled “The True Harvard.”
Yet the larger, more-diverse student body was intensely stratified.
Wealth stratification ran especially rampant. Expenses listed in late 19th century Harvard admissions catalogues included a budget for a “Servant” for the largest spenders, side-by-side with categories like “Clothing” and “Societies and subscription to sports.” An 1887 survey, which Professor G.H. Palmer presented at commencement that year, found that the richest students spent ten times as much as the poorest. The graduating class ranged from spending $400 to $4,000 a year, Palmer announced, concluding direly that “It may be believed that even after restraint and wisdom are used, Harvard remains the college of the rich.”
In the 1890s, deluxe private apartments were built on Mount Auburn Street. The wealthiest students undertook a mass exodus from Yard dorms to sleek lodgings on the “Gold Coast” or “Street,” giving rise to the geographical class divide that spurred the 1910 clash between Street and Yard.
The Gold Coast was a social hub: Some of the buildings had swimming pools and squash courts, and the apartments were close to other popular social hang-outs like billiard parlors in Harvard Square and the exclusive club houses. Often, Gold Coast residents ate in private dining clubs, while residents of the Yard ate together either in Memorial Hall or later the Harvard Union, now the Barker Center. Rooming on the Gold Coast didn’t guarantee high social status at Harvard — it was also necessary to have gone to the correct prep school and integrate well with Boston’s high society — but nonetheless, residing in one of the private apartments was a precondition for elite status.
Meanwhile, Weld Hall — where journalist and student leader Walter Lippmann lived — lacked running water and central heating. The nearest bath was at the gym two blocks away.
For the most part, those who lived on the Gold Coast led entirely separate lives from their counterparts in the Yard; the geographical distance between them paralleled social divisions. “[The aristocrats] were so exclusive that most of the real life went on outside their ranks,” Reed wrote. Those who weren’t in elite clubs, or the “places of pride and power,” still had lively intellectual connections with the other non-elites, especially through rising political radicalism on campus. In this way, the 1910 elections were an exception to the complete isolation of poor from rich, the result of pent-up animosity between two groups that rarely interacted.
William James acknowledged this division on campus but thought that poor students were reaping great rewards from the University. The poorer students “seldom or never darken the doors of the Pudding or the Porcellian; they hover in the background on days when the crimson color is most in evidence,” he wrote. But poor students were nonetheless “intoxicated and exultant with the nourishment they find here,” James continued. And in some ways, perhaps this was true: Lippmann and his radical friends forged deep intellectual connections at Harvard. Lippmann himself wandered out of the Yard each Thursday morning to go to William James’s house for tea. But he rarely brushed elbows with his elite peers.
Eliot refused to intervene in the development of Gold Coast apartments, justifying his inaction by claiming he was training students for real life. “[One might] wish that the University did not offer the same contrast between the rich man’s mode of life and the poor man’s that the outer world offers,” notes the 1901-02 annual report. “It does, and it is not certain that the presence of this contrast is unwholesome or injurious. In this respect as in many others, the University is an epitome of the modern world.” The jarring wealth inequality on campus, Eliot suggested, helped prepare students for what they would encounter after graduation.
John Reed wrote that there was “no attempt made by the authorities to weld the student body together, or to enforce any kind of uniformity.” It seems this facet of Eliot’s notion of freedom was particularly damaging to student life, creating a sense of discord between rich and poor which also fueled the fierce student election of 1910 between Yard and Street.
President Eliot’s 40-year tenure saw several sweeping changes to Harvard, many of which enabled diversity at the expense of unity of the student body. Eliot opened the gates of the Yard to new kinds of students, but as a result, the rich students fled the Yard for the Gold Coast. As president, he did nothing to ease the emerging class divides.
President Eliot was succeeded by A. Lawrence Lowell, a graduate of the class of 1877, much to Eliot’s dismay. The two had clashed on Eliot’s key principles of student freedom while Lowell was a professor at Harvard. Lowell spoke out against the unabated development of the Gold Coast: In a 1902 letter to Eliot, Lowell referenced the “separation of the students on lines of wealth,” and raised concerns that the private dorms would destroy the democratic spirit of campus. Lowell also disagreed with Eliot’s elective system, raising concerns that it gave students the liberty to learn nothing at all.
Once in power, Lowell set out to reverse many of Eliot’s policies. He sought unity in ways counter to Eliot’s laissez-faire attitude in the social realm, and in an attempt to bring coherence back to the student body, Lowell introduced the modern housing system.
Most importantly, Eliot’s liberal admissions policies created backlash in the form of Lowell’s restrictive admissions policies: In admissions, Lowell shifted requirements from purely exam-based metrics to purportedly assessing character as a factor as well. The purpose of this change was explicitly anti-Semitic: Emphasizing character allowed Lowell to limit the number of Jewish students at Harvard, which had risen because of the changing demographics of American society and the more accessible admissions exam. Lowell feared the Protestant elite would be driven out by Jewish students on campus and claimed that a large Jewish population could foment further anti-Semitism that would impair his goal of building a unified Harvard community.
Eliot and Lowell failed to produce a campus that was both cohesive and diverse; they pursued competing experiments in admissions to deleterious ends. Before Eliot, the tiny student body was relatively homogenous and cohesive. Eliot produced a heterogeneous but strictly stratified student body, doing nothing to assimilate less-wealthy students once they arrived on campus. In opening up admissions, Eliot laid the groundwork for President Lowell’s reactionary policies, which pursued unity at the cost of diversity.
Though the gulf between the Yard and Street had shrunk, the gates of Harvard were drawn ever more tightly closed for decades to come.
—Magazine writer Clara J. Bates can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ClaraBatess.