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In the beginning, and for most of its first two centuries, Harvard was just the College. And by 1840, when the original Harvard Alumni Association was formed, nearly all Harvard alumni were graduates of the College.
It can be said that Harvard became a university from 1872 when the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences was established. Over the last half-century, Harvard’s graduate, professional, and extension schools have experienced substantial growth, far exceeding the more modest growth of the undergraduate college. For example, when I graduated in 1969, Harvard awarded 1,438 B.A. and B.S. degrees and 3,070 other degrees. By my 50th reunion in 2019, Harvard awarded 1,554 baccalaureate degrees and 5,111 others. The proportion of B.A. and B.S. degrees had decreased from 32 percent to only 23 percent.
There are currently around 120,600 living Harvard College graduates, who now represent just 38 percent of the University’s nearly 315,000 alumni. The HAA has responded by evolving into an umbrella organization comprising representatives of individual school alumni groups, regional Harvard clubs, and many special interest groups, while simultaneously attempting to continue as the alumni organization for graduates of Harvard College.
Every Harvard school, except for Harvard College, has its own alumni organization. The 11 graduate, professional, and Extension alumni organizations elect officers and nominate altogether 22 members of the HAA Board of Directors. Twenty-seven clubs have 35 directors. Thirty-two former HAA presidents have lifetime membership on the HAA Board.
To be sure, there are now 25 “Directors for Harvard College” on the Board, but though these members are College alumni, they were not formally nominated or elected by fellow College alumni. They serve by appointment of the HAA Executive Committee. Furthermore, I have never received any communication from these “College alumni” directors about whatever they were working on.
In general, I have found communication about current happenings in the College to be sparse and only one way from the HAA. When a University committee was considering changes to the text of “Fair Harvard,” I did not see the HAA make any effort to inform the alumni about it or to solicit feedback from us. In response to the pandemic, I have not seen the HAA make much use of technology to build or support the community of alumni, especially older alumni at home now with lots of free time. Individual classes have purchased Zoom accounts for community conversations, virtual lunches and cocktail hours, book talks and lectures, and other social and intellectual programming. The HAA has seemingly made no effort to promote or coordinate these undertakings. Many alumni have thus come to view the HAA as just an agent of fundraising.
Many class leaders also believe that the HAA has not sustained a satisfactory level of service to College alumni as its other programs have grown in extent and breadth. Historically, the HAA’s most important service to College alumni has been assistance to reunion planners. But frequent and high staff turnover, with a loss of institutional memory, has meant that volunteer reunion leaders must often provide on-the-job training to HAA staff. As one group of reunion leaders wrote, “We should not have to reinvent the wheel every five years.”
One friend described reunion committees as “the backbone of class activities and culture,” and added that good culture begets generous giving. Yet the HAA does not seem to want the opinions of reunion leaders or to encourage them to share common concerns or even to communicate except on the HAA’s agenda. For example, as co-chair for my 50th reunion, I hoped to discuss with fellow 2019 reunion chairs ways that we might collaborate to keep costs down, but HAA leadership refused several requests for their names and contact information.
Harvard University should accord its College degree holders equal status to all its other graduates by creating an alumni organization focused on them, on all of them, from recent graduates to the oldest. College graduates, like all other Harvard alumni, should have the opportunity to elect their leaders and representatives. They love Harvard and expect their alumni organization to help them maintain strong intellectual and social connections with their College and with their classmates.
Benjamin N. Levy ’69 is a graduate of Harvard College and the Graduate School of Education.
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