July 15, 1999
University Gazette


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B. Dreben, Former Dean of GSAS, Dies

Burton Spencer Dreben, former Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and special assistant to the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Edgar Pierce Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Harvard, as well as professor of philosophy at Boston University, died July 11 at Massachusetts General Hospital of lymphoma. He was 71.

"He was the conscience of the Harvard faculty from the 1960s through the 1980s," said Henry Rosovsky, former Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, "and a man of remarkable erudition and fairness."

During the height of political unrest at Harvard in the late 1960s, Dreben was centrally involved in pressing for open, public debate between faculty and students about highly controversial issues such as student draft deferment and the student strike in April and May 1969. He served as parliamentarian of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and brokered some of the most difficult negotiations between the Harvard president and leaders of the student uprisings, several of whom were his colleagues and students in the Philosophy Department.

From 1973 through 1975 he served as Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, cutting the number of graduate students admitted by 25 percent on the principle that only as many students should be admitted to the graduate school as the school can afford to aid and properly teach.

From 1976 to 1990 he was chair of the Society of Fellows, overseeing the selection of candidates for Harvard’s most prestigious postdoctoral fellowship for young scholars. He also served during this time as special assistant to the Dean of the Faculty, charged with ensuring that the ad hoc committees used by the president of Harvard to assess the qualifications of proposed candidates for tenure were recognized, impartial experts unaffected by local friendships or prejudices. He oversaw the composition of more than 290 such committees, helping to build and maintain the intellectual quality of Harvard’s faculty in these years.

During this period he also exercised great influence as a teacher and philosopher. The Harvard Crimson described him as
"a Socratic gadfly" for faculty and students alike. A mathematical logician by training, his writings set new standards of clarity for the historical study of 20th-century philosophy. His lectures at Harvard and later at Boston University, where he taught from 1991 until his death, were famous for their wit, bravado, and intellectual excitement, attracting students and faculty alike and shaping several generations of philosophers. His mastery of the texts of 20th-century analytic philosophy was unmatched.

Tireless in demanding from colleagues and students fairness and lucidity of argument, he spent hours helping others to make intellectual decisions about their writing and thinking, and his close work with students and Harvard colleagues such as W.V. Quine, John Rawls, Hilary Putnam, Stanley Cavell, Charles Parsons, and Warren Goldfarb aided in bringing about what has been called the Second Golden Age of Harvard’s Philosophy Department. He was in frequent demand as a lecturer, and in recent years traveled to Scandinavia, Israel, and Europe as a special lecturer, giving weeklong seminars on the nature and significance of 20th-century philosophy.

Born in Boston, Dreben graduated from Boston Latin School in 1945, received his A.B. from Harvard in 1949 and his A.M. from Harvard in 1955. He taught at the University of Chicago from 1955 to 1956, at Harvard from 1956 to 1990, and at Boston University from 1991 until his death, and was a member of Harvard’s Society of Fellows from 1952 to 1955, a Fulbright Fellow at Oxford from 1950 to 1951, a Guggenheim Fellow from 1957 to 1958, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences from 1963 to 1999.

He leaves as immediate family his wife, Juliet Floyd of Brookline; his former wife, Raya Spiegel Dreben of Belmont; and their children, Jon Dreben of Cambridge and Elizabeth Dreben of University Heights, Ohio; Elizabeth’s husband Hillel Chiel; two grandsons, Benjamin Chiel and Joshua Chiel; and his brother and sister-in-law, Arthur and Marilyn Dreben of Marblehead.


Copyright 1999 President and Fellows of Harvard College