Campus & Community

Nathan Pusey dies at 94

6 min read

Harvard’s 24th president served University for almost two decades

President Nathan Pusey with Rev. Martin Luther King,
President Nathan Pusey with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., on the steps of Appleton Chapel during a Southern Christian Leadership Conference meeting on Jan. 10, 1965. Also pictured is the Rev. Charles P. Price (upper right). (Gazette file photo)

Nathan Marsh Pusey, the 24th president of Harvard, died early on the morning of Nov. 14 at the New York Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City. He was 94.

The cause of death was heart disease, although Pusey had been in good health as recently as June 2001, when he attended Harvard Commencement and posed for a photograph with former President Derek Bok, outgoing President Neil L. Rudenstine, and President-elect Lawrence H. Summers.

Four Harvard
In June of 2001, the four living Harvard presidents gathered at Loeb House before the 350th Commencement. Standing are (left) Derek Bok, Lawrence H. Summers, and Neil L. Rudenstine. Seated is Nathan Pusey. Staff photo by Jon Chase

Pusey was president of Harvard from 1953 to 1971. At that time, he was gaining national prominence for his defense of universities and academic freedom against congressional critics and anti-communists of the McCarthy Era.

During his tenure, Harvard’s endowment grew from $304 million to more than $1 billion, and many new buildings were constructed, including the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Countway Library of Medicine, Gund Hall, Gutman Library, Hilles Library, Holyoke Center, Loeb Drama Center, and the Science Center.

“For nearly two decades, during a time of rapid growth and sometimes turbulent change in the University’s history, Nathan Pusey served Harvard with both distinction and devotion,” said Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers. “He had a profound sense of the values of the university, which he called ‘one of the noblest creations of the mind of man.’ He saw undergraduate education as the heart of our enterprise, and took great care to nurture it well. He also guided Harvard’s transformation into a modern research university, while working energetically to build the faculty, to strengthen student financial aid, and to expand our understanding of other societies.

“When he and I had the chance to talk, it was clear that Nate Pusey was first and foremost a teacher – an excellent and intensely dedicated teacher – someone always willing to give of himself to help others learn more about the world and about themselves. He was a man of wisdom, faith, and quiet strength, and his purposeful passion for education left a strong imprint on the university he loved.”

Neil L. Rudenstine, President Emeritus of the University, said, “President Pusey was a remarkable man and an extraordinary president. His devotion to the University, and particularly to Harvard College, made an enormous difference during his long tenure. He initiated and led a major campaign to strengthen every aspect of College life. It was a privilege for me and my wife, Angelica, to know him and Mrs. Pusey. We will miss him greatly, and we will all remain in his debt.”

Pusey with Bok and
At a March 1971 dinner at the Harvard Club, Pusey (above center) talks with President-elect Bok (left) and President Emeritus Conant. (Gazette file photo)

Harvard President Emeritus Derek Bok said, “In addition to Nate Pusey’s many accomplishments at Harvard, I remember him for his unwavering kindness, decency, and thoughtfulness toward an inexperienced, struggling young dean who later turned out to be his successor. Both the University and I should count ourselves very fortunate to have benefited from the leadership and the personal example he provided us over so many years.”

Daniel Steiner, whom Pusey appointed Harvard’s first general counsel in 1970, said that Pusey “had some wonderful personal qualities that became evident to those who worked closely with him. He was a caring and warm person to his colleagues.”

Francis Hardon Burr, who served as a fellow of Harvard College from 1954 to 1982 and as senior fellow from 1971 to 1982, said of Pusey: “I think he was a good president. He was very quiet but firm and had fairly strong beliefs, most of which were pretty logical, although he did come into conflict with some of the faculty at times.”

Burr said that one of the things Pusey will be most remembered for is initiating Harvard’s first major financial campaign. “It made the whole country realize that higher education was badly funded, and it set the pace for later campaigns.”

Pusey’s last years in office were marked by the unrest that visited many college campuses during the Vietnam War. When Harvard students occupied University Hall in April 1969 to protest the presence of ROTC on campus, Pusey summoned police to arrest the demonstrators, a decision that was both praised and criticized. Campus turmoil continued with a student strike and further protests, and, in February 1970, Pusey announced that he would step down the following year.

In an earlier statement, Pusey censured “a small group of over-eager young … who feel they have a special calling to redeem society.” But he added that he was not against “students who are sincerely concerned about the war or who choose to participate in orderly protests …”

Pusey with Paul Martin and Richard
Just a couple of months before leaving the University, Pusey is presented with an expression of gratitude from the alumni of the Divinity School. At left is Richard Hasty, vice president of alumni; at right, Paul Martin, Divinity School alumni representative. (Gazette file photo)

Pusey was born in 1907 in Council Bluffs, Iowa. He earned an A.B. degree from Harvard in 1928, an M.A. in 1932, and a Ph.D. in 1937, specializing in ancient history with particular focus on Athenian legal development. Before becoming president of Harvard, he taught history at Lawrence College, Scripps College, and Wesleyan University, and served as president of Lawrence College.

His books include “The Age of the Scholar” (1963) and “American Higher Education 1945-1970: A Personal Report” (1978). After stepping down from the presidency of Harvard, he served as president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation from 1971 to 1975 and as president of the United Board for Christian Higher Education in Asia, 1979-1980.

As president of Harvard, Pusey was a strong advocate of the Memorial Church and its role in the University. Five years ago, dedicating a book of sermons in his honor, the Rev. Professor Peter J. Gomes, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in The Memorial Church, extolled Pusey as “Wise in Learning, Broad in Sympathy, Rich in Piety, Christian Scholar-Citizen: His faithful presence enhanced the witness of this Church.”

In 1972, a room in the church was dedicated to Pusey and his wife. The Nathan Marsh and Anne Woodward Pusey Room was refurbished and rededicated in 1994. At the rededication, Pusey said that the Memorial Church is “a part of Harvard that is important and must be cherished and kept alive.”

To mark Pusey’s passing, the bell of the Memorial Church tolled for two minutes on Wednesday afternoon.

He leaves his wife, Anne Woodward Pusey, two sons, Nathan Marsh Pusey Jr. and James Reeve Pusey, and a daughter, Rosemary Hopkins.

A memorial service will be held at 3:00 p.m. on Saturday, December 8, 2001 at the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, 921 Madison Avenue at 73rd Street, New York. A service also will be held Friday, April 12, at 3:00 p.m. in the Memorial Church at Harvard.