Campus & Community

Champion of disadvantaged, Monro, dies at 89

6 min read

Former dean of Harvard College engineered need-based admissions system still in use today

John Monro, a former dean of Harvard College whose long career as an administrator and teacher was dedicated to bringing higher education within the reach of poor and minority students, died March 29 at the age of 89.

Monro’s accomplishments at Harvard were numerous, and the impact of many of them has been profound and long-lasting. Shortly after World War II (in which he served as a Navy officer and won the Bronze Star), he helped to admit veterans to Harvard who wanted to study under the G.I. Bill.

Later, as director of financial aid, he engineered the quantified, need-based system still in use today. He founded Harvard Student Agencies to give needy students the chance to supplement their scholarships, and he spurred Harvard’s efforts to identify and recruit talented students from disadvantaged areas.

But it was his decision to leave Harvard in 1967 that in many people’s minds remains his most extraordinary and memorable act. At the age of 56, Monro resigned his post as dean of Harvard College to become director of freshman studies at Miles College, a small, unaccredited, predominantly black institution in Birmingham, Ala.

He remained at Miles until the late 1970s, when he left to teach English and writing at Tougeloo College in Mississippi, another small, predominantly black school.

Monro’s move to Miles attracted much attention from the media. The New York Times Magazine and the New Yorker both profiled him in 1970. To many it seemed an act of almost quixotic idealism, but to those who knew Monro best, it was nothing of the kind.

“Miles was the perfect place for him,” said Fred Glimp, former vice president for Alumni Affairs who succeeded Monro as dean of the College. “He was a person of enormous integrity and commitment, and he didn’t think of it as idealism. It was just what a committed person did.”

Monro’s interest in making college available to more black students had been a longstanding one, and he had taught at Miles for several summers without pay before coming to work there full time. But he never considered it appropriate to take an administrative role at the school or to proselytize on political issues.

“I think there will continue to be a place for white teachers who come here to do a professional job and to learn,” he told an interviewer from U.S. News & World Report in 1968. “But they mustn’t try to run the place. They must be good subordinates, and do what’s asked, and do their ‘missionary’ work back in the white community, which needs it.”

John Usher Monro was born in 1912 in North Andover. He attended Phillips Academy on scholarship while working as a part-time grocery delivery boy. He attended Harvard, also on a scholarship, receiving an A.B. degree in 1935. He was a member of the Class of 1934 but was advised to take a year off when his grades fell as a result of efforts to found The Harvard Journal, a more socially progressive alternative to the Crimson.

After graduation, Monro worked as an assistant to Arthur Wild, director of the Harvard News Office, and wrote for the Boston Transcript. After leaving the Navy, he planned to resume his journalism career, but during a visit to Harvard, then-Dean of the College A. Chester Hanford persuaded him to return to his alma mater and direct a program for college-bound veterans.

Glimp ’50 was one of the veterans admitted to Harvard as a result of this program. Monro later revealed to him that in many cases candidates were admitted on the basis of intuitive judgments with little corroborative documentation.

“He told me they were admitting people by the seat of their pants,” Glimp said. “But everyone realized that the College would get a real shot in the arm from the veterans,”

As director of financial aid, Monro continued to chart an innovative course. He not only revamped Harvard’s financial aid policies, introducing rational, quantitative methods for calculating financial need, but he was also a founder and first chairman of the College Scholarship Service, through which colleges share financial data on student applicants for aid.

“He was a pioneer in bringing rationality to needs assessment and financial aid. Clearly, what he did helped to shape the financial aid policies we have today,” said William Fitzsimmons ’67, dean of Admissions and Financial Aid.

“I think of him as one of the most courageous and creative individuals I’ve ever met,” said Dustin Burke ’52, whom Monro recruited in 1957 to organize Harvard Student Agencies. According to Burke, the organization faced initial opposition from local businesses who were afraid of competition from student entrepreneurs.

Monro also spearheaded a nationwide effort to recruit talented poor and minority students who might otherwise never aspire to college. He made the point that if colleges could make an effort to seek out and support gifted athletes, they could surely do the same for students who were intellectually gifted.

“He was often at the center of controversy because he never hesitated to do something if he thought it was important for students. When he thought he was in the right, he would stand up to anything,” Burke said.

As dean of the College, two of the people Monro stood up to were psychologists Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (later known as Ram Das). Monro charged Leary and Alpert with illegally administering psilocybin, mescaline, and LSD to undergraduates, touching off a controversy that was reported by papers throughout the country. Ultimately, Monro prevailed, and the two psychologists were dismissed.

Monro took another firm stand when he appointed Archie Epps III ’61 as Harvard’s first African-American assistant dean. Epps, who would later become dean of students, was a graduate student at the time and serving as a resident tutor in Leverett House.

Originally, Monro suggested that Epps first gain experience by working as a counselor in the career office, but the head of that office told Epps that he didn’t think white students would accept advice from a black man.

“I went back to John,” Epps recalled, “and told him what happened, and he said, ‘You’d better work with me, and I’ll protect you.’”

Epps said that during the 1960s, he and Monro held many informal discussions about civil rights and the problems faced by blacks. On one occasion, Monro described his reasons for leaving Harvard for Miles College in a way that stuck in Epps’ memory.

“I asked him why he was interested in Miles, and he said, ‘Well, I decided that my job at Harvard is like being a shock absorber in a Rolls Royce. But the really serious issues today are being faced by blacks, and I want to be part of that.’”

But even though his commitment to social change forced him to step out of the Rolls Royce, there is little doubt that he left it a fairer, better, and more efficient vehicle than he found it.

“He was an incredibly principled man,” said Epps. “I learned a lot from him. Some deans simply preside, but others reform the institution and move it forward, and that was John Monro.”