Campus & Community

Highlights from 367 years of Harvard presidents

long read

Simple arithmetic supplies one of the most striking facts of Harvard history: since 1640, the institution has had only 27 presidents. The United States – nearly 140 years younger – has had 43.

What’s more, a dozen Harvard presidents held office for 15 years or longer – spans unimaginable for any of the nation’s chief executives. Topping the list is the epochal 40-year term (1869-1909) of Charles William Eliot, Harvard’s 21st president, followed by the 32-year span (1737-1769) of Edward Holyoke, the ninth president.

How have Harvard’s presidents shaped the institution we know today? Here are a few illuminating moments from a densely plotted tale.

The story begins at the very beginning, with Henry Dunster, a clergyman-educator who came to Boston from England in August 1640, with no thought of reviving an educational enterprise that had gotten off to a very shaky start. Sometime during summer 1638 (nearly two years after the Great and General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony had passed legislation for establishing a “colledge” at some as-yet-unspecified location), Nathaniel Eaton took up duties as master of the College and opened it for business. By September 1639, the General Court had fined and dismissed him for mistreating students, and the fledgling institution shut down for a year.

Had he done nothing else but reopen the College and keep it running as its first president (1640-1654), Dunster would merit the gratitude of all who love learning. But he did much more, forever shaping the institution by drafting the Charter of 1650, a document that established the seven-member Harvard Corporation (officially, “President and Fellows of Harvard College”) as the institution’s second Governing Board (after the Board of Overseers) to manage basic affairs. The Charter of 1650 remains Harvard’s basic constitution, and the self-perpetuating President and Fellows of Harvard College survives today as the oldest corporation in the Western Hemisphere.

Contrary to popular belief, Harvard was never a religious seminary, nor did early New Englanders regard it as such: from the very first graduating class (1642) onward, Harvard alumni made their way in the world along varied paths. Nonetheless, from Dunster’s day until the early 18th century, men of the cloth presided over Harvard’s shifting fortunes. With the arrival of John Leverett, Harvard’s seventh chief executive (1708-1724), the liturgical theme first skipped a beat. For here was a man thoroughly attuned to secular ways as lawyer, judge, legislator, and provincial envoy.

After decades of debate over the charter and other divisive issues, Leverett brought welcome order to Harvard and put its finances on solid ground, securing, among other things, the institution’s first endowed chair (the Hollis Professorship of Divinity, 1721). Massachusetts Hall (1720) – Harvard’s oldest surviving structure – dates from Leverett’s term. Beyond that, Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison credits Leverett with nothing less than having “founded the liberal tradition of Harvard University.”

Edward Holyoke, Harvard’s ninth chief executive, presided over a major 1767 educational reform under which tutors began to specialize in teaching a limited number of subjects, thereby making instruction more like that of our times. Under the old system, a single tutor had taught all subjects to a given class.

Many important physical reminders of Holyoke’s era remain with us, including Holden Chapel (1744), Hollis Hall (1763), and the major portion of Harvard Hall (1766, replacing the earlier Harvard Hall lost to fire in 1764). Most personal of all is that odd bit of Jacobean furniture now known as the President’s Chair, from which Harvard’s modern presidents hold forth at Commencement and at installation ceremonies. Holyoke purchased the mysterious chair (about whose history even he claimed to know nothing) and added the large oak pommels that adorn the chair’s front posts. Holyoke and many of his successors have sat for formal portraits in this unstable seat.

Holyoke lived to become Harvard’s oldest president, dying on June 1, 1769, just before his 80th birthday. His deathbed pronouncement still resonates powerfully across the centuries: “If any man wishes to be humbled and mortified, let him become President of Harvard College.”

Joseph Willard’s term (1781-1804) as Harvard’s 12th president boasts at least two notable features. In September 1782, the Harvard Corporation (of which the president is a member) voted to establish the “Medical Institution of Harvard University,” as the Harvard Medical School was first called. Based in Cambridge until an 1810 move to Boston, the Medical School was the first faculty to be established beyond the College. At Commencement 1799, Willard became the first Harvard president known to have given his Commencement Address in English instead of the traditional Latin.

Within 18 months of Willard’s death in office, Harvard Unitarians found men of their persuasion occupying both the presidency (Samuel Webber) and the Hollis Professorship of Divinity (Henry Ware), the University’s oldest endowed chair. Despite its brevity (1806-1810), Webber’s presidency stands as a watershed in Harvard’s liberal tradition.

For historian Samuel Eliot Morison (“Three Centuries of Harvard”), this “momentous” double victory “ranks with the election of Charles W. Eliot in 1869, and the tipping out of Increase Mather in 1701, as one of the most important decisions in the history of the University. Orthodox Calvinists of the true puritan tradition now became open enemies to Harvard. [. . .] On the positive side, the effect was far-reaching. Unitarianism of the Boston stamp was not a fixed dogma, but a point of view that was receptive, searching, inquiring, and yet devout; a half-way house to the rationalistic and scientific point of view, yet a house built so reverently that the academic wayfarer could seldom forget that he had sojourned in a House of God.”

If Harvard had a Golden Age, it flowered under the 14th president, gentleman-scholar John Thornton Kirkland (1810-1828). For no other Harvard chief executive have students and graduates penned so many affectionate tributes.

Nevertheless, turmoil erupted in the Yard (which Kirkland did much to beautify). In the wake of two major student uprisings (in 1818 and, especially, 1823), the University adopted 13 chapters of new Statutes and Laws (1825) that revamped the curriculum, the classroom (including the introduction of sections and grades), and faculty structure. The new laws also required the president to deliver an annual report to the Board of Overseers. In addition, the Kirkland years saw the establishment of two professional schools – Divinity (1816) and Law (1817) – as well as the completion of University Hall (1815) and Divinity Hall (1826), Harvard’s first Cambridge building outside the Yard.

To Josiah Quincy (1829-1845), Kirkland’s successor, Harvard owes the rediscovery of VERITAS, the oldest of Harvard’s three mottoes, which had languished as an unused design in College records from Dunster’s early days. Quincy found the motto while researching his “History of Harvard University” (1840). During the College’s 1836 Bicentennial Celebration, the VERITAS seal made its public debut on a banner fluttering atop a huge tent in Harvard Yard. (Although another motto was reinstated after Quincy’s term, VERITAS finally won out in 1885.)

With Quincy’s support, the Astronomical Observatory came into existence in 1839 as the University’s first research division. On the downside, Quincy’s heavy-handed treatment of a major student rebellion (winter 1833-34) made him a villain to students. And generations of undergraduates groaned under Quincy’s “Scale of Merit,” a rigid refinement to the grading system introduced in 1825. Quincy himself kept score with an eight-point rating system for class recitations and various demerits for behavioral infractions.

With the term of Thomas Hill (1862-1868), Harvard’s 20th president, the University closed out more than two decades during which death and resignation prevented anyone from serving much beyond seven years. While brief, Hill’s six years helped lay the foundations of the modern University.

Hill was the first Harvard president who had led another academic institution (Ohio’s Antioch College) before taking the reins in Cambridge. He raised admissions standards and took steps toward an elective course system. In 1863, Harvard established public University Lectures by major scholars from Harvard and elsewhere that helped open the way for the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and the University Extension program. When faculty positions opened up, Hill combed the nation for candidates. In 1867, the Hill administration created the Dental School, the nation’s first university-level school of dentistry.

While not one of Harvard’s better-known chief executives, Hill earned plaudits from Charles William Eliot, the giant who followed him. “Late in life,” notes Samuel Eliot Morison, “President Eliot declared that he had always been thankful for Hill as a predecessor, since it was he who set the University on the path that she was destined to follow.”

During his record-setting 40-year presidency (1869-1909), Charles William Eliot transformed Harvard into a modern research university and exerted far-reaching influence on U.S. higher education. The Eliot years saw the establishment of major components such as the Summer School (1871), the Graduate Department (1872; revamped as the Graduate School, 1890), the Arnold Arboretum (1872), Radcliffe College (1879, as the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women; chartered as Radcliffe College, 1894), the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (1890), the School of Landscape Architecture (ca. 1901; forerunner of the Graduate School of Design), the Harvard Forest (Petersham, Mass., 1907), and the Graduate School of Business Administration (1908).

For undergraduates, the Eliot years brought the end of compulsory chapel (1886), the undergraduate entrance requirement in Greek (1887), and the much-hated “Scale of Merit” (the nit-picking, Quincy-era grading system whose last traces disappeared in 1886-87, with the introduction of letter grades).

One of Eliot’s most influential reforms was the development of a system of “spontaneous diversity of choice,” in which undergraduates selected most of their own courses. Choice, in turn, stimulated an open-ended curriculum. This elective system constituted a radical break with the time-honored academic practice of specifying a student’s courses according to the year of college. The Harvard experiment soon spread nationwide and changed what it meant to be “educated.” By 1894, Eliot himself had concluded that the new system was “the most generally useful piece of work which this university has ever executed.”

On May 19, 1909, Eliot retired exactly 40 years after his final confirmation of office and became Harvard’s first president emeritus.

Born to the prominent Boston family that produced astronomer Percival Lowell (his brother) and poet Amy Lowell (his sister), President A(bbott) Lawrence Lowell (1909-1933) was a man of high scholarship, high standards, and aristocratic bearing who believed in education for all who had the heart and mind to pursue it. Thus, he wasted no time in establishing the Harvard Extension School (1909) as an open-enrollment evening program for the Greater Boston community.

Lowell inherited a College afflicted by a divisive, clubby social outlook that he detested. His inaugural address made clear his desire to restore the “collegiate way of living” that had inspired Harvard’s founding. His correctives shape undergraduate life to this day through the residential House system that he established toward the end of his term, thanks to the generosity of Yale alumnus Edward S. Harkness. After opening the original seven Houses (Adams, Dunster, Eliot, Kirkland, Leverett, Lowell, and Winthrop) in 1930 and 1931, the College began housing freshmen in Yard dormitories.

Beyond the House system, Harvard’s physical plant expanded tremendously during the Lowell years, with structures such as the Music Building (1914), Widener Library (opened 1915), Mallinckrodt Laboratory (1928), Dillon Field House (1931), and the Memorial Church (1932). In 1912, Lowell funded the building of a new President’s House at 17 Quincy Street (now Loeb House and home to Harvard’s two Governing Boards).

Lowell was also concerned with undergraduate education. His term brought the first general examinations, fields of concentration (elsewhere known as “majors”), distribution requirements for subjects outside the concentration, and tutorials (individual or small-group instruction with a tutor). Beyond the College, the University gained new schools in Education (1920) and Public Health (1922).

In 1933, Lowell’s last big dream materialized with the founding of the Society of Fellows, which now allows up to 30 exceptionally promising young scholars (Junior Fellows) to devote three years to full-time scholarship while enjoying regular contact with Senior Fellows in diverse fields.

If Lowell greatly expanded the physical Harvard, successor James Bryant Conant (1933-1953) took on the complementary task of filling Lowell’s grand spaces with the energies of a more varied range of students and scholars.

At his very first Harvard Corporation meeting in September 1933, Conant proposed an effort later known as the 300th Anniversary Fund, which soon supported the creation of (1) the special academic position of University Professor, which gives exceptional scholars the run of the University to foster cross-disciplinary research on the frontiers of knowledge, and (2) National Scholarships for highly promising students, regardless of financial means. By seeking out and assisting students who might not otherwise attend college, this program significantly enhanced undergraduate diversity.

In the midst of World War II, Conant and Provost Paul H. Buck launched a review of the undergraduate curriculum that produced the General Education Program, a reform that shaped Harvard undergraduate studies for more than three decades to come. Through details published in 1945 as “General Education in a Free Society” (a.k.a. the “Red Book”), the program profoundly influenced high school and college curricula nationwide.

The Conant years also saw the birth of major new Harvard subdivisions such as the Graduate School of Public Administration (1935; now the John F. Kennedy School of Government), the Graduate School of Design (1936), and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism (1937). In 1939, the President’s Office moved from University Hall to its current location in Massachusetts Hall.

Nathan Marsh Pusey (1953-1971) came to Massachusetts Hall after presiding over Lawrence College (Appleton, Wis.), making him the second Harvard chief executive with previous academic presidential experience. A deeply religious man, Pusey took special interest in the Memorial Church and the Divinity School. He was also one of Harvard’s great builders, resuming a scale of new construction to rival that of the Lowell administration.

In 1957, Pusey announced the start of A Program for Harvard College, an $82.5 million effort that actually raised $20 million more and resulted in three additions to the undergraduate House system: Quincy House (1959), Leverett Towers (1960), and Mather House (1970). During the 1960s, the Program for Harvard Medicine raised $58 million. In April 1965, the Harvard endowment exceeded $1 billion for the first time. By 1967, Pusey found himself making the case for yet another major fundraising effort, seeking some $160 million for various needs around the University.

Other major structures of the Pusey era include the University Herbaria building (ca. 1954), the Loeb Music Library (1956), Conant Chemistry Laboratory (1959), the Loeb Drama Center (1960), the Center for the Study of World Religions (1960), the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts (1963), Peabody Terrace (1964), William James Hall (1965), Larsen Hall (1965), the Countway Library of Medicine (1965), and Holyoke Center (1966).

A 1960 bequest from art connoisseur Bernard Berenson, Class of 1887, allowed Villa I Tatti (Berenson’s great and storied estate near Florence, Italy) to become a special Harvard treasure as the home of the Center for Italian Renaissance Studies. Fundraising for structures such as Pusey Library and the undergraduate Science Center began toward the end of Pusey’s term, which witnessed the start of Harvard’s most turbulent era, signaled by the April 1969 occupation of University Hall and an ensuing student strike.

Although the dust has not yet settled on the administrations of Harvard’s three living former presidents, each made notable contributions to the institution’s current vitality. Derek Bok, the 25th president (1971-1991), devoted special attention to expanding the Kennedy School of Government – emphasizing the importance of public service at all levels of University life, and advocated enhanced participation in the arts (notably, through the creation of the Office for the Arts). Throughout his presidency, Bok addressed major issues (e.g., South African apartheid and University investments, race relations, and free speech) through open letters to the Harvard community.

The Bok years also saw the creation of the Core Curriculum (introduced in 1979-80), the first major overhaul of undergraduate education since the General Education program of the Conant years. In 1977, Bok and Radcliffe President Matina S. Horner signed an agreement that redefined the Harvard-Radcliffe relationship during Radcliffe College’s final 22 years of existence. Bok also led the University in The Harvard Campaign (1979-1984), originally a $250 million effort that was the largest capital drive in the history of U.S. higher education to that point. The drive closed the books with some $8 million more than the revised goal of $350 million.

President Neil L. Rudenstine (1991-2001) devoted much energy to bringing more centralization to Harvard’s traditionally diffuse administrative structure. To help manage the huge modern university, Rudenstine revived the position of university provost, a title previously held only by Paul H. Buck during the Conant administration.

One of Rudenstine’s most important achievements was the creation of five Interfaculty Initiatives (in the fields of environment, ethics and the professions, schooling and children, mind/brain/behavior, and health policy), designed to foster collaboration across traditional departmental boundaries in an effort to come to grips with the increasingly multidisciplinary nature of modern science, scholarship, and social issues.

The Rudenstine years also brought the final, complete integration of Radcliffe into the University. In October 1999, 120-year-old Radcliffe College gave way to the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

In 1994, Rudenstine launched The University Campaign, a five-year, $2.1 billion drive that was the largest fundraising effort ever attempted in higher education. By 1999, the drive had pulled in more than $2.65 billion.

President Lawrence H. Summers (2001-2006) began the monumental Allston Initiative, a project for developing some 200 acres of Harvard land (beyond the acreage already occupied by the Business School, the Harvard sports complex, and a few other facilities) in the Allston section of Boston.

To keep Harvard College accessible to talented students from all economic backgrounds, Summers helped develop the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative, under which (starting in 2006) students admitted from families with incomes of less than $60,000 do not have to pay for tuition, room, and board. HFAI also reduces expected contributions from families with incomes of $60,000 to $80,000. In addition, Summers successfully worked to secure for Harvard graduate students the same kinds of financial aid long available to undergraduates.

Other important projects of the Summers administration include the Broad Institute (a Harvard-MIT/affiliated hospital effort to harness genomics for clinical medicine), the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, and the Harvard Initiative for Global Health.