Campus & Community

Henry Rosovsky, 95

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Memorial Minute — Faculty of Arts and Sciences

At a meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences on May 2, 2023, the following tribute to the life and service of the late Henry Rosovsky was spread upon the permanent records of the Faculty.

Henry Rosovsky, Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor, Emeritus, died on Nov. 11, 2022, at the age of 95.  Twice dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), twice acting president of the University, and the only active faculty member to serve on the Harvard Corporation since the 1880s, Henry was one of Harvard’s great leaders in the 20th century and probably the most important dean of the FAS ever.

Born in 1927 in the Free City of Danzig, Henry fled the Nazi occupation and arrived in America in 1940.  Immediately following the war, he served in the U.S. Army Counterintelligence Corps in occupied Germany, where he interviewed former Wehrmacht officers under the Allied-imposed denazification program and attended the Nuremberg trials.  Returning to the U.S., he graduated from William and Mary on the G.I. Bill.  Returning to the army, he served in wartime Korea and then in occupied Japan, where he learned Japanese and had his interest piqued by the country’s economic and cultural modernization.

After his second army stint, Henry entered graduate school at Harvard to study economics and was elected to the Society of Fellows.  Writing his dissertation on Japanese capital formation between the Meiji Restoration and World War II, he earned his Ph.D. in 1959 and joined the Department of Economics at Berkeley.  Dismayed by Berkeley’s student unrest, however, in 1965 he returned to Harvard as a professor of economics.

Back at Harvard, Henry played an increasingly central role within the FAS.  In 1968 he chaired a committee that recommended a program to grant degrees in African and Afro-American Studies.  The next year he became chairman of the Department of Economics.  In 1973 President Derek Bok appointed him Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

For Henry, serving as dean was akin to an art form.  His approach to the job was intensely personal.  He understood that he was managing not Ford or IBM but a medium-sized (just over 400 tenured professors) collection of highly motivated individuals.  He spent his time engaging with his faculty, not his staff.  When he needed to make decisions regarding proposals not already within his sphere of direct knowledge, he would ask which half-dozen professors most wanted it to happen.  He figured he would already know some of them well enough to understand their motivation and would sit down over lunch to talk with the others; then he would decide.  He intuitively understood human aspirations and ambitions, and they fascinated him.  He saw his role as fostering his faculty’s individual aims and nurturing their talent, while, nonetheless, maintaining a harmonious setting for a group enterprise.

Crucially for Harvard at that time, this personal approach built trust among his faculty.  When Henry became dean, the divisions left from the 1960s student uprising were still bitter.  Within the FAS, separate liberal and conservative “caucuses” met regularly, and tension between them impeded progress on multiple fronts.  With Henry as dean, both groups soon disbanded.  As many faculty members explained, “We all trust Henry.”  Once the divisiveness dissipated, Henry was able to advance important educational reforms, most notably the Core Curriculum — the first restructuring of Harvard’s undergraduate General Education since its introduction in 1949.  Another key achievement was reducing graduate school admissions in response to the end of the extraordinary post-war growth surge in American higher education.

Part of what made Henry’s personal touch so effective was his keen awareness of his own unusual insider/outsider status: his experience of having had his life turned upside down; the humiliation of flight and refugee rejection; the irony of a Jew standing at the top of one of America’s premier bastions of WASP privilege.  In a story that he sometimes recounted, usually with a sardonic yet elegiac tone, one of the former Wehrmacht officers he interviewed after the war asked him, “Sergeant, where did they teach you German?  You speak perfectly, but you have the vocabulary of a 10-year-old.”  It was vintage Henry: funny, yes, but aching with unspoken loss — of a civilization and the people who created it; of a refugee achiever who had lost a golden youth to hatred.

Another key trait of Henry’s leadership was courage.  The African and Afro-American Studies proposal was controversial enough within the academy, but also elicited passions, sometimes ugly ones, more broadly.  Al Capp, the newspaper cartoonist long associated with the Li’l Abner strip and a Cambridge resident, launched a vicious campaign to oppose Harvard’s initiative and, in the process, to vilify Rosovsky personally.  Henry did not cower before Mr. Capp.  His public bravery was a welcome mark of integrity and dedication on the part of American higher education.  Years later, when Henry returned as dean for President Bok’s last year, together they went to extraordinary efforts to make two distinguished appointments that cemented the department’s preeminence in the field.

Henry was exceptionally loyal to Harvard as well.  In 1977 he was offered the presidency of Yale.  At the time, to pick as president someone without a Yale degree — and a Jew besides — was unprecedented.  Yet Henry declined, choosing to remain at Harvard and complete the Core Curriculum review, which he guided to faculty approval the next spring.  Beyond loyalty, Henry had a deep and abiding love for Harvard, an infectious emotional pull that proved especially effective in his efforts as dean to recruit new faculty members.

Henry was also a stalwart supporter of Harvard’s Jewish community.  As dean he helped Harvard Hillel move from Bryant Street to Mount Auburn Street, first in a recently vacated building and then on a plot of open ground where in 1994 Hillel erected a new building: Rosovsky Hall.  As Henry famously put it, Hillel at Harvard thereby moved “from the periphery to the center.”  Some two decades later, Hillel launched its new capital campaign with a grand dinner celebrating Henry’s 90th birthday.

Henry was devoted to his family: Nitza, his wife of 66 years, who was born a seventh-generation Jerusalemite, and their children, Leah, Judy, and Michael.

Respectfully submitted,

Derek C. Bok
Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Michael McCormick
Benjamin M. Friedman, Chair