As you may know, Harvard is about to celebrate another milestone-- the 375th anniversary of its foundation, in the misty past of 17th century colonial New England. For the first two centuries of Harvard, there was no triumphant birthday party. Perhaps because for decades and decades, the survival of the College in Cambridge was far from assured, even sometimes touch and go. Twice in the 17th century, the College faced the prospect of closing its doors—for lack of applicants, not a problem we face these days. But the 200th anniversary was memorably celebrated, and so—still within living memory (of a few) was the tercentenary, in 1936.
Today the University is in the rare position—rare at least in America—of being able to look back at previous celebrations and celebrate them, too-- anniversaries of anniversaries. Knowing we are old—and therefore venerated at least for endurance-- we have begun to sound the clarion call of “the new Harvard” . We want to signal that we are still going strong and, more to the point, still iconoclastic, still breaking new ground—in good ways, of course.
So let me pause a moment to note the 75th anniversary of a Harvard milestone, which was itself conceived as an anniversary marker. At the tercentenary—Harvard’s 300th celebration, in 1936-- President Conant announced an ambitious new effort, quite unlike anything before it in higher education. The National Scholars program provided financial aid for tuition and expenses for a new, or under-represented, kind of Harvard student whom the College wished to attract. The idea at the outset was to bring to Cambridge boys—yes, boys, that was the business then-- from as far west as Ohio, who excelled at schools whose headmasters were not even known here in the College, and for whom the $400 annual tuition plus other costs made the idea of Harvard prohibitive. A number of special aids had been developed-- objective tests available locally – no more trekking to Cambridge to demonstrate preparation and ability; and the new “top seventh” rule, by which a boy in the top seventh of his class might become eligible for consideration.
And that was not the half of it. Seeds of another entity were planted, and they have thrived for all these decades. Local Harvard Clubs, of a specialized, task-oriented nature, were established beyond the confines of Cambridge, beyond New England and New York, and their alumni members would work to identify prospects for the little College in Cambridge and provide funds to enable them to enroll. It was—and is—a brilliant success, and remains today the heart of the College’s outreach. Today around the world—in about 350 Schools and Scholarships Committees, as they are so aptly called—an army of Harvard alums, now men and women—numbering 15,000 (!)—represent us in seeking out, and helping to select and recruit, talented women and men for Harvard. The tercentenary marks the moment when Harvard embarked upon that transforming effort.
It would be an unfair simplification to claim—as I am about to do—that with its 300th anniversary, Harvard entered a third life stage. One might think of the first stage as being the “reaching stability” chapter—becoming “real,” making itself useful, perhaps here to stay. The second stage was, if not all about excellence, at least the chapter in which the effort to transform a provincial College with some professional/vocational wings into a research university more like those abroad was undertaken singlemindedly by President Eliot. By the end of his tenure he must have felt great satisfaction in seeing Harvard take its place among the world’s respected universities—with a distinguished faculty, many imported from Europe. From colonial College to World University in a mere three centuries!
But only 75 years ago did Harvard undertake the defining task of its fourth century-- making Harvard America’s university. Loyal, active Harvard alumnus, and longtime overseer, Episcopal Bishop William Lawrence complained in the early 20th century that, despite Eliot’s stellar faculty, Harvard would continue to fail in making its greatest contribution to the Nation so long as it was limited, like a middling lumberyard , to raw materials—boys—who might not represent the best that could be found in America. Better lumber makes better boards, and better lumber could be acquired.
The idea, in the beginning, was really that small. And it failed to yield the dramatic real-time results expected by Conant; he imagined that the new National Scholarship students would rapidly make up a quarter of entering classes. It was very few for many years. The anniversary fund-raising campaign was a great disappointment—of a $30 million goal, perhaps $5.5 million materialized, and support for 10 National Scholars. But—over time—the small idea grew to shape the College, the alumni commitment to the University, and the perception that its oldest College might indeed be America’s University.
The National Scholars Program, and all that was associated with it, was a true Long Range plan. In our public life, we have learned to live in the Short Term-- mostly we do that here too. But 75 years ago, Harvard looked way into the future.
The 300th celebration produced a genuinely new Harvard-- still new and vital today. You couldn’t call that newness trendy. We take it utterly for granted today, though we still work hard to sustain it against the wonderful competition of our sister institutions who recognize a good idea when they see one. That New Harvard – America’s university--still bears the fruit planted by our forebears. Their imagination, generosity, loyalty and patience were actually transformative, though they had the good taste not to use that language.
Surely we are still reinventing Harvard, and we are eager to see what it feels like to celebrate 375 years—and to look ahead.
-- Marlyn McGrath, September 28, 2011