A Brief History of Harvard College

Harvard was founded in 1636 by vote of the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and named for its first donor, the Reverend John Harvard, who left his personal library and half his estate to the new institution. Although nothing remains of its earliest buildings, brass markers in the middle of Massachusetts Avenue now indicate where the Goffe and Peyntree Houses once stood. The charter granted to Harvard by the Colony in 1650, with amendments and John Adams’s further definition in the fifth chapter of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, is the authority under which the University of today operates.

Like any institution, Harvard has a rich and complex history. Many of our graduates and faculty members, as scholars and citizens, have shaped the political, social, and economic landscape of our nation in countless ways that have contributed to the well-being of society and humanity. As a human institution, we have also sometimes fallen short of our aspirations.  There are parts of our history that we can and should learn from. Our falling short in no way detracts from the power of our ideals. Rather, our failures remind us that we should never take for granted what we do and how we do it; we must recognize that as a community devoted to learning, our work is never complete.

The Early Centuries

For its first two hundred years Harvard College followed a set curriculum consistent with the instructional style of the period. It emphasized rhetorical principles, rote learning, and constant drilling. The faculty was very small, yet already distinguished. John Winthrop (AB 1732), who held the Hollis Professorship and taught mathematics and natural philosophy from 1738 to 1779, was one of America’s greatest men of science in the colonial era.

Harvard’s oldest buildings date from the eighteenth century. Massachusetts Hall (1720), Wadsworth House (1726), and Holden Chapel (1744) are the earliest. Hollis Hall has been a dormitory since it was built in 1763. Harvard Hall (1766) stands on the site of a seventeenth-century building of the same name. It burned down one wintry night in 1764, destroying the 5,000-volume college library (then the largest in North America), and the scientific laboratory and apparatus. Old Stoughton College suffered so much damage from occupation by Continental troops during the Revolution that it had to be torn down in 1781. A new Stoughton Hall (1805), Holworthy Hall (1812), and University Hall (1815) form the outline of the original Yard.

Established to provide a learned ministry to the colonies, Harvard only later created graduate programs beginning with medical studies in 1782; law and divinity did not become graduate departments until 1816 and 1817, respectively. Even so, the College did not take on the aspect of a true university until mid-century, when a library building (1841), an observatory (1846), a scientific school (1847), a chemistry laboratory (1857), and a natural history museum (1860) were built.

The Coming of the Modern University

Under the presidency of Charles William Eliot (1869–1909) the number and variety of courses multiplied, the lecture system supplanted the older method of recitation, and students were permitted a free choice of courses. However, long before he succeeded Eliot as president of the University, A. Lawrence Lowell came to believe that there was “too much teaching and too little studying” in Harvard College. Accordingly, throughout his presidency (1909–1933), Lowell emphasized scholarship and honors work, eventually introducing the system of “concentration and distribution,” together with general examinations and tutorials, which continues essentially unchanged today.

Early in the twentieth century the professional schools each acquired a new building: Medicine in 1906, Law in 1907, and Business Administration in 1926. The great central library building, named for Harry Elkins Widener, dates from 1915, the present Fogg Museum from 1927, the Mallinckrodt chemical laboratory from 1929. A similar burst of physical expansion marked the concluding years of James Bryant Conant’s presidency (1933–1953) and the entire term of Nathan Marsh Pusey (1953–1971).

Pusey and Bok: The Growth of the University

During the Pusey period, government subsidy for science made possible the building and renovating of major facilities in the areas of medicine, public health, and the basic and applied sciences. Fund-raising campaigns improved the faculty salary structure and related benefits, increased student financial aid, and created many new professorships.

Pusey’s successor was Derek Curtis Bok, whose twenty-one-year presidency (1971–1991) was a period of unprecedented growth for the University. At the beginning of Bok’s presidency, a reduction in government assistance and the effect of inflation on operating costs began to take their toll. It was necessary to seek private sources of support in order to achieve the President’s goals. Under Bok’s aegis, a capital campaign was completed.

It included a $350 million effort to improve the College and strengthen the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and programs in public service. Crucial to these efforts was the development of policies that encouraged the recruitment and appointment of outstanding women and minority scholars to permanent faculty positions. While reaffirming the principle that every Harvard undergraduate should be broadly educated, the new Core Curriculum emphasized the study of approaches to knowledge in seven areas considered indispensable to the contemporary student: Foreign Cultures, Historical Study, Literature and Arts, Moral Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, Science, and Social Analysis.

Harvard into the Twenty-First Century: Rudenstine, Summers, Faust, and Bacow

Neil L. Rudenstine, Harvard’s 26th president, took office in 1991. He concluded his tenure as president in June 2001, after a decade of service. The Rudenstine years were marked by efforts to strengthen collaboration among the different parts of Harvard, to advance an array of programmatic initiatives across the arts and sciences and the professional schools, to expand Harvard’s international agenda, to adapt the University to the new information age, and to keep Harvard’s doors open to outstanding students from across the economic spectrum. Rudenstine is credited, among other things, with guiding the creation of the new Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, born of the merger of Radcliffe College with Harvard; with initiating steps toward an eventual new Harvard campus in the Allston section of Boston; with vigorous advocacy of the educational importance of student diversity; and with leading an unprecedented University-wide campaign that raised a record $2.6 billion for student financial aid.

In July 2001, Lawrence H. Summers, (PhD 1982), became Harvard’s 27th president. The former Nathaniel Ropes Professor of Political Economy at Harvard, he also served in a number of prominent public policy roles, including Vice President of Development Economics and Chief Economist of the World Bank, and Secretary of the U.S. Treasury. As Harvard’s president, Summers spurred attention to renewing the undergraduate experience, guided the launch of innovative interdisciplinary initiatives in the sciences and beyond, and strongly expanded Harvard’s international agenda. Under his leadership, the University reached out to many more undergraduates from low-income families and also strengthened financial aid for graduate and professional students pursuing careers in public service. Harvard also achieved dramatic faculty growth, undertook major investments in an array of new facilities, and took the first steps toward building Harvard’s extended campus in Allston during Summers’ presidency. Summers stepped down in June 2006, and became a University Professor. In July 2006, Derek Bok returned to the office as interim president while a search for a new Harvard president was launched. As interim president, Bok devoted himself to bringing to a successful conclusion an ongoing review of undergraduate education, planning for the development of University land in Allston, and identifying organizational changes necessary to promote interdisciplinary research, such as reform of the academic calendar.

Drew Gilpin Faust took office as Harvard’s 28th president on July 1, 2007. Faust, a historian of the Civil War and the American South, is also the Lincoln Professor of History in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Previously she had served as founding dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, a post she took up on January 1, 2001. As the first dean of the Radcliffe Institute, Faust guided the transformation of Radcliffe from a college into a wide-ranging institute for advanced study. Under her leadership, Radcliffe emerged as one of the nation’s foremost centers of scholarly and creative enterprise, distinctive for its multidisciplinary focus and the exploration of new knowledge at the crossroads of traditional fields. Before coming to Radcliffe, Faust was Annenberg Professor of History and director of the Women’s Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania, where she served for 25 years on the faculty.

Lawrence S. Bacow took office on July 1, 2018 and is the 29th President of Harvard University.

One of higher education’s most widely experienced leaders, President Bacow is committed to supporting scholarship and research, encouraging civic engagement, and expanding opportunity for all. From 2001 to 2011, he was president of Tufts University, where he fostered collaboration and advanced the university’s commitment to excellence in teaching, research, and public service. Prior to Tufts, he spent 24 years on the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he held the Lee and Geraldine Martin Professorship of Environmental Studies and served as Chair of the Faculty (1995-97) and as Chancellor (1998-2001).

An expert on non-adjudicatory approaches to the resolution of environmental disputes, President Bacow received an S.B. in economics from MIT, a J.D. from Harvard Law School, and an M.P.P. and Ph.D. in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Prior to his election to the Harvard presidency in February 2018, he served as a member of the Harvard Corporation (2011-18), the Hauser Leader-in-Residence at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government (2014-18), and a President-in-Residence at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (2011-14).

President Bacow was raised in Pontiac, Michigan, by parents who were both immigrants. He and his wife, Adele Fleet Bacow, were married in 1975 and have two adult sons.

Radcliffe and Harvard

Radcliffe College had been founded in 1879 “to furnish instruction and the opportunities of collegiate life to women and to promote their higher education.” From its inception, one aspect of Radcliffe’s commitment to that goal was to provide women access to the Harvard faculty. From 1879 to 1943, Harvard professors repeated to Radcliffe students the lectures they gave at Harvard. In 1943, the instruction of Radcliffe undergraduates became a formal responsibility of the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Three years later all courses were made coeducational, except for some of the large freshman courses, which remained segregated for several more years. Then, in the 1960s the pace of integration quickened. Harvard degrees were awarded to Radcliffe students for the first time in 1963, and in the same year women were admitted to the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. In 1967 the doors of Lamont Library were opened to women. However, it remained for Derek Bok to make the most dramatic initial steps in the process of integration. In 1975 the two Colleges combined their separate admissions offices and an equal-access admissions policy was adopted. In 1977, Harvard and Radcliffe agreed that Radcliffe would delegate to Harvard all responsibility for undergraduate education of women and the management of undergraduate affairs. After the 1977 Agreement, Radcliffe College devoted increasing attention to cultivation and development of research and postgraduate programs, having turned over almost all responsibility for collegiate affairs to Harvard College. A unified House system brought coeducational living into being, using both Radcliffe’s Houses in the Radcliffe Quadrangle and the River Houses of Harvard.

On September 14, 1999, the governing bodies of Harvard and Radcliffe completed the merger of the two institutions. Harvard College assumed full responsibility for the education of undergraduate women. At that point Harvard College created the Ann Radcliffe Trust, “a set of programs for Harvard undergraduates that seeks to raise the awareness of women and women’s issues at Harvard.” In fall 2006 the Harvard College Women’s Center opened in Harvard Yard, providing a space both for meetings and for relaxation. The Center absorbs the Ann Radcliffe Trust and continues the work of developing and implementing a comprehensive outreach and support structure for undergraduate women individually, and for their student organizations.

As a result of the merger, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study was established. “Building on Radcliffe’s current programs,” to quote its mission statement, “and its continuing commitment to the study of women, gender and society, the Radcliffe Institute is an interdisciplinary center where leading scholars can promote learning and scholarship across a broad array of academic and professional fields within the setting of a major university. The institute offers non-degree instruction and executive education programs.” It was the intention to create a center for advanced study of the first rank.

Harvard Today

Today Harvard comprises a Faculty of Arts and Sciences, including Harvard College, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the Division of Continuing Education, and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. There are eight other faculties: Business Administration, Design, Divinity, Education, Government, Law, Medicine (including Dental Medicine), and Public Health; and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Its total campus area occupies about 500 acres, concentrated in Cambridge and Boston. Its faculty and staff number about 20,000 individuals, many of them part-time. The University has a regular enrollment of 17,000 plus some 30,000 other students who take credit courses, non-credit courses, and seminars in University Extension, the Summer School, and other programs in continuing education.