Pusey, Nathan Marsh

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PUSEY, Nathan Marsh

(b. 4 April 1907 in Council Bluffs, Iowa; d. 14 November 2001 in New York City), first non–New Englander to become the president of Harvard University, who facilitated the institution's rapid growth and in 1969 responded to a student takeover of University Hall by having the students forcibly removed by police.

Pusey's father, John Marsh Pusey, died when Pusey was a baby, leaving his mother, Rosa Drake Pusey, to raise three children on a schoolteacher's wages. In the 1920s Pusey won a scholarship to Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts; strapped by the conditions of his grant, he was a dedicated student in the otherwise rowdy and glamorous period of the jazz age. He earned an A.B. from Harvard in 1928, an M.A. in 1932, and a Ph.D. in 1937, specializing in fifth-century Greece and Athenian democracy. Pusey then taught history and literature at Scripps College in Claremont, California (1938–1940), and classics at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut (1940–1943). He was the president of Lawrence College in Appleton, Wisconsin, from 1944 to 1953 and was appointed as the president of Harvard in 1953, serving in that role until 1971.

As the president of Harvard, Pusey attempted to democratize private higher education by admitting more students from less privileged backgrounds. He strove to improve every facet of Harvard life and spearheaded the college's first major fund-raising effort. His efforts raised national awareness that U.S. colleges were under-funded. During his tenure, Harvard's endowment grew from $304 million to more than $1 billion, and eight new buildings were constructed. Pusey also was a defender of academic freedom. He preferred for teachers to "grow as persons rather than to become educational technicians." He said that, if Americans were to move into global leadership roles, "there will be tragedy and frustration and failure ahead if [they are] anything less than liberally educated [in the classical sense]."

In the early 1960s the Harvard professors Richard Alpert and Timothy Leary tested Pusey's tolerance by introducing LSD, peyote, and psilocybin to students through funded research into induced psychosis and consciousness-raising. They also popularized several themes that outlived the 1960s: challenging conventions and mores; identifying human behavior as "games"; and promoting the right of individuals to internal freedom—the notion of research "cells," communes conceived of as single-family units, and expanding consciousness. While engaging in a tenuous and lengthy dialogue with the administration, health officials, law enforcement, and students, Alpert and Leary stimulated student fascination with and the proliferation of loosely controlled psychedelic substances. They repeatedly flaunted administration warnings until Pusey fired Alpert in 1963 for violating an agreement not to furnish the substances to students. Leary's appointment was allowed to expire. The Harvard Crimson said, "In firing Richard Alpert, Harvard has disassociated itself not only from fla-grant dishonesty but also from behavior that is spreading infection throughout the academic community."

Pusey supported peaceful and orderly dissent, but he censured a "small group of over-eager young…who feel they have a special calling to redeem society." In his president's report for 1966 to 1967, he called these protesters "self-possessed revolutionaries" who were "Walter Mittys of the left." Opposed to any Harvard involvement with the Vietnam War effort or initiatives that appeared to oppress the poor, student protestors conducted a series of demonstrations beginning in the autumn of 1966 and culminating in April 1969. This series of clashes between various factions at Harvard culminated in a violent student takeover of University Hall, the administration building.

In the pre-dawn hours of 9 April 1969, approximately 500 members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and antiwar protesters descended on Pusey's home at Harvard. They shouted anti–Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) slogans and pinned a list of demands to Pusey's front door with a knife. By mid-morning the SDS had taken over the administration building, physically ousting several deans and administrators, and threatened to occupy the building until their demands were met. By 8:00 p.m. Pusey had issued a statement, saying, "Can anyone believe the Harvard SDS demands are made seriously?"

The Harvard student population opposed the methods used by the protesters, but in a controversial move Pusey called in the police. That decision elicited sympathy for the protesters from an otherwise unsympathetic student body. At 5:00 a.m. on 10 April, 400 state and local policemen, armed with riot gear and accompanied by paddy wagons, removed 250 protesters. Forty-five of them were injured, and Pusey's response to the takeover was characterized in the press as panic stricken and extreme. According to the author Roger Rosenblatt, who was an English instructor at Harvard in April 1969, "Mr. Pusey unleashed at least two centuries of town-grown hatred" by calling local police to "bust" the protesters. However, Pusey maintained that student violence could not be allowed to interfere with the university's normal daily functions.

Pusey's declining popularity was evidenced by the fact that only sixty-three seniors attended the 1970 baccalaureate, during which he addressed "extremist splinter groups of the New Left [who] would like to see our colleges and universities denigrated, maligned, or even shut down." Pusey served as the president of Harvard until 1971, when he left to take a post as the president of the Andrew Mellon Foundation. He was appointed as the president emeritus of Harvard in 1971. Pusey died of heart disease in 2001 at the New York Weill Cornell Medical Center. He left his wife, Anne Woodward, two sons, and a daughter.

Rosenblatt described Pusey as "establishment … in spades.… His face was an institution itself—handsome, monumental, and implacable." He recalled the summation of Pusey's relationship with the student demonstrators given by Martin Peretz, then a Harvard assistant professor of government: that the smug sense of order shown in Pusey's face may have antagonized the rebellion. Rosen-blatt said Pusey looked like a "police artist's sketch of a good-looking man." While Pusey's inclination to rise above the fray made him appear distant and unemotional, his colleagues described him as wise, kind, decent, and dedicated to teaching and to Harvard. He was the embodiment of the aspirations and conventions of his middle-class generation, as well as an icon of classical liberalism. Revolutionaries saw him as an unflappable, unyielding, "straight" bureaucrat. In his attempts to preserve the freedom that cultivated independence and inventiveness, Pusey articulated the reality that freedom depended upon certain un-yielding constraints.

Pusey's observations on teaching and religion may be found in his The Age of the Scholar: Observations on Education in a Troubled Decade (1963). Contextual sources include Roger Rosenblatt, Coming Apart: A Memoir of the Harvard Wars of 1969 (1997). See also Andrew T. Weil, "The Strange Case of the Harvard Drug Scandal," Look Magazine (5 Nov. 1963). Obituaries are in the Harvard Gazette (15 Nov. 2001) and the Economist (24 Nov. 2001).

Leri M. Thomas