Harvard University

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HARVARD UNIVERSITY. Puritans so dreaded an uneducated ministry that in 1636, only six years after the founding of Massachusetts Bay, the colony's General Court voted money "towards a schoale or colledge." Named after the Reverend John Harvard, a private benefactor, Harvard College opened in 1638 in a house inside a cattle yard donated by the town of Cambridge, and in 1642, it graduated the first class of nine men. In 1650, the legislature granted an official charter providing for governance by a small, self-perpetuating corporation and a larger board of overseers to be chosen by the magistrates; half were to be ministers.

The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

The college's charge was "the education of youth in all manner of good literature Artes and sciences." This meant four years of grammar, rhetoric, logic, ethics, natural science, metaphysics, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and history as well as Latin, Greek, and (for interpreting the Old Testament) Hebrew. Prospective ministers, the majority of Harvard's graduates for several generations, studied theology for an additional three years. But the established Congregational Church seldom interfered in either curriculum or training.

Following the English (rather than the European) model, students lived in dormitory rooms and ate meals with tutors at "commons." The tutors, ill-paid and often no older than the students, answered to the president of the college, who also taught. Henry Dunster was a formidable early president (1640–1654), as was Increase Mather (1685–1701), a famous Boston divine. Order was a chronic problem. Harvard students, many of whose families paid their tuition with farm produce, consumed much "beef, bread, and beer" and fathers frequently had to pay for broken windows. During a somnolent eighteenth century, posted student social rankings were a chief preoccupation.

Major Changes and Enhanced Independence

Under the presidencies of John T. Kirkland (1810–1828) and especially Josiah Quincy (1829–1845), Harvard—now with a medical college (1782) and law school (1817)—erected new buildings, established permanent professor-ships, and increased its enrollments. Fewer boys came from the New England hinterlands, and more from Boston's economic and cultural elite, grown rich from commerce, finance, and manufacturing. Scions of the plantation South arrived. By the time of the Civil War, faculty were better paid, even affluent, mixing easily with Boston society. Ministers were increasingly rare and serious researchers and men of letters more common, as in, for example, the fields of criticism (James Russell Lowell), chemistry (Josiah Cooke), geology (Louis Agassiz), and economics (Francis Bowen). President James Walker (1853–1860) remarked, "Now a professor is as much a layman as a lawyer or a physician is." Instruction itself grew more secular; only 10 percent of antebellum Harvard graduates became ministers, a startlingly low figure for nineteenth-century America.

At midcentury, Harvard—still state chartered and partially state funded—faced two challenges: one from religious conservatives opposed to the university's religious liberalism, and another from political liberals opposed to its exclusiveness and its hostility to abolitionism. In response, the institution moved to insulate itself from political interference by severing its relation to the state government, forgoing funds but jettisoning politically appointed overseers. The corporation and president dealt with a lesser challenge—this from faculty demanding greater control—by firmly grasping (as a professor put it) "the money, the keys, and the power."

The Regimes of Charles W. Eliot and A. Lawrence Lowell

Charles W. Eliot's presidency (1869–1909) witnessed further change. Student numbers rose to fifteen hundred. Students from the defeated South largely disappeared, to be replaced by representatives of the new economic power centers, New York City in particular. Raised in privilege, students led "gilded" lives at Harvard, immersed in clubs, sports, and society and earning "gentlemen's Cs." Private gifts, from wealthy alumni and others, increased dramatically. President Eliot, trained in chemistry, introduced an elective system that relaxed the traditional college curriculum. But the most profound innovation came when Eliot laid the foundations of the graduate school in 1872. The stress on advanced instruction and research produced unrivaled departments of history (Henry Adams, Edward Channing), philosophy (Josiah Royce, William James), fine arts (Charles Eliot Norton), and English (George Lyman Kittredge), among many others. Eliot strengthened the law and medical schools and established a professional school of business administration. By the end of Eliot's term, Harvard, with its illustrious alumni, lavish patronage, national reach, and distinguished faculty, was the premier institution of higher education in the country, a position it has largely maintained.

President A. Lawrence Lowell (1909–1933), a political scientist, established new professional schools (public health, engineering) but elsewhere modified Eliot's legacy. Focusing anew on undergraduates, Lowell introduced major fields, the tutorial system, and the house plan, which lodged the three upper classes with tutors in residential units, partly as a way to undermine the influence of the Harvard clubs. Lowell's defense of the right of students and faculty to dissent—to oppose U.S. entry into World War I or be prolabor—led to tension with the corporation but enhanced Harvard's reputation for academic integrity. Lowell tolerated new ethnic groups, making Harvard perhaps the most tolerant of American universities. Yet he also helped impose a quota on the admission of Jewish students, fearing that they would crowd out Protestant applicants and develop "inappropriate ethnic consciousness."

Research Science, Student Radicalism, and an Enlarged Endowment

The presidencies of the chemist James B. Conant (1933–1953) and the classicist Nathan Pusey (1953–1971) marked a deemphasis on undergraduates and a dramatic shift in resources toward research science at the expense of the traditional liberal arts. Harvard became a chief recipient of federal research grants during World War II and the Cold War, which triggered the appointment of top researchers in key scientific and engineering fields and the construction of substantial new facilities for them. As of 1967, Harvard had trained 16 percent of Nobel Prize winners, more than any other university. By 1971, total enrollments were 40,000 and the operating budget was $200 million.

The struggle to maintain high academic standards while addressing radical activist demands and the needs of a suffering Cambridge consumed much of the administration of President Derek Bok (1971–1991), a lawyer who expanded Harvard's global presence and applicant pool. His successor, Neil Rudenstine (1991–2001), concentrated on increasing the university's endowment, which rose from $1.3 billion in the early 1970s to over $15 billion by the end of the century. This made Harvard the wealthiest university in the United States by a substantial margin, which prompted criticism of its high yearly tuition ($35,000) and low pay rates for janitorial and other staff. Lawrence Summers, an economist and former secretary of the Treasury, was appointed Harvard's twenty-seventh president in 2001.


Hawkins, Hugh. Between Harvard and America: The Educational Leadership of Charles W. Eliot. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Hershberg, James. James B. Conant: Harvard to Hiroshima and the Making of the Nuclear Age. New York: Knopf, 1993.

Morison, Samuel Eliot. Three Centuries of Harvard, 1636–1936. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1936.

Story, Ronald. The Forging of an Aristocracy: Harvard and the Boston Upper Class, 1900–1970. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1980.

Yeomans, Henry A. Abbott Lawrence Lowell, 1856–1943. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1948.


See alsoEducation, Higher: Colleges and Universities, Denominational Colleges, Women's Colleges ; Ivy League ; Law Schools ; Medical Education ; Science Education .

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Harvard University, the oldest educational institution in the United States, was founded sixteen years after the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Massachusetts. Established by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636 and later chartered in 1650 in what is now the oldest corporation in the Western Hemisphere, Harvard University was named for its first benefactor, John Harvard of Charlestown, Massachusetts, who, on his death in 1638, left his library and a portion of his estate to the school. In 1640 Henry Dunster became the first president and also constituted the entire faculty. For more than fifty years Harvard remained the only college in America.

It has been said that "when Harvard speaks, the country listens," and throughout its history Harvard, as the country's premier university, shaped the direction of education in the United States. John Harvard's bequest was the first of the private gifts for education in America, and the act of the colony in 1636 marks the beginning of state aid to higher education in the United States. New England's First Fruits, an anonymous tract celebrating the establishment of higher education in the colonies, was published in London in 1643. Among the influential colonists were a number of Cambridge (hence Harvard's city name) and Oxford graduates who were eager to replicate the English college in the American frontier. During its early years, Harvard College offered a classic academic course based on the English university model merged with the prevailing Puritan philosophy of the early colonists. Harvard College was loosely affiliated with the Congregationalist church; not surprisingly most of its first graduates became ministers throughout New England, while other graduates entered government service or private business.


Harvard College's course of study was similar to the curricula of Cambridge and Oxford universities. Unlike the English model, Dunster first created a curriculum for Harvard that only lasted three years, but in 1652 a fourth year was added. The Harvard core curriculum became a model for American education institutions to follow, not only colleges but also grammar schools and academies that prepared students for higher learning and collegiate studies. The curriculum from its founding through the eighteenth century was theological; early nineteenth-century studies expanded the curriculum to include Latin, Greek, mathematics (including astronomy), English composition, philosophy, theology, natural philosophy, and either Hebrew or French. This prescribed course of study established a pattern for American liberal arts colleges. The most common forms of instruction were oral exercisesthe lecture, the declamation, and the disputation.

Charles W. Eliot, who served as president from 1869 to 1909, transformed the college into a modern university, a feat accomplished primarily by transforming the curriculum. Although course electives existed at Harvard throughout the nineteenth century, Eliot became an unrelenting advocate of the elective system, which in turn permitted him to initiate institutional reform where college studies could accommodate broader as well as more specialized interests of students. The elective system permitted Harvard to become more responsive to the many evolving democratic, technological, and vocational needs of society. By the turn of the twentieth century, Harvard's elective system was the freest in the country with no subject requirements for studies beyond the first year.


With the expansion of the curriculum, Eliot increased the Harvard faculty from 60 to 600 members. During Eliot's administration Radcliffe College was established for women. Eliot and others refused to admit women to Harvard but were willing to create a coordinate college that would provide a similar education for women. In 1894 the Commonwealth of Massachusetts chartered Radcliffe College; Elizabeth Cary Agassiz served as this institution's first president. She was followed by LeBaron Russell Briggs, the former dean of students and a professor of rhetoric at Harvard.

President Abbott Lawrence Lowell, who served from 1909 to 1933, refocused the undergraduate course of study to ensure that a liberal education would include concentration on a single field as well as a distribution of course requirements among other disciplines. James Bryant Conant, who served as Harvard president from 1933 to 1953, initiated the examination of general education, which in turn served to redefine the concept of core curriculum, a course of study that delineated breadth in interdisciplinary fields outside the student's major field of study. Conant's General Education Committee, which released in 1945 the legendary Harvard Redbook, General Education in a Free Society, set the direction for American college and secondary curriculum for the later part of the twentieth century. Under Conant's leadership, in 1943 Harvard and Radcliffe agreed to enroll women students in Harvard classrooms for the first time. But women would not earn Harvard degrees until the 1970s.

Recent presidents Nathan M. Pusey, Derek Bok, and Neil L. Rudenstine have each contributed significantly toward strengthening the quality of undergraduate and graduate education at Harvard while at the same time maintaining the university's role as a preeminent research institution. "Harvard has shaped the world of higher education," said the late Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. "It's the cathedral that provides inspiration for all the others."

See also: Eliot, Charles; General Education in Higher Education; Higher Education in the United States, subentry on Historical Development.


Bailyn, Bernard, et al. 1986. Glimpses of the Harvard Past. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Keller, Morton, and Keller, Phyllis. 2001. Making Harvard Modern: The Rise of America's University. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Morrison, Samuel Eliot. 1936. Three Centuries of Harvard, 16361936. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Rudolph, Frederick. 1977. Curriculum: A History of the American Undergraduate Course of Study since 1636. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sollors, Werner; Titcomb, Caldwell; and Underwood, Thomas A., eds. 1993. Blacks at Harvard: A Documentary History of African-American Experience at Harvard and Radcliffe. New York: New York University Press.

Synnott, Marcia G. 1979. The Half-Opened Door: Discrimination and Admissions at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, 19001970. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

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Harvard University. 2002. <www.harvard.edu>.

Robert A. Schwartz

Craig Kridel

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Cambridge, Massachusetts
Division of Continuing Education–Harvard Extension School

Harvard University was founded in 1636. It is accredited by New England Association of Schools and Colleges. It first offered distance learning courses in 1996. In fall 2005, there were 1,000 students enrolled in distance learning courses. Institutionally administered financial aid is available to distance learners.
Contact Academic Services, Harvard University, 51 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA 02138. Telephone: 617-495-4024. E-mail: [email protected]


Programs offered do not lead to a degree or other formal award.


Undergraduate —biology; environmental/environmental health engineering; museum studies; philosophy.
Graduate —accounting and computer science; accounting and related services; biology; computer science; environmental/environmental health engineering; languages (Modern Greek); museum studies; philosophy; psychology; religious studies.
Non-credit —biology; computer science; environmental/environmental health engineering; languages (Modern Greek); museum studies; philosophy.

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Harvard University Oldest US college, founded in 1636 by John Harvard at Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was originally intended for the instruction of Puritan ministers. Today, there are two colleges, Harvard College for men and Radcliffe College for women.

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Harvard University the oldest American university, founded in 1636 at Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is named after John Harvard (1607–38), an English settler who bequeathed his library and half his estate to the university.