This Is a Timed Test

Harvard is historically resistant to progress. With climate change, we can’t wait.

Harvard Square Antiwar Riot.
Student demonstrations during the turbulent ’60s, inside Harvard’s University Hall.

Photo by Ted Dully/the Boston Globe via Getty Images

Change comes slowly to Harvard. Which is part of its charm, I guess—in a relatively new country (in New England), it represents one of the few institutions so ancient and unmoving as to seem almost European. As the longtime dean Henry Rosovsky used to tell entering freshmen, “You are here for four years. The faculty is here for life. But Harvard is here forever.” Fair enough—ivy doesn’t grow in a day.

But Harvard’s resistance to change loses some of its appeal when you look back over its history and see how it has dealt (or failed to deal) with a changing world.  Forget the idea of “Harvard liberalism”; rarely has the institution led, or even trailed very closely behind, as society progressed. At the moment, some of us in the climate movement are trying to get Harvard to divest from fossil fuels—to follow the radical lead of, say, the Rockefellers or the United Church of Christ. Cognizant of how slowly the institution moves, alumni ranging from Cornel West to two-time Reagan SEC appointee Bevis Longstreth have backed student calls for “highly civil civil disobedience.” Given the university’s track record, that may be the only way to make change happen.

Consider, for example, the way Harvard treated the half of our species who happen not to be guys. As early as the mid-19th century, some crazies were suggesting that this half perhaps had minds worth developing, and Harvard might want to let them sit in on classes. But Harvard—already closing in on its first quarter-millennium in business—was represented by people such as President Charles Eliot, who at his inauguration in 1869 sounded unconvinced. “The world knows next to nothing about the capacities of the female sex. Only after generations of civil freedom and social equality will it be possible to obtain the data necessary for an adequate discussion of woman’s natural tendencies, tastes, and capabilities,” he intoned. “It is not the business of the university to decide this mooted point.” (Some years later, in a truly telling aside, the university treasurer remarked, “I have no prejudice in the matter of education of women and am quite willing to see Yale or Columbia take any risks they like, but I feel bound to protect Harvard College from what seems to me a risky experiment.”)

As it happened, Eliot served so long that he was around to inaugurate the birth of Radcliffe as an “annex” to Harvard where professors could earn extra income by teaching young women, though his attitude seemed to be shifting gradually if at all: “It is to yet to be seen,” he told the Radcliffe graduating class of 1896, “whether the women have the originality and pioneering spirit which will fit them to be leaders; perhaps they will when they have had as many generations of thorough education as men.” He seemed to make up his mind a few years later when he chose the occasion of the inauguration of a new president of Wellesley to explain publicly that women’s colleges should become schools of manners. Instead of having “grades, frequent examinations, prizes, and competitive scholarships,” they should concentrate on education that will not injure women’s “bodily powers and functions.” He added, “It would be a wonder indeed if the intellectual capacities of women were not at least as unlike those of men as their bodily capacities are.”  Progress occurred slowly: One hundred and six years later, President Larry Summers was arguing that the difference seemed to apply only to studying math. At which point Harvard appointed a woman as president.

Or consider Harvard’s relationship with those who belonged to a non-majority religion. Judaism, say. By 1925, Jews comprised nearly 30 percent of the Harvard student body, which seemed rather high to President A. Lawrence Lowell. He set a Jewish quota of 15 percent, generously pointing out that this was mainly for the good of the Hebrews themselves. “The anti-Semitic feeling among the students is increasing, and it grows in proportion to the increase in the number of Jews. If their number should become 40 percent of the student body, the race feeling would become intense.” When the press criticized this line of reasoning, a committee was appointed to study “the Jewish problem,” which it solved by insisting instead that Harvard concentrate on “geographic diversity.” As boys from Wyoming and Texas began arriving in larger numbers, the percentage of Jews magically dropped to … 15 percent. Problem solved—until 60 years ago exactly, when one of those Jewish students wanted to get married at Memorial Church. President Nathan Pusey said no, because “Harvard’s historic tradition has been a Christian tradition,” and it would take more than a world-historical tragedy like, say, the Holocaust, to change that tradition. It took several years of dogged effort from psychology professor Jerome Bruner (who is planning to celebrate his 100th birthday this year) to embarrass the Corporation into overruling Pusey; by 1966 thinking had progressed to the point where Rosh Hashanah services were actually held in the hallowed building.

It will perhaps not shock you unduly to learn that gayness was even less well received than Jewishness. In the 1920s, as researchers have only recently discovered, the university convened what its files actually called a “secret court” to prosecute a ring of students who were having parties which, the official report said, “beggar description.” Attending these parties were “sailors in uniform … picked up in the streets of Boston and used for … dirty immoral purposes,” as well as students who “dressed in womans [sic] clothes.” Needless to say, all were sent packing, and when they tried to apply to other colleges, Harvard helpfully sent references explaining their “moral turpitude.” With that firm hand, all homosexualism supposedly ceased in Cambridge until the late 1970s when someone slipped up and admitted a group of students who turned out to be not only gay but gay activists. Students were suddenly out all over; part of their strategy, said a remarkable young leader named Ben Schatz, was “being outrageous.” But also strategic—they scheduled a Gay and Lesbian Awareness Day, which achieved an emotional breakthrough after a senior who’d beaten up a gay student got up to apologize in front of a thousand peers. “I guess it is just the way I was brought up,” he said.  “I’ve just never been exposed to it before.”

Having won that large victory in the cultural battle, gay students also demanded a nondiscrimination policy from administrators, something that, not surprisingly, the university refused to grant for several long years. As one dean put it, “People’s attitudes around here are the product of many years of thought. And I don’t think a period of student activism will change that.” But, in fact, student activism, coupled with as usual the passage of time, did eventually change that. Now gay students can get married in Memorial Church. Even if they’re also Jewish.

The same pattern repeats with almost every instance. Thirty-five years ago, students began demanding that Harvard sell its stock in companies that supported South Africa’s racist regime. The university said no; it was only after years and years of organizing—everything from building a mock shantytown in Harvard Yard to electing Desmond Tutu (and Al Gore) to the Harvard Board of Overseers on a divestment platform—that the university began selling off its apartheid-tainted stock. When the issue was tobacco, it was years after the American Medical Association recommended that medical schools divest their shares that Harvard sold its holdings—and only after a medical student, Philip Huang, ran a clever radio campaign pointing out that then-President Derek Bok was supporting an industry “that markets death and disease to blacks, women, the poor, and Third World countries.”

Now the issue is merely the fate of the planet’s climate system. With it is the future of our civilizations. At the moment, we’re on track to raise the planet’s temperature 4 degrees Celsius by century’s end, which is the biggest thing we’ve ever done. Ask the folks already abandoning islands in the Pacific, or twiddling the faucet handle in drought-stricken São Paulo.  

Climate change threatens not only humans but a huge percentage of the Earth’s other species—the plants and animals carefully cataloged in the endless file cabinets at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology or the Harvard University Herbaria. But as usual, Harvard is sticking by its time-honored playbook. Despite huge majorities of students demanding fossil fuel divestment, despite powerful letters from the faculty, and despite the example of institutions from Stanford to the Rockefeller family beginning to divest, the Corporation has said no. President Drew Gilpin Faust, in fact, has issued a letter explaining that the university should be “very wary of steps intended to instrumentalize our endowment in ways that would appear to position the university as a political actor rather than an academic institution.” Just as it was very wary of letting women take classes or taking a stand against tobacco or apartheid.

And so the rest of us have to play out the script as well. Already students have been arrested for taking part in entirely peaceful civil disobedience. Now alumni—from Tutu to Gore to Natalie Portman, from Longstreth to Democratic Sen. Tim Wirth—have called for more sit-ins, and alumni clubs have begun to weigh in. With each passing flood and drought, the university’s position will weaken, and eventually it will concede.

But if it takes a century, as it did with coeducation, or a few generations, as it did with gay students, or even a decade, as it did with apartheid, the concession will be moot. Because unlike those questions, this is a timed test—the window for significant action on global warming, as the university’s own physicists have pointed out repeatedly, is closing fast. Time—and public pressure—have eroded Harvard’s intransigence in the past, and in the process made it a better place. In this case, the time is now.