Magazine article Modern Age

Nathan Marsh Pusey: An Appreciation

Magazine article Modern Age

Nathan Marsh Pusey: An Appreciation

Article excerpt

NATHAN MARSH PUSEY, who died in November 2001, led Harvard University during one of its most illustrious periods--the 1950s and 1960s. In Harvard lore, the official "golden age" of the university was the latter half of the presidency of Charles William Eliot, the Gay 1890s and the first decade of the twentieth century, culminating in the legendary class of 1910, which counted among its members two future Nobel Prize winners, including T.S. Eliot. (1) It is important to recognize the 1950s and 1960s as a second golden age for the school, however, a unique chapter in the history of American higher education, when a top university clearly understood and dutifully fulfilled its mission to acquire, deposit, and propagate genuine knowledge. It is important to do so, in the first place, to appreciate the accomplishment of Nathan Pusey, and in the second place, to come to terms with the loss that resulted from the student agitations at Harvard in 1969.

Pusey first came to Harvard, as an undergraduate from Iowa, in 1924. His favorite professor was Irving Babbitt, the inimitable teacher of French and comparative literature who won fame as the Neohumanist exemplar of the conservative mind. Moreover, it was Babbitt who directed Pusey to the classics. Pusey took his A.B. and Ph.D., both from Harvard, in that field. Pusey was one of those classicists who found it inadequate merely to study the words and actions of the great men of Greece and Rome: the point was to emulate them in a sphere of action in the present day. Pusey also knew that, as scholarship, his dissertation was rather ordinary. He believed himself cut out for, of all things, university administration.

Pusey soon took up a position at Lawrence College in Wisconsin, where he put together a great books program in the humanities. In the Midwest, he discovered a kindred spirit and mentor in Robert Maynard Hutchins, father of the core curriculum at the University of Chicago. Pusey became a missionary for Hutchins's idea of enacting rigorous, bookish, classics-based curricula at Lawrence College. Through the offices of Hutchins, Pusey was installed as president of Lawrence in 1944. In terms of academic reforms, fundraising, and spokesmanship, Pusey's tenure at Lawrence was very successful. In 1953, at the age of 46, he was tapped to succeed James Bryant Conant as president of his alma mater, Harvard.

Pusey's appointment to that elevated post raised eyebrows, to say the least. Faculty members clucked that, although president, Pusey did not possess the scholarly qualifications to be a professor. Nor was he a Northeasterner. Nor did he come from a distinguished family. The Harvard executives who selected Pusey knew they were taking a chance, but they saw two things in him: he could raise money, and he paid attention to his home institution. Pusey's predecessor, Conant, had exasperated the Harvard board in charge of monitoring the university presidency. Brought in in 1933 to help the university get serious after an Abbott Lawrence Lowell administration that at times befitted the Roaring 1920s, Conant had become utterly preoccupied with government work during the Second World War and its aftermath, spending most of his time in Washington. (2)

Here, Harvard was facing a problem a step ahead of other large research universities in the post-World War II period, in that Harvard at an early date had to deal with the prospect of becoming a subsidiary of government. Harvard chose Pusey in 1953 largely because the institution believed it must be vigilant in maintaining its unique identity against the prerogatives of Washington. In contrast, other research universities over the next fifteen years came to see their extensive dealings with government as validation of membership in the establishment. It was only student agitation, first the Free Speech movement at Berkeley in 1964, then the anti-Vietnam War protests, that made administrations re-think the close ties between the university and government. …

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