'The University Takes a Dim View . . .'

Liberal Modern Rules Share Stern Puritan Predecessors

One of the cliches of Harvard's official administrative prose goes something like this: "The University takes a dim view of . . ."

And another of the administration's stereotypes paints an even more severe picture: "The University frowns on . . ."

These phrases are normally followed by a recount of some breach of discipline, or simply by the words, ". . . such action."

For more than 300 years now the University has been frowning at, scowling at, and absolutely prohibiting certain practices. In 1636 it took a dim view of almost anything from smoking to putting reptiles in Tutor's chambers; in 1952, the change is evident, and presently the University frowns hardest on breaches of rules relating to women in men's dormitories.

And at midstream, during the Revolutionary War days, the University admonished students against throwing cannon-balls from the windows of Hollis Hall at passing British soldiers.


These rules have had something of the ludicrous, something of the over-vigorous, and, in certain cases, something of the eternal in them. Reptiles will never be sanctioned as dormitory pets, for example, nor will women ever be permitted to remain in men's quarters after certain hours.

One factor has been constant in all codes of discipline: the attempt of the undergraduate to evade or eliminate the rules that bind him, plus the desire to rebel when the rules bind him too closely. William R. Thayer, in his "History of Harvard University," notes that "discontent and rebellion were vehement just in proportion to the burden of repression."


A second constant in a history of disciplinary measures at Harvard is the uprising. Indignant undergraduates in past years have gained, through mammoth and often violent rebellions, more liberalization of rules than is generally recognized: they have also brought to pass the resignation of at least one President of the College, and the expulsion of an entire sophomore class.

Some present-day rules have their roots in much earlier measures. A problem which came up for consideration very recently was a troublesome one as far back as 1886. In that year the Faculty decided to introduce "discretionary supervision" of attendance: students could decide for themselves whether attending lectures was actually worth the trouble. Appropriately enough, this period was tagged the "era of opportunity with responsibility"--with accent on the former and shameful neglect of the latter.

The Faculty was either ignorant of the way undergraduates took advantage of this ruling, or preferred to keep its back turned on the gross mishandling. According to Samuel Eliot Morison, in his "Three Centuries of Harvard," "term-time trips to New York, Montreal, and Bermuda became all too common."

One student chose Havana for his term-time vacation resort, and the series of events which followed this choice put a scowl on the University's physiognomy. The student wrote a series of post-dated letters, addressed to his father, and left them with a friend who was to mail them at certain designated intervals. The friend, however, decided to mail the entire lot at once. Several days later the vacationing student's irate father was in Cambridge. Neither he nor the administration had any idea of where the boy was.

Immediately after this incident, the Faculty had to vote between a morning roll call, or checking of attendance in classes. They chose the latter.

The earliest rules were severe in the Puritan sense, and intended to awe students by using religious menaces or ordinary flogging. The latter was quite popular. In 1674, for example, a student guilty of speaking blasphemous words was brought before his classmates, the officers, and Overseers of the College, where his sentence was read. He knelt down, the President prayed, he was flogged (law permitted no more than ten swipes), and the President ended the ceremony with another prayer.

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