After years of standing by while the Divinity School dropped in both quality and prestige, the Corporation has finally decided to overhaul Harvard's second oldest graduate department. In establishing a committee to raise $5,000,000 by public subscription, and in assuring another $1,000,000 if this goal is reached, the Corporation faced a difficult decision.
For a long time the Corporation has been pouring $25,000 a year into a department which was no longer justifying itself in the Harvard community. Understaffed, with many of its professors beyond the retirement age, the Divinity School has fallen far behind its nondenominational offspring such as the Yale, Union, and Chicago seminaries.
In deciding what to do, the Corporation had two choices. It could have closed down the school saving a useless expenditure of University funds. Or, the Corporation could have decided that the Divinity School, like any other graduate department, is an integral and valuable part of the University, and everything possible should be done to assure its restoration.
Wisely enough, the Corporation chose the latter course. For behind the School lies a long and distinguished intellectual tradition, one that has not hinged entirely on religious learning but provided instead many of the country's great thinkers. It is as an institution of thought that the Divinity School serves the University.
But if the Divinity School is going to be mainly a place of intellectual learning first, and a school for those preparing to enter the clergy second, why should it be a separate institution? Why can it not be combined with the Graduate Schol of Arts and Sciences? In the first place the Divinity School has an endowment fund of $1,000,000 which it would lose if the school were merged. But more important, while the school is an important intellectual part of the University, it owes much of this prominence to the fact that it is dealing with non-materialistic issues, that it does not specialize in history of politics or government, and for this reason it must be part of Harvard's General Education for a free society.
Despite the poor prospects for immediate relief, the Corporation has appointed a committee of eight distinguished clergymen to study the problems of the school. The committee will choose a new dean, and make recommendations on the character and curriculum of the revitalized institution. In any event, the Divinity School will retain its nondenominational characteristics and basic historical approach to religion.
But to bring about the proposed three hundred man school, the Corporation needs money. Although it is willing to transfer $1,000,000 in endowment funds to the Divinity School, it has wisely decided not to do so until it is sure of its investment. Therefore, only after the first $2,000,000 is raised from public subscription, will the Corporation hand over half of its proposed grant; it will supply the rest when the quota is reached.
But whatever money the fund drive raises will be in the form of an endowment, and not free funds that can be used to make immediate improvements. Although the Corporation will continue to subsidize the Divinity School's $25,000 yearly deficit, it cannot give any more unrestricted funds for immediate use. Nor will there be any change in either the faculty or curriculum until the first $2,000,000 is reached. If this amount is not subscribed in the near future, there is a good chance that the Divinity School will remain in its present state of being Harvard's forgotten department.
Unfortunately, there are more difficulties in getting money for a department of religion than for most other educational projects. With the present emphasis on scientific and industrial research it is relatively easy to get large contributions for the chemistry laboratories or the Business School. But many donors of University funds will not contribute to the establishment of a religious program, and by virtue of their profession, the alumni of the Divinity School are in no position to make substantial contributions. Moreover, if past practice is any criterion, the large churches will not give monetary support because of its nondenominationalism. The proposed endowment plan must somehow cross these barriers before there can be any significant results.
Therefore, looking at it in its most realistic light, the new Divinity School program may make few of the needed improvements. At any rate, the longer it takes to raise the first $2,000,000 the greater are the possibilities of further disintegration. If the public's response is not encouraging, however, the Corporation must recognize its duty to the University as a whole and give up the Divinity School.
Despite the tardiness and problems of the new plan, the enthusiasm of the Corporation and the alumni group heading the drive is encouraging. If the Alumni respond quickly enough, the University might still be able to restore the forgotten graduate school to its proper position and establish a center of religious education in Cambridge that will have definitive influence based on "an emphasis upon solid learning and unfettered freedom of teaching and investigation."