The Right Job, The Right Century

nant particularly enjoyed his association with Richards, since it enabled him to are more of the professor's daughter, Grace, whom he married in 1921. He advanced to a permanent position in 1925 and in 1927 became a full professor of Chemistry.

Conant taught the basic course in organic chemistry--Chemistry 20 today--and wrote a textbook on the subject. Most of his energy, however, was expended on research. Undergraduate legend today has it that he was on the verge of reproducing photosynthesis in the laboratory when he was elected president. This is far from accurate. Conant explains his part in the work of photosynthesis by saying. "Like a lot of other chemists I was trying to determine the exact composition of chlorophyll. As it turned out, my ideas on the subject in 1932 were no more correct than many other suppositions. But then again, if I had continued my own work I might have changed my theories."

As a chemist Conant achieved nation-wide recognition just before becoming president in 1932 he received both the Charles F. Chandler Medal at Columbia and the Nicholas Medal of the American Chemical Society for his work on Chlorophyll. It was this research which brought him to the attention of the Corporation when it began to seek a successor to President Lowell. Conant was at first far down on the list of possible presidents, but after several interviews the Corporation was so impressed by his manner that word braked out he was the popular favorite for the job. The day before his selection was mad" public the CRIMSON's headline ran. "Election of President Looms Today as Conant Appears Most Probable Choice."

The selection of an organic chemist as president of Harvard was not so radical a step as many though at the time, since President Eliot first gained notice is a professor of chemistry in the 1860's. Nevertheless, Conant's election made University professors tremble. The story goes that one optimistic professor pointed out that Eliot had been both a chemist and a good president, to which philosopher Alfred North Whitehead replied, "Yes, but Eliot was a bad chemist. There is the difference." The faculty waited apprehensively for Conant to make his first moves.

Conant, despite his strong views on most matters of educational policy, moved slowly. His first year saw the end of the rising bell and the return of beer, but little of a lasting nature in the way of educational innovation. In 1934-35 the first faint sproutings of the National Scholarship plan went into effect with the arrival of a special group of scholars from what the CRIMSON referred to as "the midwestern regions." Until the plan was codified in 1936, these men were known as "Conant Scholars."


The big educational dilemma of the decade was not brought into the open by Conant until 1937, but he must have been thinking about it in late 1935. In that year the Crimson recounted another anecdote about the president in the search of a personal secretary. Conant was interviewing candidates in his Massachusetts Hall Officer. An applicant walked in and was immediately confronted with the question. "Can you throw a man downstairs?" After thinking for a moment, the man admitted that, if pressed, he probably could. "Fine," replied Mr. Conant. "Can you make him like it?"

Too Many, Too Soon

Mr. Conant's own big problem, was throwing some men downstairs and making them like it. President Lowell, the godfather and greatest supporter of the House Plan, had brought in a great horde of young instructors to Harvard to provide tutorial, and in many cases those men had received assurances of permanent tenure. After four years of careful study. Conant in 1937 decided that especially in view of the University's restricted financial position during the depression, some of these men would have to be cut loose. If these men had been kept on a permanent basis the faculty would have tripled in approximately ten years Furthermore, the large number of young instructors and assistant professors made it very difficult to fit in outstanding men from other universities.

Thus in the spring of '37 Conant notified the Economics Department that only one of the three men up for promotion could get permanent positions. As fate had it, the two men given notice. Alan Sweezey and J. Raymond Walsh, were the two outspoken liberals in the department. All the anti-Conant sentiment of the time was unleashed, with the extreme left leading the pack with shouts of "academic freedom." Denounced on this ground. Conant only dug himself in deeper when he stated that the decision was reached solely "on the basis of teaching capacity and scholarly ability." Since both the men were known as excellent teachers, undergraduates raised a hue and cry about the University's policy of "publish or perish." A Student Council investigation placed the blame on the University's over-emphasis on publishing as a requirement for permanent tenure. At an alumni meeting H. V. Kaltenborn '10, attacked Conant for his "neglect of the social sciences."

A frightened faculty set up a committee which first recommended that Walsh and Sweezey be kept on. Conant replied that this was impossible. The committee then returned with a report which established the basis of the University's present tenure system.

The University--and Conant in particular--suffered an embarrassing time in the press, mach of which was deserved or inevitable. The University had not made its principles clear, and it had ignored the wishes of undergraduates in making its decisions. But today Conant can look back at the Walsh-Sweezey incident and reflect "that in the end its effect was a healthful one for out present tenure system works very smoothly."

The official biography of Conant prepared by the News Officer lists as his other main achievements at Harvard the General Education program, the University professorships, the Graduate Center, and the fellowships for advanced training in journalism, public administration, and business. Conant himself feels that the two biggest changes in the College since he has been president are those wrought by the House plan and also by what he calls "the silent revolution"--the gradual invasion of Harvard's domain by Radcliffe. He notes, "If anyone had told me in 1933 that I would see the day when Radcliffe girls would be in almost every Harvard class. I would have thought him completely mad. Yet the change has happened without anyone's noticing it, and it's turned out pretty well at that it's certainly a lot more economical than the old method of duplicate lectures.

Not all of Conan's innovations at Harvard have been received with popular acclaim or have turned out successfully. In 1937 he announced a plan of non-departmental, non-credit extra-curricular work in American history to "innoculate the student body with an educational virus." The plan was complete with prizes and six men hired as "Counselors in American History," but the student body took very slowly to the innoculations. The war served to kill the program.

Conant, in a high-minded and far-sighted move, made his first attempt to straighten out the College's rather confused athletic policy in April, 1935. From that point on, he stated, athletics would "be placed on the same basis as the other activities of the University which are largely supported by endowment ... We wish to get away as soon as possible from the vicious connection between football gate receipts and expenditures for the athletic program." At the --same time he announced that, for the sake of economy, seven, minor sports would have to be cut off gradually from University funds and go on a pay-to-play basis. Less than a year later, however, the H.A.A. announced that it would be able to contribute to the sports (soccer, lacrosse, fencing, golf, wrestling, cross-country and boxing) and thus save them from becoming like today's Rughy Club.

Much of Conant's energy has been devoted to an administrative liberation of the University's departments. When he first came into office President Emeritus Lowell would drop in for a friendly chat every once in a while to see how his youthful successor was coming along. On one of these visits Lowell, using his most sonorous Bostonian tone, proclaimed, "As president you will be surrounded on all sides by wolves trying to tear off bits of the University. It is the first duty of the president to resist pressure."