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Veritas at Harvard

Education and Politics at Harvard

by Seymour Martin Lipset, by David Riesman
McGraw-Hill, 440 pp., $15.95

In 1967 the trustees of the Carnegie Corporation approved a proposal made by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching to study the financing of higher education in the United States. A decision was soon made to broaden the study to include as well the system of higher education itself. The inquiry—conducted under the direction of the Carnegie Commission on Higher, Education—was surely the most extensive ever made of the university system in the United States and probably of any other country. From 1967 to 1975 the volumes flowed from the press: twenty-one reports, plus a final report, Priorities for Action; nineteen technical reports; eighty-four volumes of “sponsored research.”

Summing up the work of the commission, Alan Pifer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, wrote that it “has been dispassionate, objective, fairminded, factually based, and imbued with a sense of pragmatic realism.” Higher education “will, as a result, be stronger and better able to serve the nation’s needs.”1

My interest here is in one of the last of the eighty-four monographs to be sponsored by the commission, Education and Politics at Harvard, “Two Essays Prepared for the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education,” by Seymour Martin Lipset and David Riesman. Lipset’s essay provides, I believe, an opportunity to test the aptness of Pifer’s characterization of the work of the commission.

As it happens, David Riesman and Nathan M. Pusey, who as president of Harvard played a leading part in many of the events described in the book, were both members of the commission that undertook the inquiry. Seymour Martin Lipset and Riesman were also members of the Technical Advisory Committee of the commission. Before the book had been completed, the commission set forth its conclusions, and summed up their significance, in part, as follows:

[The] commitment to intellectual creativity [at Harvard] carried with it an emphasis on academic freedom for both faculty and students and an enhancement of faculty power…. During the McCarthy period of the early fifties, Harvard was the Wisconsin Senator’s leading symbolic target in his campaign against intellectual dissidents and Communists. 2

The attack against Harvard by McCarthy was certainly one of the most serious attacks on universities in American history. And since I myself had the offer of a job at Harvard withdrawn for political reasons, I was interested in seeing how the period would be treated. I was, to begin with, somewhat surprised by the relatively brief account of the late 1940s and early 1950s. These years are discussed in about eighteen pages, while the much briefer SDS episode of 1969-1970 is dealt with in twenty-four pages. Professor Lipset and I would agree that both McCarthy’s attack on Harvard and the SDS attempts to disrupt it were outrageous and dangerous. But his main concern is to assess Harvard’s performance in dealing with each. He is not sure that the university responded as it should have to the threat of the SDS—and therefore may have been permanently damaged—but he believes it did respond properly to the threat of McCarthy and other witchhunters. He writes approvingly, for example, that as early as 1949

Authority at Harvard was now clearly on record as opposed in principle to Communist party members’ being allowed to teach, but it also strenuously and at length notified conservative alumni and others that it would refuse to investigate the beliefs and affiliations of professors involved in leftist activities, even those of alleged Communist fronts.

But did it?

At Harvard in the early fifties,” Professor Lipset states,

some unknown number of people who felt themselves vulnerable to attack from investigative agencies were deeply affected by the investigative atmosphere, if not by actual proceedings involving them…. Some, I have heard with good evidence of three such, who never faced public charges, were told by various university authorities, including two Deans, that in one case he could not have a job promised to him, in a second be reappointed to one he had, or in third be recommended to one outside, if they insisted on refusing to cooperate with government investigators seeking information on past Communist activities in which these people were no longer involved.

I am the first of the three cases to which Professor Lipset refers, and I am struck by the rather oblique and offhand way in which he refers to it. He neither analyzes nor explains the “good evidence” he has “heard” of; nor does he discuss how the “various university authorities” he mentions actually treated the people in question. He gives no sense of what other members of the Harvard faculty thought of that treatment. But six of the nine Harvard colleagues who are mentioned by Professor Lipset as having provided “important advice and information” knew about my situation and one of them, who was a participant from the very outset, provided Professor Lipset with considerable information about the matter, and with ways to find out more.

Moreover, Professor Lipset’s collaborator, David Riesman, knew about my situation; indeed, he sought me out during a conference held by the Research Center in Entrepreneurial History at Harvard in 1955 to express the hope that I would not allow myself to become “embittered” by what had happened. Finally, I have known Professor Lipset for many years; he could easily have asked me.

I am also struck by the consequences for his general evaluation of the situation at Harvard of his failure to inquire into these three cases (I wonder whether there were more than three). When Professor Lipset was doing some of his own early research as a graduate student and assistant professor at Columbia University, he was much influenced by the concept of the “deviant case”—What are the specific circumstances under which an “exception” arises and what light does the analysis of the “deviant case” throw on the nature of what seems to be the norm? But here were at least three “deviant cases” about which he gives only the sketchiest information.

During the academic year 1953-1954, I was Research Fellow in Entrepreneurial History at Harvard and also, on invitation from Dean McGeorge Bundy, adviser to faculty members from universities throughout the country who had fellowships from the Fund for the Advancement of Education of the Ford Foundation and who chose to spend all or part of their fellowship year at Harvard. In late March or early April, 1954, Mr. Bundy, as Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, offered me an appointment as Counsellor for Foreign Students and Dean of Special Students, with some teaching in the history department. On April 9, 1954, he sent me the following letter:

Dear Sigmund:

When I talked with you about your appointment for next year, we agreed that you would also do some tutoring in History, and I said I would recommend your appointment as Tutor in the Department of History in addition to the appointments as Counsellor for Foreign Students and Dean of Special Students. However, the Corporation title of “Tutor” was abandoned several years ago, so that your appointment will not include this title. The fact that you will not hold any formal appointment in the Department of History does not in any way affect our understanding that you will do some tutoring in that field, but I wanted to make clear to you the reason why your connection with the Department in a tutoring capacity will not be recognized in your official appointments. If in another year, as I hope may be the case, you are able to do some lecturing in History, we can then add the title of “Lecturer” to your other appointments. But since the title of “Tutor” no longer exists, there is really no other title which we can now use to show your identification with the Department of History.

Sincerely yours,
McGeorge Bundy

On April 21, 1954, I found the following note on the desk in my office: “Agent Sullivan of the FBI would like to see Mr. Diamond on Wednesday, April 21, at 2:30.” At 2:30 PM, Agent Sullivan and another FBI agent entered my office. I wrote the following note on the reverse side of the card informing me of their visit:

2 agents, 4/21/54:—Said had been told by couple people in Boston area, formerly from Baltimore, that I am former member. Would like to talk. Said I didn’t feel as if I had anything to say. [They] said if should change my mind, if want to confirm or deny or if want to talk after consulting attorney, to get in touch. Asked if I had any questions—said all was clear.

Four or five days later I received a call from Dean Bundy’s secretary telling me to come to his office at once. I did so. Before either of us began to speak he put a disc on a recording machine and recorded the entire conversation that followed. He told me that he had received information that my proposed appointment might be “embarrassing” to Harvard, and he wanted to know if this were true.

I told him about my past beliefs and activities; by then they were a matter of history. I had been a member of the Communist Party; I had joined in 1941 when I was just twenty-one and when the Soviet Union was bearing the main burden of the war against Hitler, and I had walked away several years after World War II—as did how many others?—when both the world and my perceptions of the USSR and of political commitment itself had changed. I had once thought, after leaving the Party, that I could say “Goodbye to all that.” Bundy’s question showed me I was laboring under an illusion.

For what seemed like several hours (I remember distinctly that he changed the disc on the recording machine at least two or three times) I talked with him about the reasons that had led me to join the Party and then to leave it. At the end of the conversation he said he understood what I had said and that nothing I had said was at variance with the information he had been given. He then asked what I would do if I were asked to discuss the situation with “civic authority” (I am quoting from a copy of a letter I wrote to a friend outside the United States on May 17, 1954, within a few weeks of the event itself), meaning the FBI or a congressional committee. I told him that I would speak fully about myself, but that I would not be an informer against others, that I had no knowledge that others had committed crimes and that, therefore, the only effect of informing upon them would be that they would be fired from their jobs, even those of them who, like me, had long before left the Party.

  1. 1

    Priorities for Action: Final Report of the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education (McGraw-Hill, 1973), pp. 214, 216.

  2. 2

    Sponsored Research of the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education (McGraw-Hill, 1975), p. 130.

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