Veritas at Harvard

Education and Politics at Harvard

by Seymour Martin Lipset and 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…

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