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Charles Eliot (1834–1926)

Harvard: From College to University, Recruiting a Superior Faculty, The Elective System

During Charles Eliot's forty-year tenure as president of Harvard, he helped transform the relatively small college into a modern university and became a leading spokesman for Progressive educational reform in America.

The son of a prominent Bostonian businessman, Charles Eliot entered Harvard in 1849. After graduating second in his class, Eliot became a tutor and was then promoted to assistant professor of mathematics and chemistry. When Harvard did not renew Eliot's appointment in 1863, he traveled to Europe to study. He returned home to accept a professorship at the new Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1869 Eliot published a two-part essay in the Atlantic Monthly entitled "The New Education," which solidified his position as an educational reformer and helped him secure a nomination for the presidency of Harvard.

Harvard: From College to University

While Eliot's ideas concerning education brought him the nomination for Harvard's presidency, it also brought great criticism of his possible selection. Clergy dominated the leadership of American higher education, and the college curriculum generally centered on classical studies. Eliot, a thirty-five-year-old scientist, threatened these traditions. Even though his election as president in 1869 was not unanimous, he did not shirk from delineating a reform agenda during his inaugural address. He recommended that Harvard reject the notion of antagonism between classical and scientific studies and proposed, among other things, expanding the curriculum, reforming teaching methods, implementing higher standards, and recognizing individual differences and preferences in education. In short, Eliot presented an outline for Harvard's metamorphosis from college to university.

Eliot understood that graduate and professional education provided an integral part of any true university, and in 1872 his administration created a graduate department. The department, however, failed to have any impact as it did not offer any courses designed specifically for graduate students. In contrast, Johns Hopkins and Cornell provided clear examples of institutions devoted to the university ideal by emphasizing specialization and research. Eliot assimilated many of the philosophies espoused by these universities and used Harvard's resources to develop a stronger graduate program. In 1890 Harvard dropped its graduate department in favor of a graduate school, and offered courses designed specifically for graduate students. At the same time Eliot proposed that professional programs, such as law and medicine, become the arbiters of professional standards. With this in mind, Harvard required a bachelor's degree to enter its top professional schools. This reform encouraged greater scholarship among faculty and students and prompted other institutions to do the same.

Recruiting a Superior Faculty

High-quality graduate education would not be possible without scholars possessing advanced knowledge in their specific fields, so Eliot provided incentives to lure leading professors to Cambridge. During his first year as president Harvard increased faculty salaries from $3,000 to $4,000. Eliot also ignored theological issues when hiring faculty. The opening of Johns Hopkins provided Harvard with a new school from which to hire American Ph.D.'s. Eliot, however, did not stop with hiring the graduates of new universities; he also raided other institutions' faculties, a standard practice in American higher education. In 1880 Eliot promoted the creation of a pension system to encourage the retirement of unproductive employees. Eventually this system expanded to include all faculty members at Harvard. Then, Eliot helped secure a sabbatical year for Harvard professors wishing to focus on scholarship. All of these practices and innovations allowed Harvard to recruit a superior faculty.

The Elective System

Of all the reforms Eliot implemented at Harvard, none brought more renown than the elective system. Ironically, student freedom in choosing classes was not a new controversy. Thomas Jefferson encouraged the practice when founding the University of Virginia, as did other reformers during the 1840s. While the rationale against student choice as expressed in the Yale Report of 1828 still held sway at Northeastern colleges, even Harvard allowed limited student choice when Eliot took office. The university prescribed all freshmen courses, but some options existed for upperclassmen. Eliot, to the dismay of many colleges, proposed a much more radical version of the elective system. He allowed Harvard seniors to choose all their courses, and gradually loosened restrictions on younger students. By 1884 Harvard granted freshmen some choice in course offerings.

Eliot's primary defense of the elective system emphasized the liberty expressed in both the Protestant Reformation and in American political theory. Freedom, he argued, allowed students to develop true growth of character. Individuals possessed God-given propensities that students needed to cultivate in order to fulfill their mission of service after leaving Harvard. In addition, allowing students to choose classes helped expand the curriculum and graduate programs. Electives promoted specialization and encouraged professors to work closely with students in order to push the boundaries of knowledge in their specific field. Finally, by providing students with options Eliot could determine which professors were no longer inspiring students with their subject matter or teaching methods.

Closely related to Eliot's philosophy of freedom in academics was his policy of increased student freedom outside the classroom. Eliot delegated responsibility of student conduct to the dean, and he encouraged relaxing restrictions on pupils. During his tenure as president the student rulebook shrank from forty pages down to five. Eliot also lobbied to remove conduct as a factor in deciphering class rank. Finally, the in loco parentis attitude was challenged with the ending of mandatory class attendance. All these changes signaled the transformation from college to university.

As an Undenominational Institution

In attempting to end the parental role of Harvard, Eliot diminished the school's religious traditions, and he encouraged other institutions to do the same. The president classified Harvard as "undenominational" and contrasted the institution in Cambridge with smaller denominational liberal arts colleges across the country. The analysis, as his detractors complained, carried a condescending tone, yet Eliot continued to advocate a liberal compatibility between science and religion. At the same time, Eliot derided denominational competition, which spawned large numbers of poorly funded and academically questionable sectarian institutions. As he argued for religious reform nationally, he had more difficulty actually implementing his ideas at Harvard. Eventually the institution followed Eliot's recommendations by abolishing compulsory attendance at daily prayers and emphasizing scientific and intellectual pursuits in the Harvard Divinity School. By doing so, Harvard continued to shed its old-time college image in favor of university status.

Admission Practices

Eliot also sought to raise entrance requirements and to provide standardization for admissions practices. He convinced Harvard to accept the College Entrance Examination Board's test for admission. This test provided students across the country with the opportunity to apply to Harvard. A more geographically diverse student population, argued Eliot, gave the school another opportunity to shed its historically provincial recruiting practices.

Eliot's ambivalent statements concerning education for minorities mitigated his reforms in admissions. During a tour of the south in 1909 Eliot publicly supported the region's laws prohibiting miscegenation and also opposed relationships between different ethnic groups of European-Americans. Apparently the influx of Irish in Massachusetts convinced him that the proper way to assimilate minorities was through education alone. At the same time Eliot advocated an appeasement approach toward the acceptance of African Americans and failed to condemn Jim Crow laws in the South. Although Harvard accepted a small minority of African Americans, Eliot conceded that a larger black population in the Northeast would precipitate segregated education. Finally, Eliot proved ambivalent on the question of higher education for women. He supported the teaching activities for women at the "Harvard Annex," and he celebrated the creation of Radcliffe College. This system of coordinate education allowed him to argue that Harvard had not become truly coeducational, while he also advanced the notion that Harvard had accepted its role in educating American women. Still, the Harvard president made numerous comments about the possible dangers of educating women, while advocating further inquiry as to the subjects best suited for women to study. These assertions reveal that Eliot's progressivism, like many other reform efforts at the time, did not include the concept of social justice that developed later in the twentieth century.

Harvard's Democratic Ideals

Harvard had always been charged by its critics as elitist and relatively useless to the common man. Eliot used a number of strategies to change this perception and restore the close relationship Harvard once had with the commonwealth and the nation. First, he modified the mission of "practical" higher education advocated by new state universities. He emphasized the progressive reliance on expert scholars who trained other professionals to function in democratic leadership positions. This elitist attitude offended many, but Eliot sought to assuage that tendency. He understood the growing importance of public image and began distributing literature about Harvard to alumni who worked in the media. He also traveled across the nation to speak on behalf of his institution.

While emphasizing Harvard's "democratic" ideals, Eliot also sought the support of wealthy individuals in order to expand Harvard's offerings. His cordial relations with J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller led to donations that funded the building of the medical school. At the same time, other contributions made the creation of the Graduate School of Business Administration possible. Though funded by the elite, these schools exemplified Eliot's assimilationist tendencies by providing education that would help society at large while avoiding overtly vocational activities. His connections with these "robber barons" and the creation of professional schools offended traditionalists, but allowed Harvard to maintain its status as a leading institution of higher education. Eliot also convinced many of Boston's elite that financial support of Harvard's attempts to become a national university also promoted the status and well-being of their city.

Eliot as a National Figure

As president of America's leading institution of higher education, Charles Eliot implicitly wielded national influence in educational reform. Success of his agenda in Cambridge gave him more freedom as an ambassador of the university to the rest of the nation. As the years of his tenure increased so did his travel and speaking engagements. During his educational speeches Eliot did not limit himself to collegiate reform. He became increasingly interested in secondary education and its relationship to higher education. He and John Tetlow, a secondary educator, formed the New England Association of Colleges and Preparatory Schools. The organization regulated primary and secondary education in the region and became a model for other regional accreditation agencies. He also expanded his leadership role in the National Education Association. In 1892 he chaired the Committee of Ten, a group of scholars who sought to provide guidelines for high school curricula and admissions standards for colleges. The report of the committee helped solidify Eliot's position as a leading educator in America and also coerced reluctant Harvard administrators to accept the standardization of admissions. In this way Eliot's public role in American education provided reciprocal benefit to himself, his institution, and education in general. He remained active in this capacity after he retired as Harvard's president in 1909 until his death in 1926. His nomination as the honorary president of the Progressive Education Association revealed his importance to educational professionals and the general public.

Eliot's reforms at Harvard were not offered in a vacuum. He was part of a much larger reform movement in higher education that included such individuals as Andrew D. White of Cornell, James Angell of Michigan, and Daniel Coit Gilman of Johns Hopkins. Eliot provided an example of a leader willing to modify his views in light of changing evidence. He adjusted his stance on such issues as his advocacy of graduate teaching and research, curriculum matters, and the government's role in education. Although Eliot often appeared condescending to those who opposed his ideas, he provided opportunity for dissent. Occasionally his dissenters won, as evidenced by the failure of his three-year plan for a bachelor's degree, his attempts to merge Massachusetts Institute of Technology with Harvard, and early failures with entrance requirements. As president of the nation's oldest institution of higher education, he implemented reforms at Harvard that eventually became commonplace in educational institutions across the country. As he defended his reforms to the nation he became a well-respected public figure whom many considered the most important educational reformer of his time. Opposing factions often criticized Eliot's actions, but his reforms proved to be lasting changes that continue to shape American education in the twenty-first century.


ELIOT, CHARLES W. 1910a. The Conflict Between Individualism and Collectivism in a Democracy: Three Lectures by Charles W. Eliot. New York: Scribners.

ELIOT, CHARLES W. 1910b. The Durable Satisfactions of Life. New York: Crowell.

ELIOT, CHARLES W. 1924. A Late Harvest; Miscellaneous Papers Written between Eighty and Ninety. Boston: Atlantic Monthly.

ELIOT, CHARLES W. 1971. Charles Eliot: Landscape Architect (1902). New York: Books for Libraries.

ELIOT, CHARLES W., and NEILSON, WILLIAM ALLEN, eds. 1926. Charles W. Eliot, the Man and His Beliefs, 2 Vols. New York: Harper.

HAWKINS, HUGH. 1972. Between Harvard and America: The Educational Leadership of Charles W. Eliot. New York: Oxford University Press.

JAMES, HENRY. 1930. Charles W. Eliot: President of Harvard University, 1969–1909, 2 Vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

MORISON, SAMUEL ELIOT, ed. 1930. The Development of Harvard University since the Inauguration of President Eliot, 1869–1929. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

MORISON, SAMUEL ELIOT. 1942. Three Centuries of Harvard, 1636–1936. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.




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