What has made Harvard successful? Why is it a name and a “brand” that symbolize first-rate academic quality, intellectualism, and a striving for “the best” in American education and scholarship? Did this just happen as the result of haphazard decisions or were certain principles laid down nearly from the very beginning of Harvard’s founding as an institution that helped shape its future destiny and success as America’s premier university? This book looks at answers to some of those questions. It examines the principles behind Harvard’s success and the role they helped play in defining what Harvard became and what it is today.
The Harvard Corporation – America’s Oldest Corporation
What is this group, The Corporation, and how was it established? This book looks at the structure and role of The Corporation and its impact on American history and institutions. Today it is simply known as, “The Corporation.” Given its influence over what many refer to as “America’s premier university,” it is one of the most powerful institutions in the United States. It is perhaps best known to the world today as the small but powerful and select group that runs Harvard. The Corporation is the ultimate administrator of all of Harvard’s schools, property and assets, and serves as the selection committee for replacing the university’s president when a vacancy occurs due to death or resignation. It is, ultimately, the legal owner of Harvard University. Its official name is: “the President and Fellows of Harvard College.”
The claim that Harvard College is America’s oldest corporation is often made in articles or in statements by University spokespersons and others. Rather than simply accepting that claim on face value, this author pursued an historical investigation of the claim, doing what amounted to the equivalent of scientific falsification: I asked the question – is there a better candidate that would supplant Harvard’s primary claim? This book looks at some of the oldest corporate entities and other potential candidates in the English-speaking colonies of the New World to provide context to the claim that Harvard College is “America’s oldest corporation.”
The net result of that research is the conclusion that the Corporation of Harvard College is indeed America’s first corporation and Henry Dunster was its first president and chief executive officer. Thus, although the acronym “CEO” did not exist in 1650, it still follows that Dunster is entitled to the title of “America’s first CEO.” This book looks at that fascinating history and how it helped shape two of American’s most important institutions: the university and the corporation.
A Streak of American Independence – Long Before 1776
The Corporate Charter of 1650 and the earlier granting of degrees by Harvard College were not originally meant as constituting acts of rebellion against the British Crown; nevertheless, in both cases, these were extremely significant actions in that they declared a degree of independence and an expression of the American spirit long before the 1776 Declaration of Independence more than a century and a quarter later. Dunster was a central figure in both of these actions. Samuel Eliot Morison says that it is remarkable that the General Court actually assumed that it had the authority to create corporation. In a sense, this act represented one of the earliest manifestations of the American spirit of future independence – respect as Englishmen for the English rule of law yet at the same time assuming a clearly emerging American identity and right of action.
Dunster’s Arrival in Boston and The Offer from the Board of Overseers
What specific turn of events and decisions brought Henry Dunster to the New World? We do not know. He might have quietly lived out his days in Lancashire, but something moved him to come to America. Dunster, like John Harvard, was a Puritan, and like many Puritans at that time in England, he sought religious freedom. They were both part of a special breed who decided to test for themselves the opportunities offered by the New World. Henry came to New England with his brother Richard, arriving in Boston in the summer of 1640. Almost immediately, he was approached by the Governor, magistrates, elders and ministers of Massachusetts Bay Colony, who asked him to consider accepting the presidency of Harvard College. Harvard had fallen on very hard times. The young College had nearly been destroyed under its first “master,” Nathaniel Eaton, who had beaten the students and half-starved them, while also apparently squandering much of John Harvard’s legacy and running up his own massive debts.
The Origin of the Title ‘President’
The emergence of the title “president” has a very interesting history. Henry Dunster brought great honor to that title and was the very first to do so in the New World. At one level he helped lay the foundation for what later became the office of the American Presidency.
Checks and Balances
The management style of whoever is president of Harvard at any given time either limits or opens up various courses of action to both the Overseers and The Corporation. From Dunster’s day, the Harvard presidency has always been a post invested with power. The ability to wield that power wisely to effect change has depended on the individual president. The use of the Governing Boards as countervailing forces in a structure of “checks and balances” has a strong and venerable tradition at Harvard. More than that, the genius of the system of checks and balances itself (a Dunster invention in the New World) – just as in the American constitutional system of three branches of government – has probably contributed greatly to the longevity and success of the institution.
The thesis of this book is that a combination of Dunster’s sacrificial commitment and strong leadership was responsible for Harvard’s survival in its early years, while the corporate structure and the principles that he laid down beginning in 1650 played a key role in Harvard’s later enormous success as an institution of higher learning – a “brand” for intellectual excellence known and respected throughout the world.