Skip to main content
The presidency of Charles William Eliot (1834-1926) played out on an epic scale like no other, from his record-setting 40 years in office to his transformation of Harvard into a modern research university to his far-reaching impact on U.S. higher education.
In a 105-minute inaugural address (Oct. 19, 1869), Eliot memorably enunciated his grand vision of what Harvard should be. Vigor and longevity made most of it come true. As historian Samuel Eliot Morison explains, Eliot simply “wore down and outlived all his opponents."
Harvard changed in so many dimensions during the Eliot era that space permits only a sampler of major new arrivals:
At the Medical School in Boston, the curriculum expanded to four years in 1892. Nine years later, a bachelor’s degree became an admissions prerequisite. And in 1906, the new Longwood Avenue quadrangle opened as the largest and most comprehensive medical-school complex in the U.S.
For undergraduates, the Eliot years saw the end of many longstanding requirements such as compulsory chapel (1886), the undergraduate entrance requirement in Greek (1887), and the much-hated “Scale of Merit” (a nitpicking Quincy-era grading system whose last traces disappeared in 1886-87, with the introduction of letter grades).
One of Eliot’s most influential reforms was the development of a system of “spontaneous diversity of choice” in which undergraduates selected most of their own courses. Choice, in turn, stimulated an open-ended curriculum. This elective system constituted a radical break with the time-honored academic practice of specifying a student’s courses according to the year of college. The Harvard experiment soon spread nationwide and changed what it meant to be “educated.” By 1894, Eliot himself had concluded that the new system was “the most generally useful piece of work which this university has ever executed.”
Architecturally, the grandest legacies of the Eliot era are Memorial Hall (1870-78), Sever Hall (1880), Austin Hall (1883), Harvard Stadium (1903), and the Medical School Quadrangle (1906). Matthews (1872), Thayer (1870), and Weld (1872) halls also rose in the Yard; and the Yard’s great gate-and-fence system began to take shape with the completion of the Johnston Gate (1890). Phillips Brooks House opened its doors in 1900 as the home of undergraduate community-service activities.
Having weathered many a storm, Eliot began reaping a harvest of praise around 1894. "One after the other, the greater universities of the country followed the reforms that Harvard had adopted; it was clear by the middle nineties that the Harvard of Eliot [. . .] had set new standards for higher education in America," writes Morison. “By the turn of the century he was one of the leading public figures of the country; his opinion and support were sought on every variety of public question.”
Few marking Eliot’s silver anniversary could have dreamt that he would serve for another 15 years, retiring as Harvard’s first president emeritus on May 19, the very day of his final confirmation 40 years earlier.
Charles William Eliot
President of Harvard University 1869-1909