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For sheer grandeur, no other Harvard presidential installation approaches that of A. Lawrence Lowell (1856-1943). The two days of festivities (Oct. 6-7, 1909) drew some 13,000 spectators, and Harvard conferred 30 honorary degrees.
Born to the prominent Boston family that produced astronomer Percival Lowell (his brother) and poet Amy Lowell (his sister), A. Lawrence Lowell was a man of high scholarship, high standards, and aristocratic bearing who believed in education for all who had the heart and mind to pursue it. Thus, he wasted no time in establishing the Harvard Extension School (1909) as an open-enrollment evening program for the Greater Boston community.
Lowell inherited a College afflicted by a divisive, clubby social outlook that he detested. His inaugural address made clear his desire to restore the “collegiate way of living” that had inspired Harvard’s founding. His correctives shape undergraduate life to this day.
By requiring freshmen to live in Harvard dormitories, Lowell dealt a death blow to the expensive private “Gold Coast” dorms that had sprung up along Mount Auburn Street since the mid-1870s and limited the commingling of social classes. Between 1914 and 1926, four freshman dormitories rose along the Charles. In 1928 came an unexpected gift (eventually totaling $13 million) from Yale alumnus Edward S. Harkness that allowed Lowell to realize one of his deepest dreams: the creation of residential Houses (some subsuming the four recent freshman halls) to replicate the diversity of the larger College, with sophomores, juniors, and seniors living, dining, studying, and socializing with affiliated tutors and faculty. By 1930 and 1931, the first seven undergraduate Houses (Adams, Dunster, Eliot, Kirkland, Leverett, Lowell, and Winthrop) were opening their doors, and the House Plan - one of Harvard’s most successful and distinctive features - was under way. In 1931, the College also began housing freshmen in Yard dormitories.
On every hand, Harvard facilities expanded enormously with the completion of the Gibbs Chemistry Laboratory (1913), the Music Building (1914), Widener Library (1914, opened 1915), the Germanic Museum (now the Busch-Reisinger Museum in Otto Hall; 1921), Lehman Hall (1924), Straus Hall (1926), the Business School’s Georgian-style complex (1927), the Fogg Art Museum (1927), Mallinckrodt Laboratory (1928), the Indoor Athletic Building (1930; now the Malkin Athletic Center), Dillon Field House (1931), Wigglesworth Hall (1931), and The Memorial Church (1932). In 1912, Lowell funded the building of a new president’s House at 17 Quincy St. (now Loeb House). Langdell Hall, partly finished in 1907 to house the Law School Library, was finally completed in 1929.
Lowell was equally concerned with undergraduate education. His term brought the first general examinations, fields of concentration (elsewhere known as “majors”), distribution requirements for subjects outside the concentration, and tutorials (individual or small-group instruction with a tutor). Beyond the College, the University gained new schools in Education (1920) and Public Health (1922).
In 1933, Lowell’s last big dream materialized with the founding of the Society of Fellows, which now allows up to 30 exceptionally promising young scholars (Junior Fellows) to devote three years to full-time scholarship while enjoying regular contact with Senior Fellows in diverse fields.
During World War I when anti-German sentiment ran high, Lowell fiercely defended academic freedom, resisting pressure to fire Psychology Professor Hugo Münsterberg for speaking well of his native Germany. In 1927, Lowell chaired an investigation of the controversial execution of anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. By Lowell’s instructions, investigation documents remained sealed until 1977.
A(bbott) Lawrence Lowell
President of Harvard University 1909-1933