Skip to main content
Arriving in Massachusetts Hall after presiding over Lawrence College, Nathan Marsh Pusey (1907-2001) was the second Harvard president to bring previous presidential experience with him. For Pusey, that meant tangles with the infamous Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.).
The new president had hardly been confirmed by the Board of Overseers in June when McCarthy took aim at him in a published letter. “When McCarthy’s remarks about me are translated, they mean only I didn’t vote for him,” Pusey wryly replied. The incident made national news, the vast majority of it against McCarthy. In November, after Pusey had spent little more than two months in office, McCarthy attacked Harvard. Pusey parried with the unflappable style that had earlier served so well.
Pusey’s firmness of principle reflected his deeply religious nature, and The Memorial Church and the Divinity School benefited from his continuing efforts to enhance Harvard’s spiritual fortunes. Nonetheless, Pusey was also one of Harvard’s great builders, resuming a scale of new construction to rival that of the Lowell administration.
In 1957, Pusey announced the start of A Program for Harvard College, an $82.5 million effort that actually raised $20 million more and resulted in three additions to the undergraduate House system: Quincy House (1959), Leverett Towers (1960), and Mather House (1970). During the 1960s, the Program for Harvard Medicine raised $58 million. In April 1965, the Harvard endowment exceeded $1 billion for the first time. By 1967, Pusey found himself making the case for yet another major fundraising effort seeking some $160 million for various needs around the University.
Other major structures of the Pusey era include the University Herbaria building (ca. 1954), the Loeb Music Library (1956), Conant Chemistry Laboratory (1959), the Loeb Drama Center (1960), the Center for the Study of World Religions (1960), the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts (1963), Peabody Terrace (1964), William James Hall (1965), Larsen Hall (1965), the Countway Library of Medicine (1965), and Holyoke Center (1966). A 1960 bequest from art connoisseur Bernard Berenson, Class of 1887, allowed Villa I Tatti (Berenson’s great and storied estate near Florence, Italy) to become a special Harvard treasure as the home of the Center for Italian Renaissance Studies. Fundraising for structures such as Pusey Library and the undergraduate Science Center began toward the end of Pusey’s term.
Pusey became one of Harvard’s most widely traveled chief executives, chalking up official trips to Europe (England, France, Scotland, Switzerland; 1955), East Asia (Hong Kong, India, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan; 1961), and Australia and New Zealand (1968).
Toward the end of his term, Pusey found himself once again beset by controversy - this time, from within. Fueled by burning issues such as the Vietnam War, civil rights, economic justice, and the women’s movement, student activism escalated to the boiling point by the late 1960s at Harvard and elsewhere. On April 9, 1969, radical students ejected administrators from University Hall and occupied the building to protest Harvard’s ROTC program and University expansion into Cambridge and Boston neighborhoods. Early the next morning, many protesters sustained injuries requiring medical treatment after Pusey called in outside police to remove the demonstrators. In response, other students voted to strike and boycott classes. The University almost closed early. The gateway had just opened onto the greatest period of sustained upheaval in Harvard history.
Pusey defended his actions until the end of his long life, but the events of April 1969 undoubtedly shortened his presidency. In February 1970, he made a surprise announcement: he was retiring two years early. Pusey left Harvard in June 1971 to become the second president of New York’s Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Nathan Marsh Pusey
President of Harvard University 1953-1971