Term of office: 1640-1654

Note. Although founded in 1636, Harvard College (so named since 1639) did not begin operating until 1638, under Master Nathaniel Eaton. The College closed during academic year 1639-40 and reopened in 1640 under its first president, Henry Dunster.

In August 1640, when Henry Dunster (1609-1659) arrived in Boston from his native England, he could scarcely have imagined that three weeks later, he would be asked to serve as Harvard’s first president - much less that he would accept the offer to preside over little more than an institutional idea. Almost a year earlier, the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony had fined and dismissed Master Nathaniel Eaton for neglecting and mistreating students during the College’s first year of operation (1638-39). With no one at the helm, the College simply shut down. Dunster’s arrival set things back in motion.

During Dunster’s administration, the College built its first structures (none still standing), Harvard Yard began to expand (in a process that continued through the mid-1830s), and “VERITAS” was proposed (but not promulgated) as the first of Harvard’s three mottoes. The College also codified (in Latin and English) its first rules for student conduct. Through marriage to Elizabeth Glover (1641), Dunster gained the first printing press in England’s American colonies - the same machine that had produced the landmark “Bay Psalm Book” (1640). He later gave or sold it to the College.

Dunster’s single most important legacy came in spring 1650 with the drafting of the College’s papers of incorporation. The General Court promptly approved this “Charter of 1650,” which established a perpetually renewing, seven-member body that “shall be called by the name of President and Fellows of Harvard College” (a.k.a. the Harvard Corporation), the institution’s second governing body (after the Board of Overseers) and what is now the oldest corporation in the Western Hemisphere.

For students, the most momentous change came in spring 1652, when the Corporation adopted a new rule requiring four years (instead of three) for the completion of the undergraduate degree. The Class of 1655 (which entered in 1651) was the first group to feel the full impact of this addition. Despite murmurs of student discontent, Dunster successfully defended the new rule. (The Class of 1655, however, resurrected its protest under President Chauncy, with 15 of its 17 members refusing to pay the Commencement fee or take their degrees.)

The end of Dunster’s term was clouded by controversy. A local law forbade any criticism of the practice of baptizing infants. Dunster opposed this view, however, believing that the only scripturally sound practice was adult baptism. Not only did he refuse to have his youngest child baptized, but he also intervened publicly at the baptism of another local infant. After a display of such heretical behavior, Dunster had but two options: recant or resign. With the added frustration of finding himself on the wrong side in a transfer of certain financial powers from the Corporation to the Overseers, he twice tendered his resignation in 1654. The second was accepted in the fall. Dunster spent the rest of his days in Charlestown and Scituate.

As Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison sums things up, “Dunster’s genius for organization was such that the curriculum, the forms, and the institutions established under his presidency long outlasted his time, and even his century. Harvard University grew out of the Liberal Arts college as Dunster left it; and the Charter of 1650 that he obtained, and in all probability drafted, still serves as constitution of the modern University.”