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Higher Education News from the Collegiate Way

These news items about residential colleges, collegiate houses, and the renewal of university life are posted for readers of the Collegiate Way website. For more about residential colleges and collegiate universities please visit the main Collegiate Way page.

Annals of Vulgarity

Margaret Soltan’s University Diaries takes note of a story by Tony Barboza, Henry Weinstein, and Garrett Therolf in today’s Los Angeles Times, a story that reports on a $20-million gift to the law school of the University of California at Irvine from real estate tycoon Donald Bren. “The eight-page gift agreement,” obtained by the Times,

reveals the scope of what Bren received for his money, ranging from major matters such as selection of the dean to specific rules governing how prominently signs featuring his name were to be displayed on the campus.

Signs on law school buildings must read “Donald Bren School of Law” and be at least twice the size of the building name. Bren’s must be the largest and most prominently displayed name on the building, according to the agreement.

It is instructive to compare Bren’s behavior with that of Edward Harkness, one of America’s greatest and yet least-known educational philanthropists, whose multi-million dollar gift to Harvard allowed Abbott Lawrence Lowell to establish the first residential college system in an American university. In recalling the Harkness gift, Lowell wrote:

[Harkness] offered no advice on details, which showed both his wisdom and his modesty: his wisdom, because seeing that his plan was fully understood, he left execution of it to the experts; his modesty, because he never desired credit for his philanthropies, or the thought that he had put into them. One day while the first two houses were being built we walked down to see them, when he [Harkness] took me [Lowell] by the arm and said he wanted to ask me a favor, probably the only one he would ever ask, that I would allow one of the Houses to be named after me. Quickly I answered “Certainly, if you will allow another to be named after you.” He dropped my arm and moved away almost as if I had suggested a crime.

For additional background on the life and philanthropic work of Edward Harkness see this fine article in the alumni magazine of Phillips Exeter Academy:

Although Towler emphasizes Harkness’ contributions to Exeter, she also describes his role in the creation of the residential college systems at both Harvard and Yale.

¶ Edward Harkness is probably more well known in secondary education in the United States than he is in higher education, largely for having recommended and then funded the purchase of what many schools call Harkness tables: large oval tables around which classes can be conducted seminar-style. Harkness himself had gone to primary and secondary school in the day when students sat in rows on wooden chairs that were screwed to the floor. He believed that to draw all students out it was necessary for them to be able to see one another, as well as the teacher, face to face. By placing students around an oval table, he thought, everyone could more easily contribute, no one could hide in the back row, and the class could function better as a cohesive unit. This “Harkness method” of teaching is still used at many of the world’s best schools today.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2016