The Collegiate Way: Residential Colleges & the Renewal of University Life  ‹›


Frank Bolles on Dividing Harvard College

A Precursor to Lowell’s House Plan

In 1840 the College contained 250 students; in 1850, 300; in 1860, 456; in 1870, 600; in 1880, 800; in 1890, 1,300; in 1894, 1,600. What will its membership be in 1900 or in 1950? At the latter time, if the rate of growth and our present administrative system are maintained, the Dean and Recorder of Harvard College will be personally caring for 6,500 individuals, with all of whom they will be presumed to have an intelligent acquaintance.

—Frank Bolles

The creation of a system of residential colleges at Harvard University by Abbott Lawrence Lowell in the 1930s was the culmination of a long chain of discussion and debate about Harvard administrative organization reaching back into the Nineteenth Century. Lowell’s essay of 1904 on “Dormitories and College Life” was an influential contribution, but one of the very first papers to broach the subject was an 1894 essay published in the Harvard Graduates’ Magazine by Frank Bolles (1856–1894), naturalist, author, and Secretary of Harvard University.


Frank Bolles, from Charles Foster Batchelder’s An Account of the Nuttall Ornithological Club: 1873 to 1919 (Cambridge, 1937), p. 53.

What follows is a complete transcription of Bolles’s 1894 paper, “An Administrative Problem,” Harvard Graduates’ Magazine, 3(9): 1–8, September 1894. Square brackets are original to the text; my editorial insertions are enclosed in {braces}.

An Administrative Problem.1

Of the three thousand one hundred and fifty students registered in Harvard university this year [1893–94], two thousand one hundred and seventy-six are under the charge of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. This faculty is the direct successor of that which, until 1890, was known as the Faculty of Harvard College. It is, in fact, the same faculty as far as conditions of membership are concerned, but it has different and heavier responsibilities. The change of name, which makes it seem strange to all except recent graduates, was made when the Graduate School and Scientific School were placed under its jurisdiction, and when all the degrees in Arts or Science conferred by the University were intrusted to its care. It is well to remember in this discussion that this faculty with all its cares, enlarged not only by natural growth but by two important additional trusts, is not stronger either in numbers or selection than it would have been if it had remained in name and jurisdiction simply the Faculty of Harvard College.

The problem which this paper seeks to discuss is, how this single faculty with a simple organization of a few administrative officers is to deal effectively with a body of students which numbered six hundred in 1870, which includes nearly two thousand two hundred now, and which, ten years hence, may number over {page 2} three thousand? At present it is assumed that an administrative officer can perform one duty towards two thousand or three thousand students as intelligently as he could, in former years, discharge two or three duties towards six hundred students. As the University has grown, fewer duties have been assigned to certain officers, but relief has not, as a rule, taken the form of reducing the number of students to be known and dealt with by particular officers. The present Recorder, for example, has charge of 2,176 records, where the Registrar in 1870 was responsible for only six hundred. It is only by a fiction that the Recorder can be assumed to have any personal knowledge of even a half of the men whose absences he counts, whose petitions he acts upon, and against whose petty delinquencies he remonstrates, yet the fiction is maintained while its absurdity keeps on growing. From time to time recognition of the feebleness of the old system has led to attempts to modify it, and to create officers whose jurisdiction should extend over only a reasonable number of students. In the spring of 1886 the special students in the College were placed under the particular supervision of a Committee of the Faculty, and soon after this Committee adopted the plan of parceling out its students among its members and making each member an “adviser” for the students assigned to his direction. Here was a confession of the inability of the old system to govern special students and an engrafting upon it of a new and money-saving device. Instead of having new, salaried administrative officers to share duties with the old ones, a group of sympathetic members of the Faculty was formed to do well, without extra pay, what the proper officers could only do inefficiently. It is amusing, if not instructive, to remember that an earlier and alternative suggestion was to get rid of special students.

Thanks to the zeal and tact of the Special Student Committee, the system of advisers commended itself to the Faculty, and was extended to the Freshmen Class, though in a somewhat modified form. The Committee of Freshman Advisers was not given full control over the entering class, in fact it was asked to do little more than to supervise the choice of Freshman elective studies, and then to keep a friendly eye upon the class during its first year. Even this was asked of it more by implication than by specific vote. That more was not required of this Committee was due {page 3} to the impossibility of finding in the Faculty a sufficient number of men possessed of the proper qualities of head and heart to do as much for the Freshmen as the Special Student Committee was doing for its protégés. Even with their simpler duties, some members of the Committee of Freshman Advisers have performed their task in so perfunctory a way, that in order to strengthen its ranks, the Committee has called into it young instructors who are not members of the Faculty. Perhaps the wonder is that anything higher than perfunctory service should be given in tasks of this kind by men who are employed as teachers, and whose work as teachers suffers as their administrative cares and burdens increase.

The principal recognition which a possible newer and better system of administration has received was given when, in addition to Harvard College, the Graduate and Scientific Schools were placed in charge of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. At that time the sixth statute of the University was amended to contain the following:—

“A Faculty may, at its discretion, delegate any of its powers relating to ordinary matters of administration and discipline, except the power to inflict the penalties of dismission and expulsion, to Administrative Boards, nominated from among its members by the President, and appointed by the Corporation with the consent of the Overseers. Every such Board shall be subject to the authority of the Faculty from which it is appointed. Any Administrative Board established for Harvard College shall consist of not less than fifteen members.”

Immediately after the adoption of this statute, Administrative Boards were appointed to take charge of the ordinary business of the College, the Graduate School, and the Scientific School, and they have saved the Faculty from an enormous amount of routine work. The Graduate School with two hundred and fifty men is readily managed by its Dean, Administrative Board, and Dean’s Assistant, and the Scientific School with two hundred and eighty men is vigorously handled by a similar administrative force. Graduate students are, of course, not subject to many of the minor regulations which apply to immature students, but questions relating to their degrees and choice of studies require those who deal with them to have much familiarity with their individual needs, peculiarities, and records. In the Scientific School the {page 4} Dean and his assistants know every student registered with them, and a clear personal understanding is possible of every case which requires their action.

When Harvard College is scrutinized a different state of affairs is at once found. From the 1,656 students registered in the College, 162 special students may be deducted, since they have been seen to be well managed by the Committee on Special Students. There remain, however, nearly 1,500 young men who are intrusted to one Dean and Administrative Board to control, with theoretically the same degree of interest and efficiency that the Graduate and Scientific School students are controlled. Where other Deans and Boards have half the number of students allotted to them which they could manage with intelligent justice, the Dean and Board of the College have three times this maximum number heaped upon them, and still the number grows year by year. It is only necessary to state these facts to make it clear either that the Dean of Harvard College is called upon to accomplish an impossibility, or that what in the past have been considered the natural duties of the Dean or officer performing similar functions, have been gradually changed or reduced by force of circumstances. As a matter of fact the present Dean and Recorder struggle to do their theoretical duty with a zeal which commands both admiration and pity. The chief compensation for their inevitable failure, and for their sacrifice of health, is found in the warm regard which their efforts engender in the students whom they seek to serve.

The subdivision of jurisdiction which is provided for by the sixth statute is based upon the theory that in governing students it is wisest to deal collectively with those whose courses of study most nearly resemble each other in grade or kind. Thus Graduate Students are set under one Board, Scientific Students under another, while the College, regardless of its size, is placed under a third. Distribution in dormitories or dining-halls has no bearing upon the grouping for administrative purposes. In other words, the division of jurisdiction accomplished by the sixth statute has regard for the students’ minds rather than for their bodies. It considers the degrees which they are to take, rather than the guardianship of their morals and bodies. So far as the Graduate School and the Scientific School are concerned, both {page 5} being at present small in numbers, this division of jurisdiction works no evil. It is when a single Board is asked not only to regulate the studies, but to guard the health and to scrutinize the moral tone of 1,500 young men that the system which ignores numbers and geographical distribution breaks down. If it be determined openly that the health and morals of Harvard undergraduates are not to occupy the attention of the Dean and Board of the College, then the present system may be perpetuated, but if this determination is not reached, then either the system must be changed or the present attempt to accomplish the impossible will go on until something snaps.

Looked at as men, rather than as mere numbered minds, Harvard students fall naturally into three groups,—those who lodge and board at home; those who lodge and board in private houses in Cambridge, yet who are cut off from home influence; and those who lodge in dormitories and who board together in large or small clubs. With average, well-behaved members of the first group the administrative officers have almost nothing to do, and if the third group did not exist, the same might be said of the members of the second group, for many of them are so quietly and comfortably housed that they are seldom heard from. The third group, however, does exist, and it is a very large and compact group, and one full of rich, warm life incessantly active. It draws into its activity a large number of the men who live in private houses, and in combination with them it offers the most interesting question for administrative solution.

It is sometimes said that Harvard may eventually free itself from all its remaining parental responsibility and leave students’ habits, health, and morals to their individual care, confining itself to teaching, research, and the granting of degrees. Before it can do this it must be freed from dormitories. As long as fifteen hundred of its students live in monastic quarters provided or approved by the University, so long must the University be held responsible by the city, by parents, and by society at large, for the sanitary and moral condition of such quarters. The dormitory system implies and necessitates oversight of health and morals. The trouble to-day is that the administrative machinery in use is not capable of doing all that is and ought to be expected of it. The trouble will grow greater as the College gains {page 6} in numbers, and the dormitory system expands, yet no way is suggested for making the future safe. Harvard College with one Dean and one administrative Board cannot in reason be held responsible for the health, morals, and studies of 1,656 students. Its present Dean, self-sacrificing and conscientious to a fault, is exhausting his strength in attempting to do equal justice and kindness to this army, nearly one third of which changes each year. Can Harvard College be divided? If it can be, shall the division be by classes or territorially?

The principal objection to further subdivision is sentimental. It was shock enough to our love for that which is old and time-honored to abolish the Faculty of Harvard College, and to make the College only one of three departments in the charge of a Faculty with a long, new name. If hands were laid upon the College, with the intention of cutting it into two or three pieces, there might be an end to patience and a slaughter of innovators. It may also be said that there are business reasons for keeping the significance of the name Harvard College unclouded, since most of the great trusts under which the University flourishes have been made in favor of Harvard College. Upon this point, however, small stress need be laid, for it is not the substance which is threatened with change, but only the arrangement of that substance.

While it is easy to point out difficulties and to argue in favor of their removal, it is not so simple to suggest remedies or to assert that what may be suggested as remedies would not prove worse than the original woes. Thus far I have made statements in which I have strong faith. In the remainder of this paper I wish to offer suggestions, not in the spirit of one who dogmatizes, but in that of one who thinks aloud, hoping at least to awaken argument or to stir thought. If the College is too large for its Dean and Administrative Board to manage in the way most certain to benefit its students, is should be divided, using as a divisor the number, say 500, which experts may agree in thinking is the number of young men whom one Dean and Board should be expected to know and govern directly. In making this division, the division should be by territorial lines rather than by class lines, in order not only to keep as continuous as possible the connection between those who govern and those who are governed, but to {page 7} present for manipulation a body which is compact geographically as well as homogeneous in intellectual interest. For example, if this plan were carried into effect, the University authorities would dissolve the Administrative Board of Harvard College and appoint in its place four administrative boards to take charge respectively of Holworthy Division or College, Wadsworth Division, Quincy Division, and Agassiz Division, which should share among them the College dormitories, private dormitories and private houses in such manner as to yield as even an apportionment of the undergraduate population as possible. At present the members of administrative boards must be selected from among members of the Faculty. To the several divisional boards it would be wise to admit the proctors who lived in the dormitories included in their respective areas. In my judgement nothing would add more to the quiet and respectability of dormitory life than the introduction of a Dean’s family into one of the buildings under that Dean’s authority. It would also add greatly to the effectiveness of University influence over younger students if conspicuously strong characters among older students were given official standing as helpers in the work of maintaining general order, health, and decorum.

The localizing of discipline and administrative control in the way outlined would go far towards removing the appearance of general chaos which now oppresses new students as they enter the University, and which hangs over some of them during their entire college course. There is something very ugly in the possibility of a young man’s coming to Cambridge, and while here sleeping and studying alone in a cheerless lodging, eating alone in a dismal restaurant, feeling himself unknown, and so alone in his lectures, his chapel, and his recreations, and not even having the privilege of seeing his administrative officers who know most of his record without having to explain to them at each visit who he is and what he is, before they can be made to remember that he is a living, hoping, or despairing part of Harvard College.

Memorial Hall {the sole campus dining hall of the time}, packed with 1,100 men feeding or struggling to be fed, offers a conspicuous example of the present state of affairs in student life. The hall can accommodate about six hundred men comfortably and in a way to refine them and make their dining-hours attractive, but when the number is nearly {page 8} doubled, comfort, refinement, and attraction vanish, and in their place come grumbling, irritability, bad manners, and bribes to waiters. Similarly, the insufficient dormitory accommodations and the distribution of rooms by the drawing of numbers in the Bursar’s office tend to make student life unsociable and disjointed by rendering the segregation of friends in a building an impossibility. The tendency to cure this enforced scattering of congenial men by grouping them in clubs, where, within closed doors, they enjoy and even abuse immunity from public or official contact, is nowhere looked upon as one to be fostered.

In the present state of affairs the College is imperfectly governed, and student social life is stunted and distorted. If by the formation of several colleges where there is now one, it became possible not only to govern students more successfully but to encourage their natural grouping in dormitories and around congenial dining-tables, welcome gain would be made for the present and a grave danger removed from the path of the future. If a beginning is once made in the establishment of separate colleges under the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, it would of course be natural that the future growth of the University should adapt itself to the new order of things. Buildings would take a form suitable to the joint accommodation of students and a professor’s family; the dining-hall might form a part of the structure and a common room for study, reading or social meeting might break the barrack-like monotony of the dormitory of to-day.

From those to whom these criticisms and suggestions do not commend themselves, I gladly withdraw them, and in their place present a bare fact as it must be seen by all who know the College: In 1840 the College contained 250 students; in 1850, 300; in 1860, 456; in 1870, 600; in 1880, 800; in 1890, 1,300; in 1894, 1,600. What will its membership be in 1900 or in 1950? At the latter time, if the rate of growth and our present administrative system are maintained, the Dean and Recorder of Harvard College will be personally caring for 6,500 individuals, with all of whom they will be presumed to have an intelligent acquaintance.

Frank Bolles, LL.B., ’82

1 This article was prepared by Mr. Bolles very shortly before his death, although the subject had been long in his mind, as earlier drafts of the article and many conversations could testify. It should be stated that Mr. Bolles did not claim that the remedy herein suggested is the best; he was fully aware of the difficulty of suggesting any remedy that would be immediately feasible; but he hoped to call attention to the grave problem which confronts the University, and, by promoting discussion, to hasten a solution. —Editor.

© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021