Abbott L. Lowell
Abbott Lawrence Lowell (December 13, 1856 – January 6, 1943) was a U.S. educator and legal scholar. He was President of Harvard University from 1909 to 1933.
With an “aristocratic sense of mission and self-certainty,” Lowell cut a large figure in American education and to some extent in public life as well. At Harvard University his years as president saw a remarkable expansion of the university in terms of the size of its physical infrastructure, its student body, and its endowment. His reform of undergraduate education established the system of majoring in a particular discipline that became the standard in American education.
His progressive reputation in education derived principally from his insistence on integrating social classes at Harvard and preventing students of wealthy backgrounds from living apart from their less wealthy peers, a position for which he was sometimes termed “a traitor to his class.” He also recognized the university’s obligation to serve the surrounding community, particularly in making college courses available to and putting college degrees within the reach of local schoolteachers. He took the progressive side on certain public issues as well. He demonstrated outspoken support for academic freedom during World War I and played a prominent role in urging the public to support American participation in the League of Nations following the war.
Yet his Harvard years saw two public disputes in which he argued for compromising basic principles of justice for the sake of his own personal vision of Harvard’s mission with respect to assimilating non-traditional students. In one instance, he tried to limit Jewish enrollment to 15% of the student body. In the other, he tried to ban African-American students from living in the Freshman Halls when all of Harvard’s new students were required to room there. In both cases the Harvard Board of Overseers insisted on the consistent application of liberal principles and overruled him.
One historian summarized his complex personality and legacy with these words: “He played many characters—the rich man of simple tastes, the gentleman who loathed gentlemanly C’s, the passionate theorist of democracy whose personal conduct was suavely autocratic.” The interplay of democratic and patrician instincts, and especially his insistence on defending his positions when others found them indefensible, made him hard for his contemporaries to grasp. As one historian posed the question: “How could a consensus form around one who exasperated his friends as often as he confounded his enemies.”