“What is Harvard Doing Here?”

Black and white photo of white man in glasses talking to Black man in sweater outside under a tree

Gil Ford

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 7 No. 2, "Just Schools: A Special Report Commemorating the 25th Anniversary of the Brown Decision." Find more from that issue here.

"I want to disassociate myself from any idea that this is a sacrifice. I see it as a job of enormous reward," said John Usher Monro, Dean of Harvard College, in 7967 on the occasion of announcing his resignation from one of the most prestigious jobs in American undergraduate education in order to become Director of Freshman Studies at Miles College, a small, nonaccredited black college in Birmingham, Alabama.

At Harvard, President Nathan M. Pusey expressed regret over the loss of "a great Dean of the College who was among the first to seek out submerged talents among the nation’s youth and bring them into the great stream of higher education."

John Monro was born in North Andover, Massachusetts, December 13, 1912. He worked his way through Phillips Academy at Andover, Massachusetts, and was a scholarship student at Harvard. His background includes newspaper work and 27 years as an administrator at Harvard College. In 1967, Monro received the honorary degree of "Doctor of Humane Letters" from Harvard University with this citation: "A man of conscience and character, during nearly three decades he has helped Harvard College serve the aspirations of her sons. "

Dr. and Mrs. Monro now make their home in Jackson, Mississippi, where in September, 1978, Dr. Monro joined the faculty of Tougaloo College. The following interview by Pat Stevens was conducted in December, 1978, in the Writing Laboratory on the campus of Tougaloo College.


I think of myself as a member of the higher education profession; that's where everything begins. I had certain ideas about what colleges and universities ought to be doing, and because of their power and wealth, they're enormously powerful institutions in our society. We keep talking about this being a society of equal opportunity, but it really isn't; our institutions, it seems to me, ought to work on the side of equal opportunity and not on the side of reinforcing privilege.

I really got into this after the war when I came back from the Navy and went to Harvard, and I was working with the veterans' admissions to start with. James B. Conant, Harvard's president, had been one of the principal sponsors of the GI bill that Congress and a lot of people were opposing. Conant sponsored it on two accounts. One was that we had this enormous deficit of education, thanks to the men having gone off to war, and hardly anybody was in college. You owed it to the veterans anyway. They had to get their lives back in shape and their careers in order. And finally, Conant was a profound believer in the democratization of the university, and the power and importance of the school system.

At the peak of our operation, we had about 12,000 students at Harvard, of whom 9,000 were veterans, in all of our graduate schools; this would have been about 1947-48. I guess people who lived through that would tell you still that there was never a time like that ever at Harvard or any of the other universities. I mean such motivation, such energy, attention, mature students, you know, guys that really had reasons for being there, and they really paid attention, and it was an extraordinarily vigorous time. But it was also a very democratic time, because all these guys across the board got federal aid to come.

So we all learned a tremendous lot, and when that was over, my first assignment was to work on the scholarship program of the college, and admissions for the college on the civilian side. There were some anomalies that struck me and my colleagues there right away, namely that we had 1,000-1,100 freshmen, and we may have had four or five black students in college, and if we were coming anywhere near national percentages, we would have had 120-125 black students. The disparity was just too big for us to ignore. So we started trying to recruit in 1950. I remember very well starting out, trying to see what we could do about recruiting black students to Harvard College. And it was rather pathetic. We didn’t know anything about it; all we knew was that somehow or other Harvard was not contributing in any way to the solution of this age-old problem of prejudice and deprivation, and we were in an admission and financial aid [unreadable] of the college, and we were determined to do something about it. Well this went on for some time. I [unreadable] Chicago, I went to all the high schools in Chicago, the black high schools in Chicago, and traipsed around and met skeptical principals. “What are you doing here?” and all this sort of thing. “What is Harvard doing here?” But we attracted a few students, and they did well, but then it was a very inefficient operation, so we finally hooked up with a thing called the National Scholarship Service and Fund for Negro Students, which was operating in New York. Inevitably we gravitated toward them and they toward us, and then we really began to cook because they had a national system for identifying black students and they were interested in our interest, and it took us three or four years, but ultimately we threw in heavily with them, and I became very much interested in this.

I was given charge of the Harvard financial aid program in the early 1950s and worked on this very hard on the Harvard scene but also on the national scene, working to help start up college scholarship services to establish a uniform basis of need which is now used for federal scholarships and college scholarships across the country. Some of us worked on that real early, and I got very much interested in the responsible distribution of scholarship-financial aid funds to people who needed it the most. 

Well, all of this was the best statement I knew how to make about this problem of using the universities and colleges as a way of opening up opportunity. But it was a very limited thing, and the longer I stayed with it and the longer I studied it, the more convinced I became that Harvard was doing the best it could and doing very well relatively speaking, but I wasn’t really satisfied with my own participation in it. I got more and more interested for serious reasons through the foundations and contacts with black colleges, and most particularly with Miles College in Birmingham, which had just in 1962-63 changed management. The new president was a marvelous man named Lucius Pitts who took over at just that time. The college was a broken-back college just ready to go out of business; it was unaccredited, losing students, had a student body of 300-400, a budget of $250,000 a year, and was really in terrible shape.

I met Lucius Pitts in 1962; he was then head of ATA, which was the American Teachers' Association, the black teachers' group, the analogue of NEA. And he and I did some things with ATA, and this really began to get me into the South. Then he said, "Well, you know, I've taken over this college. You'd better come over and see us," so I did in the late summer of 1963, which was the summer of the big disturbances, of the Martin King demonstrations in Birmingham. Well, Pitts and I got along fine, and I could see what he was struggling with, and I was struck by the potential of Miles College.

At that time at Miles College there were - and this really played into my concern - there were 3,000 black boys and girls who graduated from Birmingham and the county schools every year, and there was no four-year college for them to go to except Miles College. Everybody else was segregated. If a kid had money enough to go 50 or 100 miles away to college, he could go to another black school - Talladega, Stillman, A&M, State, but there was nothing in Birmingham for that whole population except Miles College. And yet it was busted, and here was this gallant guy trying to put it together.

Miles had had a fairly conservative management with respect to civil rights, but Pitts got there in the spring of 1962 and his first statement to the students was, "You know, if I was at your age feeling the way I do, I would be downtown demonstrating. Why aren't you doing that?" And they looked at him, and they couldn't believe it. But he said, "I'm serious. It's a new day, and at your age you should be pounding on the city, and on the power structure, and so let's go!"

So they did. And as a matter of fact those students initiated the boycotts in the spring of 1962 of the downtown merchants at Easter time which really opened up everybody's eyes to what could happen. They worked through the churches, and they had about 500 black churches lined up, and they just killed the downtown market. Black people just didn't go downtown at the Easter of 1962. So everybody woke up. Martin King woke up and said, "Hey, Birmingham's getting ready," and so a year later King came in, but it was the Miles students with Pitts behind them that set things off. When he did this, he shut down any aid he was getting from local people. He told me, "We're broke, but our souls are in good shape." That's the kind of guy he was.

So after we had some exchange, he asked me to come down and be a consultant to the faculty in the development of the freshman curriculum, and I told him I surely would. So I began to spend time in 1963, more and more time, working with the faculty as a consultant, committee work, and then I began teaching in the summer of 1964 as a summer exercise. I got Harvard's permission to do this and came down, and this was the summer of the civil rights activity anyway, and we brought a student group down from Harvard, and we had them set up reading centers with the Miles students across the city and so on, and one thing led to another.

It started when I was 50, in 1963; I'm now 65, going on 66, and there's no question this has been the richest experience in my life. I'm just so grateful to have had a chance to get a little bit straightened out on this whole issue of race, particularly. I was fortunate enough to enjoy this extraordinary friendship with an extraordinary man, Lucius Pitts. He's one of my great heroes; he's now dead, but he was a great man, and it was marvelous to work with him as long as I could.

It was so fascinating. I was looking at kids who then, as now, had tremendous ability and really second-rate schooling and preparation. An interesting question was - you know, first-class kids in every way, intelligent, superb human beings - was there any way in which you could shake them up and get them off to college and connect up for them? And there surely was. The black colleges were doing it, so one thing led to another, and I worked there summers of 1964, '65, '66, each time developing a little more. In 1966 I remember we had an Upward Bound program which was the first year of the Upward Bound program, and the Harvard students helped me to put that together; they saw the possibility and wrote it up and so from my desk at Harvard with the Harvard students, we put that program in shape.

It was so clear that I was putting more and more time in on Miles that Pitts finally asked me the right question, "Well, here I am and here you are; why don't you come on down and run the freshman program?" And I said, "Well, I thought you'd never ask." So I told him I'd have to give Harvard a year's notice, but all of these elements went into my decision. One, this profound conviction about what America is all about, which is equal opportunity. Second, the sense that the higher education institutions have a grave responsibility here. Third, that by and large they are not doing well at it, and they're doing better now, since the black revolution of the 1960s, but not near enough.

You take, for instance, big state universities across the country. The major state universities are only five percent black - that includes the South, you know, where the black population runs 34-40 percent. This is the reason for the Adams-Califano litigation now, to force the state universities to begin to desegregate really. You've got segregated higher education systems in this state and Alabama and Georgia; you've got black colleges that are 100 percent black and you've got white colleges that are 95-100 percent white, and you don't have much in between.

There is nothing that prevents the big great state universities with all their resources and all their money and their connections from doing a most remarkable job of working with black youngsters or minority youngsters of any kind. The only thing that prevents them is, first, they don't particularly care about it. I mean the faculties are off on some other thing. Second, the tradition running through our whole society is institutional racism anyway; they don't want to do it unless they have to do it. Third, the students are badly prepared. There's no two ways about it. And that's true not only of black students but of white students as well, in our high schools. 

But the pieces are all in place now. None of these problems is insurmountable. The message I’d like to get across, above all else, is that out there being kept out of the major colleges by tests and attitudes and the rest of it, are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of able black students who can perfectly well o their work and who may not need any remediation work at all but who may need some, but the kind of remediation work they need is well understood and is all institutionalized and functioning very well at places like Tougaloo and the junior colleges and community colleges. They knew at the City University in New York when they went to the open-door process that there are literally tens of thousands of youngsters in underprivileged situations who can do this work even with the bad preparations that they have, provided that the college get itself together and make up its mind it wants to do it. And the whole point of Adams-Califano is really to require this commitment, and I’m embarrassed for my profession in American higher education, that it should have to happen in this way. I just can’t tell you how embarrassed I am to find that the great institutions of higher learning in this country are on the wrong side of a federal suit to do the job that they ought to be doing. 

If the Adams-Califano case only pushes administrators into building statistical records, and turns into a kind of revolving door situation, then it’s murder, just murder, because what they’ll do is run people through the front door and count them, and run them out the back door. You have to have a very solid, sensitive program of special work. We know how to do that now, a lot of people know how to do that. Here’s one of the best books in the business, Mina P. Shaughnessy’s book on Errors and Expectations. This is a product of the work that was done when Mina P. Shaughnesy was head of the remediation English work at City University in New York at the height of their open-door process, and she’s one of the great teachers of English in the country. What she did was make a systematic study of what the problems are, classify, categorize the problems, and figure out pedagogical solutions. And she got up this little book, Errors and Expectations, which is a real Bible for us in this because it’s so beautifully done and so compassionate, humane, and humorous a book. 

Another thing you have to do is to modify the admissions process, and there are colleges that are doing that, doing that very, very well. The tests tell you something, but the test doesn’t tell you everything by any means, and I say this as a former trustee of the College Entrance Examination Board, one of the main figures of college board history in the past in lots of ways, and so I’m well aware of the tests and their value. 

What tests do is give you an efficient way of identifying a pool of people who are apt to succeed in college. Here is the human pie and here are people who score high on the tests, and if you take your students out of that area, the chances are that they are going to succeed. The chances are better that they are going to succeed than if you take them out from here, see. The only trouble with that, as everybody knows who has been in the admissions business, is that this is an alumnus' son, and this is a football player, and this is the millionaire's son, and this is the son of a board or faculty member, you know, you take them and they also do very well. An interesting thing is that the percentage of failure in that group is about the same and the dropout is about the same, as in the other group. It may be that the percentage of students with honors is not that great, but actually the people can do the work.

So when you exclude people simply on the basis of the test, you are excluding a whole lot of people who can do well, but you don't have any categorical way of finding them. And if you're dealing with a big admissions process efficiently, you need a categorical way of doing it. You can say this pool of people that promises success is very high. Out here the promise of success is uncertain. That's the difference.

Now it turns out that black kids are out here by the thousands. They don't do particularly well on the test, but they're going to do well in college if you get them in. And if you give them a hand. So what follows from this is that if you use tests, I have no problem with that, but you had better also have some other mechanisms besides the test for making your decisions; and you don't have any firm cutoffs: you modify. There is really no double standard involved. It comes down to the fact that colleges have always adjusted their admissions standards to achieve the kind of community they want. Everybody understands, you know, that the University of Alabama has, what, 40 scholarships to award to football players. Everybody in the University of Alabama understands perfectly well when they bring on a basketball team and the whole basketball team is black. Which means that you had to set aside five places or 10 or 15 or whatever black places to get that basketball team. And nobody complains about it. But if you turn the thing around and say that this applies equally from the university point of view, to have an integrated student body in which you have a significant representation of minority students, then everybody gets in an uproar, and my feeling about this is that what you're looking at here is subliminal racism, I can't help but say that. I think that the overwhelming need of this country is to get over white supremacy in this crazy world. I mean, you cannot live on a basis of white supremacy anymore. The world is not white; the world is two-thirds colored.

The other aspect of this, besides admissions, is a sensible program of remediation which takes account of whatever shortcomings the kid may have. If you decide he's a smart kid, a motivated kid, doing pretty well on exams, but he may run into trouble in the formal program at the college, then you need an intermediate stage of some kind to work him through, and that's not hard, particularly if you put him in the hands of, say if it's a black student, of some black individual on the faculty or counseling staff who really knows his way around, somebody he'll believe. A black counselor can say to him, "Look kid, you've got to have this. Let me tell you about this place." If the white counselor tells him, he won't believe it because the student is a stranger in a minority scene. This is the importance of having black individuals on the staff, in the dean's office, on the counseling staff and the faculty who know the scene and can help with the credibility, help not only establish programs. Of course, this is one of the major failures of the major universities, that they have a wretched record, most of them, on affirmative action in their own faculty and staff. 

In that context of institutional racism, I want to say something more here about the importance of the black college, as an open door for black students, with special attention to their needs. I've made the analogy to women's colleges in this respect, and also Catholic colleges, Brandeis University and what not. The analogy works very well, I think, that women's colleges were set up at a time when men's colleges wouldn't let them in and when women wanted a college education, so you had these great women's college getting started. And similarly the Catholic colleges such as Holy Cross, Boston College, Notre Dame and Fordham got started when Irish Catholics couldn't get into colleges. Also these colleges, the women's colleges, the Catholic colleges, the black colleges, are repositories of special points of view; that's important in education. Women's colleges can, and often do, deal very specifically with the role of women, the special educational needs of women, especially, say, in preparing women for the career patterns that women have to go through, this whole business of how do you raise a family and have a career too.

Also, I learned from my younger daughter, a women's college is an institutional strong point for women; it's her reference point. My reference point is Harvard, but hers is Mount Holyoke, and she chose this. Long before she ever went there, she decided she was going to a women's college because all of her life she was going to have that as a reference point. And she didn't want to have a reference point that was 60 percent male.

The whole business behind the black college stands on the same thing. I'm a black student. I may have all the offers in the world, but I may want to go to Tougaloo because that's my reference point, and our business here is partly to lay out the whole truth about what's happened to the black community in this country, and where they go from here. In a constructive, thoughtful, hard-nosed way, what are you going to do to cope with institutional white racism in the United States? And you have to deal with that. And you can deal with that in a sensible, rational way and you certainly have to.

So the black college now, and for the last 100 years since emancipation, has been one of the most important institutional strong points in the black community, not only in terms of opportunity for students, but in terms of being an institution, and if you’re not institutionalized in this country, you’re nothing. I mean you’ve got to be in a labor union, the Democratic Party, the Rotary Club, you know, heaven knows what. But this is the name of the game in our country, to get yourself organized, and the black community is disorganized, fundamentally, relatively speaking. They’ve got churches; on the national level they’ve got the NAACP and the Urban League, sort of, but in terms of the interlock of strong institutional—I mean, take Harvard University as a great white power center, with over a billion dollars in endowment, and cross connections that run out; the old boy network from Harvard goes into Wall Street, into politics, and so who you know and how you get along works all through networks, and the black community just doesn’t have it. And you’ve got to have it. And so the black schools used to be, in terms of jobs, influence, institutional community centers, all this stuff, prestige, role models, and all the rest of it. The reason people are interested about the possible dimunition and eventual disappearance of the black college is that that might all be very well in a society which was clean on the issue of racism, but it’s hard to contemplate in a society which is full of institutional racism. And so the black people in this country still need institutional strength to fight their battles, and this is one of the places where they get that strength, here at the black college.