MIT-Harvard Rivalry Timeline

Timeline of the Historic MIT – Harvard Rivalry

by Philip N. Alexander, Research Associate in Comparative Media Studies/Writing program at MIT and author of A Widening Sphere, Evolving Cultures at MIT.

Merger Mania



Lawrence Scientific School is established at Harvard University


William Barton Rogers debates Harvard’s Louis Agassiz on the subject of Darwin’s theory of evolution; Rogers, defending Darwin against Agassiz’s creationist perspective, is widely proclaimed the victor


MIT is chartered; key figure is founder and first president William Barton Rogers


First merger attempt

Morrill Act (Land Grant) is passed in Congress

Harvard is proposed by Mass. governor John Andrew as sole recipient, with other educational institutions in the state—MIT included—administered by Harvard and receiving funds doled out at Harvard’s discretion

William Barton Rogers successfully fights this plan, gains Land Grant funds for MIT; Harvard gets none


MIT holds first classes; students are drawn to a curriculum more useful in an increasingly industrial age than what Harvard has to offer

One student observes, with respect to friendly MIT-Harvard competition in crew, that “a very pleasant association has grown up between the two institutions”

MIT’s student body proves more socially diverse than Harvard’s, less dependent on feeder prep schools like Exeter and Andover


MIT’s first professor of chemistry, Charles Eliot, leaves the Institute to become Harvard’s president; one of his primary goals is to improve Harvard’s science and engineering programs


Second merger attempt

Eliot takes advantage of MIT’s financial problems and Rogers’s failing health to pressure Rogers into establishing formal ties to Harvard

Rogers rebuffs Eliot: “the Institute would be a great loser by relinquishing its present independence”


As Eliot continues to covet MIT, one Institute faculty member comments: “I am not afraid of Eliot any longer. He is a shallow fellow and is cutting his own throat, though he thinks he is running us down”


Eliot starts pilfering MIT’s faculty with promises of higher salaries and better working conditions; Ferdinand Bôcher (modern languages) and Edward Pickering (physics) defect to Harvard


Third merger attempt

Eliot uses MIT’s financial vulnerability and its frail second president (John Runkle) to make another hostile overture; Rogers comes out of retirement to successfully rebuff Eliot once again


Eliot swipes another first-rate MIT faculty member; William Pickering (MIT ’79) departs the Institute for Harvard’s physics department


Fourth merger attempt

Eliot crafts a more subtle takeover strategy; he avoids MIT’s third president, Francis Walker, whose rambunctious manner does not lend itself to easy negotiation or persuasion; instead, Eliot assigns the dean of Lawrence Scientific School (Nathaniel Shaler) to fill the media with arguments about technological education not working well outside the context of a larger university; Eliot drops his plan when Walker effectively demolishes Shaler’s arguments in print

Harvard historian A. Lawrence Lowell, who will succeed Eliot as Harvard president, is appointed to teach history at MIT part-time; one MIT Corporation member later recalls Lowell confiding about “the cut-throat policy which Harvard will adopt, as a great menace to us”


Walker laments: “The history of the Institute of Technology is full of painful losses sustained for the enrichment of other institutions. Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Lehigh have in succession carried away from us some of our most valued instructors”


Fifth merger attempt

Eliot takes advantage of Walker’s sudden death and administrative turmoil at MIT to push another takeover plan, a so-called “closer union”; MIT’s new president James Crafts, a soft, genteel man and devoted lab scientist (chemistry), seems more pliant than Walker; Eliot is encouraged to learn that Crafts supports cooperation with Harvard in principle; Eliot proposes that MIT join Harvard and that the “consolidated school be called the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in connection with Harvard University and be regarded as the School of Applied Science in connection with said University”; Crafts holds his ground, refusing to allow MIT to be swallowed whole and insisting on “cooperation” rather than “consolidation”; Eliot withdraws his proposal

MIT alumni rejoice; one observes that Harvard’s “avaricious desire” to extend its control must be kept in check; another says—“as there is to be no wedding, let us hope for a fruitful celibacy”


Sixth merger attempt

The one that comes closest to materializing

Henry Pritchett, Crafts’s successor as MIT president, proposes moving from Copley Square and, finally, to amalgamating with Harvard to defray the enormous financial commitment required; Harvard’s huge bequest from industrialist Gordon McKay is viewed by Pritchett and Eliot as critical to the plan

Pritchett and Eliot become close friends, with rumors floating about Pritchett as likely successor to Eliot in the Harvard presidency

Pritchett coaxes a majority of MIT Corporation members to back the MIT-Harvard merger; the vast majority of faculty, students, and alumni rebel

A Tech defense league forms to prevent MIT from being “humiliated and dragged into bondage”

One Corporation member writes: “It would be a betrayal of trust on our part, to put the Institute in subjection to the University whose policy has been one of discouragement, rather than of encouragement, to the education of engineers”

One MIT faculty member calls the plan “repugnant to my notions of loyalty”

Ellen Swallow Richards (’73, MIT’s first woman graduate) summons fighting words: “when insult is added to injury the musket may turn and rend the attacking party”

Gelett Burgess (MIT ’87) pens a ditty sung at alumni reunions to the tune of “John Brown’s Body”

You can’t make crimson out of cardinal and gray etc.

As Tech goes marching on.

We don’t give a d[amn] for H-a-a-arvud etc.

As Tech goes marching on.

Henry Swanton (MIT ’94) pens this song, sung to the tune of “Michael Roy”

In Boston town is the Institute, ’Tis famous as can be;

To distant lands its fame has spread, It’s named Technology.

But Harvard College as you know, Stands ready to carry her off;

It couldn’t be done if the Tech trustees, Were only of sterner stuff.

            Our Rog-ers, great Rog-ers, Now he’s the man for me;

            He founded Tech and he worked so hard, To always keep her free.

The Institute she has grown so fast, They say that she must move;

But if that’s so or but a dream, ’Tis yet for them to prove.

Now moving’s not so very bad, ’Tis really not much of a fix,

If only she keeps as a sacred trust, The spirit of seventy-six.

            Our Walk-er, great Walk-er, Now he’s the man for me;

            He worked for Tech and he built her up, And always kept her free.

How great the nerve of that Eliot man, In Tech’s affairs to pry;

He wants his name on our sheepskins, So merging Tech did try.

Our former pres’dents kept him off; Alas, but they’re with us no more;

The sand is all gone from the Institute, Now they’re rocks on the farther shore.

            ’Tis bad, ’tis sad, For our Technology;

            Oh would she had but a president who’d work to keep her free.

Another catchy, patriotic song of the period:

You’d never expect the Tech to wreck

Her forty years of fame,

By wagging the tail of Harvard’s dog

Or selling her good old name.

If Eliot thinks he’s got us cinched,

We’ll give him a chance to see,

For he’ll dwell in hell before we’ll sell

The yell of M.I.T.

The merger plan is called off and Pritchett resigns as MIT president three months later


Harvard closes the Lawrence Scientific School; undergraduate programs join the Faculty of Arts & Sciences as the Department of Engineering Sciences; graduate programs are incorporated into the Graduate School of Applied Science


Richard Maclaurin becomes MIT president; A. Lawrence Lowell succeeds Eliot as Harvard president


Maclaurin spearheads MIT’s move to Cambridge; Lowell fights the move, citing it as “a very serious peril to both institutions” on account of the city’s dwindling tax base; Cambridge city councilors override Lowell’s objections, calling MIT “a blessing and not a burden upon the community”

Maclaurin negotiates with Lowell for closer ties between MIT and Harvard; both sides recognize the value of a “cooperative spirit”; Maclaurin remains vigilant not to sign any agreement wherein “cooperation” trends toward “amalgamation”


Thomas Alva Edison shocks an Ivy League audience by trumpeting MIT’s value compared to traditional colleges: “I would employ almost any graduate of that institution who came to me. In my business, if a Yale or Harvard man should come to me for employment I should probably say that there was no place vacant”

Harvard’s dean of applied science, Wallace Sabine, opposes MIT-Harvard cooperation; he tells Maclaurin that “Harvard, with its greater financial resources, can put Technology out of business”


MIT-Harvard joint program for public health officers opens; predecessor of Harvard’s School of Public Health


Maclaurin and Lowell sign a cooperative agreement in four engineering programs: civil and sanitary, mechanical, electrical, and mining and metallurgy; joint degrees are offered in those areas; agreement covers both teaching and research programs


Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts rules that the joint MIT-Harvard venture cannot be financed through Harvard’s McKay Trust

MIT-Harvard agreement becomes null and void; formal cooperation and awarding of joint degrees are canceled


Harvard Engineering School is established


Harvard professor of astronomy Harlow Shapley hopes, condescendingly, that under MIT’s new president Samuel Stratton the Institute will “take a wider and more intelligent interest in scientific and industrial problems, and become a truly national asset”


MIT president Samuel Stratton develops a close social relationship with Lowell, entertaining dignitaries etc.; no talk, however, about merger or cooperation

Stratton keeps MIT policies consciously independent of Lowell’s; MIT seeks diversity —racial, ethnic, and international—while Harvard’s management under Lowell becomes increasingly xenophobic, racist, and anti-Semitic with the establishment of ethnic quotas and racially segregated housing

Stratton reluctantly accepts Lowell’s invitation to join the three-man appeals board hearing the case of Sacco-Vanzetti; he allows Lowell (as chair) to dominate the proceedings, and follows Lowell’s lead in voting to execute the convicts


Cambridge mayor hopes the city will serve as a laboratory for MIT and Harvard to jointly tackle social problems caused by the Great Depression; the institutions choose, instead, to work independently toward this end

MIT’s new president Karl Compton recruits physics faculty from Harvard and elsewhere; when John Slater (of Harvard) accepts Compton’s appointment, his boss Percy Bridgman calls him “crazy, another good physicist gone wrong”


Compton floats the idea of building modernized laboratories in physics and chemistry in cooperation with Harvard; funding agencies decline the idea as too novel, preferring to stick with the framework of grants to single institutions


Compton asks MIT vice president Vannevar Bush to meet and get a sense of James Conant, Lowell’s successor as Harvard president; Bush reports back that Conant seeks cooperation with MIT on the basis of genuine equality, detecting “no trace whatever of any attempt to trade us into a defensive position or the like”


MIT-Harvard cooperation in meteorology research and education is cited by Compton as a “shining example” of cooperation between the institutions, an “encouraging instance of friendly cooperation and of mutual supplementing of each other’s facilities”; hopes “this same spirit can be introduced as generally as possible in our mutual relations, leaving only just enough friendly rivalry to be the proper stimulus to best performance”


Joint MIT-Harvard Solar Eclipse Expedition to Siberia


Compton discusses with Conant possible expansion of MIT-Harvard “cooperative and competitive interests”; Conant points to “the strong inferiority complex” of the Harvard Engineering School as a fly in the ointment; project is abandoned; Compton notes that negotiations with “our sister institution have not been successful, though they have accomplished some good purpose in a better clarification of our relationships”


Compton observes with respect to a possible wealthy donor that he is a Harvard graduate, “but this need not be held against him”


MIT turns the brain-drain strategy on its head; Harvard’s eminent professor of mechanical engineering, Jacob Den Hartog, looks poised to join the MIT faculty (and does so in 1945)

Possible joint MIT-Harvard joint program in applied mathematics is floated; nothing comes of it


Compton tries unsuccessfully to woo Robert Woodward (MIT graduate) back from Harvard on rumor that Woodward is unhappy there; one MIT faculty member says Woodward is “probably the most brilliant organic chemist now in captivity” at Harvard

As MIT seeks greater educational breadth in its undergraduate program, discussion starts about Harvard faculty possibly taking charge of a music course as part of a new option in humanities at MIT

Discussion of potential cooperation between MIT and Harvard on a university radio project; also between MIT and Harvard Business School on curriculum development

Discussion about keeping physicist Julian Schwinger of MIT’s Radiation Laboratory at MIT after the war; notion of Schwinger as a “prima donna” possibly better suited to Harvard’s faculty


Talk of (but no action on) collaboration between MIT and Harvard in nutrition research


Compton outlines MIT-Harvard postwar cooperation in uses of atomic energy

MIT students campaign to change the name of Harvard Bridge to Technology Bridge, as there is “no good reason why this noble edifice should be named in honor of the aggregation of red brick buildings up the river”; one Harvard alum says it should be renamed Warehouse Bridge or Factory Bridge; no name change happens, but MIT students take consolation from the fact that the structure is known almost universally as Mass. Ave. Bridge

Discussion of possible cooperation between MIT and Harvard in cosmic physics


MIT and Harvard join forces to assist with Cambridge’s public elementary and high schools

Harvard School of Engineering closes and merges its programs into the Division of Engineering Sciences under the Faculty of Arts and Sciences


A report out of Australia concludes that MIT’s course in engineering administration is far superior to any at the Harvard Business School


MIT and Harvard join forces in opposing loyalty oath legislation during the first “red scare” crisis


Much joy at MIT when one of its students is elected Skidmore College Pin-Up Boy of the Year; “We’re just as glamorous as Yale or Harvard any time”

MIT hack at Harvard stadium is foiled after students plant land mine and detonation devices to spell out letters “MIT” during Harvard-Yale football game; students defend prank as promotion of “good clean Harvard-Technology rivalry”


MIT and Harvard jointly oppose Massachusetts fair employment practices legislation; both support the principle, but deplore proposed oversight of private educational institutions as government intrusion


MIT’s new president James Killian refers to the strip between MIT and Harvard as “research row, the trillion dollar mile . . . . probably the greatest concentration of scientific, engineering, and research talent in the world”

MIT considers recruiting a Harvard professor as its new head of geology and geophysics; MIT’s dean of science George Harrison says the candidate has “typical earmarks of a Harvard professor—easy going, somewhat sloppy in dress, and an engrossed scholar . . . His success here would depend, I think, on how he reacted to the somewhat more active and stimulating Tech environment”; a different candidate is chosen

MIT and Harvard faculty launch joint study of monopoly problem in American business with a view to devising standards of acceptable competition

Killian discusses with Conant possible MIT-Harvard cooperation in engineering research and education; lays out framework—“we would be in competition but not in conflict,” both sides vowing “not to poach on each other’s preserves as far as personnel is concerned”


Harvard tries to recruit MIT’s provost Julius Stratton as its new dean of science; Stratton declines

MIT students note trend toward Boston society finally opening doors to “aspiring Institute stags”; Institute men are now on list of desirables at cotillions and debutante balls “primarily dominated by Harvard men”; “a chance to match their amorous abilities with those of Harvard’s finest”; “now Tech men are to be considered very nearly the social equals of their brothers up the river”; “We suppose that many of the future atomic scientists are pleased to discover their new social standing, but we know that many of them will smile a knowing smile and never make the journey up to Beacon Hill”

Killian moderates MIT-Harvard student debate: “that a liberal education better trains the citizen than a specialized education”

Killian continues discussions with Conant on cooperation in engineering education and research; Conant selects Vannevar Bush to prepare a report on Harvard’s program, which lags sorely behind MIT’s; the Bush Report concludes: “We have an opportunity to build toward a ‘Cambridge’ University with both institutions independent but both collaborating to create a whole greater than its parts”


MIT-Harvard radio enterprise is described as “the outstanding venture in the field of educational radio”


MIT students joke about a possible MIT-Harvard merger: “The new institution, which might be called Harmit (pronounced hah-mit), would have twice as many wealthy alumni at its disposal as formerly”


MIT Corporation member Thomas Cabot, with a Harvard and MIT pedigree (former student at both places), reflects on differences between the institutions: “My own impression is that Harvard has so much freedom as to cause serious imbalances and blank spots in its curricula”; MIT is “more businesslike, but perhaps this appearance of businesslike coordination is an indication that the fences around the fields within which staff members are expected to browse are too rigid”; Cabot wants MIT to aim for “preeminence in science, not merely in gadgetry”


MIT’s dean of humanities and social studies John Burchard complains to Julius Stratton about Harvard’s ongoing predatory behavior in trying to steal economist Paul Samuelson away from MIT: “I am sure you have done all you can (and more than anyone else could) in the Samuelson matter and I have a hunch he may stay. But whether he stays or goes I am a little fed up with Harvard. First it was Brewster, then Farnsworth and now Paul. Why don’t they breed some of their own? The ‘Cambridge Community’ is not a unilateral concept and it is not strengthened just by the transfer of a fine man to the other place”


Killian observes that MIT and Harvard are “running neck and neck” in competition to attract best students

Killian worries that Harvard may be more aggressive than MIT in recruiting “top-flight youngsters”

Joint agreement between MIT and Harvard to locate and manage high-energy accelerator in Cambridge; US Atomic Energy Commission supports

Killian discusses possible joint program with Harvard Graduate School of Education to train science teachers

MIT alumnus asks why there are so many Nobelists at Harvard, none at MIT


Burchard grumbles again about Harvard siphoning off MIT’s best humanities and social sciences faculty: “I hate to keep losing our most promising young men, flattering as it is to become a breeding ground”

Another MIT faculty member worries about MIT’s role as “a springboard for Harvard”

Killian reiterates notion of MIT and Harvard as “two strong, independent, individualistic institutions, vigorously competitive where need be”

When Radcliffe students rankle over Harvard’s Miss Radcliffe contest as inconsistent with the college’s self-pride, MIT students see an opening: “Take heart, Tech men! Indications show that this abhorrence is really the first step in the great trend of the Radcliffe girl away from the Harvard man toward that stalwart hunk of manhood—The Tech man”

Radcliffe women are said to be tired of Harvard men encountered at mixers: “The prep school boy who arrives with more money than manners and will no doubt leave with more of the former and even less of the latter . . . . the typical Ivy League character who came to Harvard to raise hell even as his grandfather Cabot before him; the intellectual who studies you as you dance and looks as if he eats T.S. Eliot for breakfast and makes you feel some odd sensation akin to indigestion in your intellectual stomach. . . . The evening is made complete by a junior from M.I.T. who climbed in the window and is normal”; MIT men eagerly await visits by Radcliffe girls


MIT men campaign to reintroduce varsity football; without it “the poor social Beaver is at a disadvantage” in competition with Harvard men for “certain sections of the fair sex”

Discussion of possible cross-registration of MIT students in Harvard poetry classes; Julius Stratton thinks this “a healthy thing to encourage” but is “inclined to limit it as a special privilege to those students who have demonstrated outstanding ability”


Burchard continues to protest Harvard’s designs on Paul Samuelson and now on Roger Brown; both tell Harvard no, but Harvard is “paying no attention whatsoever to whatever ‘treaty’ existed between Harvard and M.I.T. since certainly neither I nor the [economics] department head here knew of either of these ventures until they were all cooked. I believe we are free from any obligation to them and unless you tell me no I intend to recruit at Harvard any time I feel like it. As it is they have all the advantages and we have none, and we gain nothing from this agreement if there is one”

Julius Stratton replies:  “my first reaction was one of real anger”; proposes to Harvard president Nathan Pusey that both institutions abide by three principles: neither side will discourage a move that might benefit a faculty member’s career; first look elsewhere so as to bring “fresh talent” to Cambridge; and advise each other of specific intent to recruit from the other


MIT and Harvard establish the Joint Center for Urban Studies under a grant from the Ford Foundation

Voo Doo editors react when “some dreary Harvard student” says Voo Doo is a mere pseudo-Lampoon

MIT wins a squash match with Harvard for the first time


MIT and Harvard pledge to “work together as good neighbors”; Pusey acknowledges Harvard’s past bad behavior—“Harvard cast somewhat patronizing and acquisitive eyes on her upstart sister”; he urges permanent burying of the hatchet


Discussion of possible joint MIT-Harvard linguistics program; Burchard reacts cautiously—“I think we have to admit that we have succeeded in only a very limited amount of joint operations with Harvard. Harvard must somehow use us not only when they gain more than they lose but also once in a while on the other basis”


New publication called College-Rater devises an index for grading colleges; Harvard and Yale come in 1st and 2nd, with MIT in 3rd edging out Caltech, Swarthmore, Princeton, Chicago, and Stanford


MIT’s president Julius Stratton discusses with Pusey a joint MIT-Harvard effort to establish an information transfer system

Harvard-MIT advice on economic problems is solicited by President Lyndon Johnson; LBJ “picks the brains of a Cambridge group”


MIT and Harvard pledge “depolarization” of their traditional emphases; each acknowledges dangers of the humanities vs. science (C.P. Snow) two-cultures rift; MIT announces a $135 million drive to strengthen humanities, Harvard announces a $50 million drive to boost sciences

MIT’s Jerome Lettvin trounces Harvard’s Timothy Leary in a televised debate over drug use

MIT student points to “another exciting first in M.I.T. theatre history”; MIT Gilbert and Sullivan Society will perform Trial By Jury at Harvard Law School, claimed as “the first entirely student conceived and run cultural exchange in theatre between the two schools

MIT faculty members appear regularly on programs of Harvard’s Kennedy School

MIT and Harvard plan joint life sciences work; as MIT president Howard Johnson later recalls: “Harvard came to us, Bob Ebert, the dean of the School, and said, we seek collaboration with MIT. We knew all about the school effort. But he said, we are strong in practice, the practice and theory of medicine. But we’re weak in science and our collaboration with the School of Science at Harvard is not as close as we’d all like to make it. We think that collaboration with MIT might work better”; predecessor to the joint program, Health Sciences and Technology

1960s [late]

Lotte Bailyn’s impressions on coming to MIT from Harvard:

MIT was much more informal, much more scruffy. It just looked different. People dressed different. I mean I was surprised. Here I was 13 years after my PhD, and even though it was a sort of spotty job experience, I still considered myself a professional and all the graduate students started calling me by my first name. I was shocked. It took me awhile to realize that’s what people do—it would never have happened at Harvard. The way people dressed. I mean Harvard was coats and ties. There weren’t necessarily coats and ties in the way the place looked. So it’s completely different. But it had a sense of more openness and more freedom. We’ve had this Harvard-MIT feud going on forever, because my husband was at Harvard, and there’s something open here, I liked it. But it took me awhile to get used to the informality and to this more openness.


Johnson and Pusey frequently share notes on handling the campus crisis


Johnson reflects to incoming Harvard president Derek Bok about the tangled but essential ties between MIT and Harvard: “Our institutions have long held a special kind of relationship, and the presidents of the two institutions in every period since our relatively recent beginnings have kept in close and productive touch. To my mind there has never been a time in which such cooperation—and occasionally collaboration—has been more needed”

12 of MIT’s doctoral programs are ranked among the top 5 in the nation, according to a survey by American Council on Education; MIT ranks first in electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and linguistics and ties for first with Harvard in economics


Harvard poaches physicist Steven Weinberg from MIT


Ongoing complaints about Harvard’s siphoning of MIT faculty: “Although all of these offers cause us a lot of headaches in one sense, they nevertheless pay us a strong compliment about the good taste we have exercised in filling the vacancies created at MIT”


Former Harvard provost McGeorge Bundy comments to Julius Stratton about Harvard’s “serendipitous shortsightedness” in its dealings with MIT over the years


A Boston Globe op ed favorably compares MIT’s business graduates to Harvard’s; refers to Harvard’s “hype machine” while MIT works “without benefit of fanfare”


Harvard’s Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences achieves School status for the first time since the late 1940s; its dean, Cherry Murray, was educated entirely at MIT


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