On April 9, 1969, hundreds of Harvard students took over University Hall to protest the Vietnam War. They forcibly ejected administrators from the building and locked the doors, refusing to budge until their demands were met. In response, Harvard President Nathan M. Pusey ’28 called in the police. Around 5 a.m. the next morning, nearly 400 officers stormed the hall, brandishing batons and tear gas in a bloody crackdown that fractured Harvard’s campus and shocked the nation.
The day went down in infamy as the highest-profile anti-war protest in Harvard history. But it wasn’t the first. In the weeks leading up to the University Hall takeover, students had rallied to banish Harvard’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, which they argued was fueling the war. Some even nailed a list of anti-war demands with a knife to the door of Pusey’s Quincy Street home.
In the annual presidential report Pusey had penned just months before, he wrote, “Perhaps, as some commentators suggest, we are moving through a turning point in history in which the old ways of doing things are breaking up.”
His grim prognosis was less a prediction than an inevitability. The nation was changing, and Harvard could no longer insulate itself from the political turmoil of the midcentury.
As the Vietnam War reached a fever pitch and the country grappled with the specter of McCarthyism, Pusey feared that Harvard was on the precipice of a dark age for American universities. “The ivory tower has become a laughably grotesque symbol of the contemporary institution of higher learning,” he wrote. “What do we do in such troubled circumstance as we are now experiencing?”
But Pusey resigned before he could arrive at an answer. He stepped down shortly after the takeover, partly driven by criticism he received for how he handled the unrest. He left the highest office of that troubled ivory tower in the hands of a very different man.
Derek C. Bok didn’t particularly want the Harvard presidency, nor did he think he was qualified for it. He was 40 years old and barely starting to make headway at Harvard Law School, where he’d become dean just two years prior. He didn’t boast an intricate vision for how to stitch a broken campus back together.
The morning his presidency was made public on Jan. 11, 1971, Bok said he did not foresee remaining in office as long as his predecessors had, given “the strains and difficulties of the job.”
“My own feeling,” he said as he reclined in a chair in the dean’s office, “is that it is really terribly important that you be as open as you can be about what you’re doing, be very careful about what you promise and that you break your back to fulfill an[y] commitments that you do make — and in that way very slowly build up trust in at least a substantial number of students and faculty.”
His presidency marked the beginning of two decades of transformation at Harvard — and in Bok’s own convictions about what Harvard was and could be. Over his 20 years in office, Bok witnessed five U.S. presidencies; he saw the Watergate scandal break, the Vietnam War end, and the Gulf War begin. He grappled with challenges no amount of planning could have fully prepared him for — the expansion of the Harvard Kennedy School, protests over the University’s investments in South Africa, and the battle over affirmative action.
“I’ve had a lot of people in my life come up to me — young people — and say, ‘How do you become a president?’” says Bok in July, his grin audible over the phone. “There is no way to become a president.”
Today, 50 years after Bok took office, another presidential search looms. Three months ago, University President Lawrence S. Bacow announced his plans to step down in June 2023, precipitating a global hunt for Harvard’s 30th chief.
“It’s certainly very different from the time when I took office,” Bok, now 92, says. He insists that it is not his place to comment on the specifics of the ongoing search; today’s Harvard has its own leaders.
Yet many of the core predicaments Bok faced as he ascended to the top post are no more resolved today than they were in 1971. And as Harvard’s oldest living president, Bok can view Harvard’s current condition with a frame of reference few others possess.
For Bok, Harvard has been many things over his lifetime: a far-off goal, an alma mater, and, eventually, his home. But Harvard was also an ideal to aspire toward — one that was difficult yet, at its best, noble.
As president, Bok would shape the ideal of Harvard in ways that echo to this day. It, in turn, would shape him.
When Bok arrived on Stanford’s campus as a freshman in the late 1940s, the school, far from its current reputation as an aggressive innovator, was rather parochial. Footage from the time shows students lazing in hammocks and shuttling between classes against the backdrop of sloping Romanesque arches.
“Stanford was an entirely different place when I went there,” Bok says. “It was quite a sleepy institution.”
At Stanford, Bok majored in political science, in large part because its minimal requirements allowed him to venture into other disciplines. He was a self-described “mediocre” basketball player and a student government representative. He coordinated career advice panels with professors, urging his peers, according to a 1951 Stanford Daily article, to discover for themselves “why we pay $220 a semester to be at Stanford.”
His path from Palo Alto to Cambridge unfolded as a process of elimination. In his senior year, as the prospect of life after college loomed, Bok assessed his options. He knew he didn’t want to be a doctor. Nor did he want to be an engineer. Eventually, he resolved to try his hand at law. When he told his mother he intended to remain at Stanford, she pushed back, urging him to move beyond the familiarity of California.
There were few people at Stanford who had studied in the Northeast, so Bok decided to consult an adviser who’d attended graduate school at Harvard. His name was William H. Rehnquist, and he would go on to become the chief justice of the Supreme Court. He closed Bok’s case almost instantly.
“He didn’t even look up from his book,” Bok recalls. “He said, ‘Go to Harvard — you’ll never have to explain to anybody why you chose it.’”
So Bok sent in his application.
Upon arriving in Cambridge, one of the starkest differences Bok felt was in the rigor of the teaching. He was accustomed to pedagogy based on lectures, textbooks, and rote memorization. At Harvard Law School, which he calls “the great transformative experience” of his education, the expectations were wildly different.
“It was like using a muscle between my ears for the first time,” Bok says. “It kind of hurt. It was very slow going. But as time wore on, I found, you know, this has got to be doing a lot of good for me. I could feel myself changing.”
After class, the 1L would retire to his “cell-like” dorm in the newly erected Harkness Commons, poring over his notes to identify patterns and formulate answers to questions posed in class.
“They would only ask you questions,” Bok recalls of his professors in his first year of law school. “Whatever answer you gave, they would ask you another question which would artfully reveal to you quickly how inadequate your first answer had been.”
The sharp relief between the pedagogy of Stanford and Harvard Law foreshadowed a fixation that would permeate Bok’s career: the quality of teaching in higher education. Some would even observe these professors’ strategies in Bok’s own leadership decades later. Former Claremont Graduate University President Robert Klitgaard, a special assistant to Bok from 1977 to 1984, said Bok’s “great, lawyerly mind” came in handy when contending with various constituencies over tense University issues.
“He’d often repeat their arguments back to them,” Klitgaard says. “He’d repeat back, and they would adjust and say, ‘No, you didn’t get that right,’ or ‘Yes, that’s right.’ And then at the right time, before debate could boil over, he would decide.”
Other aspects of Bok’s experience at Harvard Law might come as a relief to 1Ls today. After preparing furiously for a mock exam just before winter break, he received dismal scores — C-pluses, C-minuses, and even one D.
“I’d never received grades like that in my whole life,” he says with a chuckle. “So at that point, I almost left. I just felt, ‘I’m not good enough to do this.’ But I decided I ought to at least stick it out for a year, and so if I continued to get very bad grades, maybe it would teach me I shouldn’t be a lawyer. I would at least give it a good try.”
That year, Bok confined himself to the few hundred meters between his dorm and his classrooms. “It was very intense, that first year. I don’t know how many hours a day I spent going to class or studying, but it certainly dominated my waking hours,” he says. “Until I became president, nothing had occupied me so thoroughly.”
Months later, to what he describes as “the greatest surprise I ever had in my life,” he earned high marks — high enough to become an editor of the Harvard Law Review. He eventually graduated magna cum laude and returned to HLS as a professor four years later.
As Bok settled into his professorship at the Law School, his fellow faculty members had turned their attention to one issue in particular — the battle for racial equality across the country. Bok recalls Dean Erwin N. Griswold saying in a faculty meeting in 1961: “It is a fight that is being carried on largely in the courts. And yet, when I walk around Harvard, or around any leading law school, I see no Black faces.”
In 1967, Griswold left HLS to become Solicitor General under President Lyndon B. Johnson. Bok assumed his post, as well as his commitment to increasing racial diversity at Harvard. As HLS dean and later Harvard president, Bok became an early champion of the affirmative action program Harvard is known for today.
On a December evening in 1970, two years into his deanship at the Law School, Bok received a call offering him the Harvard presidency. He declined.
“By that time, I had realized that, somewhat to my surprise, I was one of a very small number that they were giving consideration to,” he says. His cadence is measured, deliberate. “I had already figured out what my response would be when I got the call.”
When he first received the offer, Bok was reluctant to leave the Law School after only recently taking the reins. The anguish of the University Hall takeover and subsequent crackdown loomed large.
“All humor had left the institution,” Bok recalls of Harvard. “Everyone walked around grim-faced. The place was really in sort of a mess.”
Bok still demurs from sharing the defining circumstance that changed his mind, but in what he calls a “complicated” and “long” story, he was persuaded to take the job. “After I thought about it and talked to a number of people, it seemed to be on the whole probably an opportunity that I should not turn my back on.”
Once he moved into Massachusetts Hall, Bok became instantly recognizable around campus. He drove a VW Beetle to work and parked it in the University garage. He played basketball with students and dined with younger administrators in the Square. (Wursthaus on 4 JFK St., reputed for its schnitzel and sauerbraten, was a favorite.)
But this breezy public persona belied the gravitas with which Bok approached his job. Among administrators, he became known for his unusually comprehensive annual reports. An institutional tradition established decades before the Civil War, the reports allowed Harvard leaders to outline key accomplishments from the past year and challenges in the year ahead. What another president may have treated as a rote administrative task, his colleagues recall, Bok used as a philosophizing gesture, an opportunity to reflect on Harvard’s role in a changing nation.
“It was a powerful, well-presented, methodically and analytically rigorous commitment to bold ideas,” says Ira A. Jackson ’70, who served as an associate dean of the Kennedy School during Bok’s tenure. “While it was always measured and balanced — and not polemical — it was always courageous.”
Core questions animated Bok’s presidential reports over his 20 years: What was Harvard’s responsibility to the broader American public? What were the school’s obligations to its surrounding neighborhoods? When should it intervene in contentious national events, and how?
Harvard Professor of Public Policy Robert D. Putnam, who served a two-year stint as Kennedy School dean from 1989 to 1991, says Bok frequently became a spokesperson for American higher education at large.
“He was like the hood ornament on an old-fashioned car who was out there in front, deflecting all of these attacks against universities,” Putnam says.
There was also a sense of solitude to Bok’s presidency, says Neil L. Rudenstine, his direct successor.
“Derek certainly enjoyed collaboration and was very good at it,” Rudenstine says. “But he was more in the vein of the presidents who preceded him. They didn’t have provosts; they appointed their deans, but they wanted their deans to do their jobs pretty much as independent deans.”
For Bok, the solitary nature of the job was more a product of Harvard’s administrative structure than a position he actively sought.
Though he established a number of vice president positions to support him, Bok says, “I certainly felt more alone than I would if I had a provost.” Once he stepped down as president in 1991, Bok left a note for Rudenstine urging him to install a provost. “I was the only person who really thought about the University as a whole, as opposed to thinking about its particular parts as a dean would do.”
One of Bok’s general observations was the “heightened sensitivity” that had pervaded the attitudes of students both at Harvard and across the country. In his own reports, Pusey had taken sharp aim at the “minority of radicalized protesters,” as he wrote in 1968, whom he perceived to be spoiling the Harvard educational experience. While Bok maintained this concern, he also noted that engaging with students could be used to envision a better Harvard.
“The ferment of the recent past also troubled many alumni and shook the confidence of large segments of the public toward our universities,” he wrote. “Perhaps the prior sentiments toward universities were too charitable; and surely the turmoil that occurred served to dramatize larger issues in the society that badly needed honest scrutiny.”
The thorough investigation of these larger social issues, Bok soon realized, would require a school of its own.
Today, the Harvard Kennedy School is one of the world’s most prominent schools for government and public policy. When Bok stepped into the presidency, however, that was far from true. Many faculty hoped for a major institution beyond the Graduate School of Public Administration, established by a $2 million gift given generations back by philanthropist Lucius N. Littauer, that could train future government officials and public servants.
“If there’s one thing I can think of that’s missing in Harvard at this point,” Bok recalls thinking when he first took office, “[it’s] that there’s no professional school comparable to our great schools of law and business and medicine — that’s directed toward preparing people for this more and more influential and complicated task of governing the country.”
The vision for a more robust school for government and public service had been floated by prominent faculty, many of whom had ties to Washington, before Bok became president. The onus of strategizing the school’s expansion, however, would fall primarily on one scholar.
At the time Graham T. Allison, now Douglas Dillon Professor of Government, became the “founding dean” of the John F. Kennedy School of Government in March 1977, the school had no building, fewer than six full-time faculty, and no research centers. In the meeting in which Bok announced Allison’s appointment, the new dean articulated seven initiatives to strengthen the school, including expanding inter-school collaboration, securing a new building, and “consummating the marriage” between the school and the Institute of Politics, which was then its own entity. These goals would serve as a roadmap for the school’s formative years into the 1980s.
For Allison, Harvard’s strategy for continued excellence has “always stood on two legs.” The first is to make the College the best it can be. The second is “from time to time, but not often, when judged appropriate in terms of the evolution of the society and the world, to create professional schools to play special roles in the training and education and advancement of knowledge in particular arenas.” The Kennedy School, he says, achieved the latter.
Jackson, who served as an associate dean under Allison, says it can be easy to forget that the Kennedy School, for all the status it holds today, was “not ordained to succeed.” After all, at that time in the ’80s, the public’s trust in the government was wavering.
“Reagan ran on a platform saying that government is not the solution, it’s the problem,” Jackson says. “Raising money in that context, named as we were for a liberal Democrat, Kennedy, at a place like Harvard, with government out of favor — it was not a slam dunk.”
Jackson knew that all aspects of the school would have to reflect its mission to deliver a “new kind of pedagogy.” Tasked with hiring an architect for the new building, he turned down prominent architects like Louvre pyramid designer I. M. Pei for a local firm.
“We knew that we were not going to have an inverted pyramid or anything palatial,” Jackson says. “It had to be red brick, red Georgian brick. We knew that we were now going to be a new gateway to Harvard across from Eliot House — we have to look like we’re part of Harvard College, and we want to be part of Harvard College.”
By the time Bok left the presidency in 1991, the Kennedy School had more than tripled its degree students and faculty, and its endowment had grown from $21 million to over $150 million.
“When we began, there were no buildings — there wasn’t even a sort of place where the Kennedy School might be built,” Bok says. “My job was to do whatever I could to assist them, and to give them a place where they could live. They really had to establish their own identity and have their own building, if they meant to build the school that we all had in mind.”
Bok’s oversight of the Kennedy School’s expansion in the late 1970s and ’80s was his signature institution-building feat. But his interest in building Harvard — particularly the University’s civically-oriented offerings — extended beyond HKS.
For years, Bok had attempted to coax political philosophy professor emeritus Dennis F. Thompson to move from Princeton to Harvard. When Thompson was on leave in California, Bok, persistent in his dream of a more robust ethics program at Harvard, flew out to meet him.
Bok’s desire, Thompson says, was two-fold: to encourage faculty to integrate ethics into their scholarship and to teach moral reasoning to students who would graduate into an increasingly complex world. Founded in 1986, the Program for Ethics and the Professions is now known as the Edmond & Lily Safra Center for Ethics.
Decades after his role in building the Kennedy School and the Safra Center, Bok fears the “sharp divide” between political factions in the United States today, he says, which “is more acute and which is, in a way, more threatening to government in this country.” He adds, “Certainly more so than the Nixon years when I came into office.”
By expanding a school of government, Bok hoped to allow Harvard to engage vigorously with the nation’s most pressing public issues. But aside from the pedagogy itself was the question of what kinds of people were able to receive it.
When he stepped into his deanship at the Law School, Bok looked for a practical way to build on his predecessor’s progress in making the school more accessible. Griswold had launched a program through which juniors from historically Black colleges and universities could take trial courses at the Law School and speak with Black jurists. Paired with financial aid opportunities, this program gradually increased the number of Black applicants to HLS.
“I was on the admissions committee of the first group of Black students who were chosen,” Bok says. “So I was naturally very interested in that whole process of welcoming them, making them feel at home, being as hospitable as we could and gradually seeing their numbers grow.”
For help in expanding the program into a full-fledged affirmative action policy, Bok enlisted the help of Walter J. Leonard, who served as assistant dean and assistant director of admissions at the Law School beginning in 1969.
“We could have actually filled [the] law school class without leaving the city or the suburbs,” Leonard says, listing Chicago, New York City, Washington, D.C., and Boston, among others. “But that wouldn’t have provided, in our judgment, the kind of class of persons who represented the heterogeneity of the United States.”
Bok calls Leonard an “indispensable partner.”
“Walter and I were very close; he was just an absolutely delightful man,” Bok says. “I greatly needed the advice of somebody who would obviously know much more than I did about what it was like to be a Black student, what they were experiencing in law school.” He adds, “Without that, I would have been kind of like a blind man stumbling in the dark.”
Affirmative action at HLS developed from the contributions of other administrators and even some students. In the summer of 1963, Russell A. Simpson, a student at HLS, got a full-time job doing statistical work in the school’s admissions office. He continued working for the office part time over the school year, and again the next summer.
“Initially, I thought exactly like the people who are now not supporting it — that it was unfair, in one way or another,” he says of the school’s affirmative action policy. “After considering it for a pretty long period of time, I finally figured out that there really wasn’t much of an alternative — and that to argue that it’s unfair is really an argument that the only factors you should be able to take into account are factors that can be measured, like grades and test scores.”
Simpson’s eventual conviction in the net good of affirmative action was amplified by his own experience in classes at HLS classes, where he found that even more so than other parts of the University, the pedagogy relied on student participation. He says he learned as much — if not more — from the peers he sat shoulder-to-shoulder with than from the instructor professing at the front of the room.
Bok believed that Harvard could influence public affairs with whom it chose to admit into its own halls. But according to Thompson, it was the experiences of students like Simpson that inspired Bok to frame the case for affirmative action in an entirely new way.
“He saw affirmative action early on as an important issue and argued not so much as a question of justice, but why affirmative action and diversity are important for the educational mission of the students who are not the subject of affirmative action,” Thompson says. “He was one of the first to see that that could be a winning argument.”
Bok would go on to participate in legal battles around affirmative action by providing expert testimony and amicus briefs. In 1998, he co-wrote “The Shape of the River,” a sprawling defense of affirmative action in higher education, with former Princeton University President William G. Bowen. Bok and Bowen turned to empirical evidence to demonstrate that increased racial representation elevated the quality of education for everyone in the classroom.
Their 472-page book used the College and Beyond database amassed by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which contains the records of more than 80,000 undergraduate students who matriculated at 28 selective colleges and universities in 1951, 1976, and 1989.
The database followed many of them after college to track their graduation status, advanced degrees, sector of employment, marital status, and number of children. From these data, Bok and Bowen concluded that affirmative action benefits students not only during college but across their lifetimes.
Skeptics argued that the book was designed to present affirmative action in a favorable light. But Bok insists the data preceded the argument, not the other way around.
“When we started, we weren’t sure what the results were going to be,” Bok says. “We had to face the fact that we might come up with the fact that affirmative action has not worked at all, if you really looked at what happened to graduates.”
The administrators did not want to simply boost the number of students of color at the Law School. Instead, they wanted to fundamentally shift what Harvard meant for individuals who were not wealthy or white — to reach out to those bright yet disadvantaged or otherwise hesitant students who “probably had not thought of Harvard as being available,” as Leonard later put it in an oral history interview.
Once Bok became president in 1971, he worked to expand these efforts at the Law School to Harvard at large. Leonard joined him as a special assistant to the president. In Bok’s first presidential report, a test for securing the regard of his new colleagues and articulating a broader roadmap for his tenure, Bok prophesied the importance of affirmative action — and the role schools like Harvard would have in its advancement.
“The efforts made to enlarge the opportunities of minority and disadvantaged groups will eventually do much to break down artificial barriers in our society,” he wrote. “I have no doubt, therefore, that these steps will be viewed one day as one of the major contributions of universities in recent times.”
Now, 50 years since Bok wrote his report, Harvard’s race-conscious admissions program appears to be on the chopping block of a conservative Supreme Court, which will hear arguments next month in a suit seeking to ban colleges nationwide from considering race in admissions. “If that becomes against the law because of the Supreme Court case, then a new leader of Harvard would have to spend a lot of time figuring out, how do we deal with that?” says Bok. “How do we maintain as much diversity in our student body as we can without running afoul of the law?”
Since his work decades ago, Bok has seen affirmative action grow into a national debate — something he didn’t expect at the time.
“When we started, I don’t think anybody was thinking about the legal side of it,” he says. “I don’t think it ever occurred to us that there would be a serious question about our right to attract Black students to Harvard, if that’s what we wanted to do.”
On other issues, though, Bok was hardly regarded as a progressive champion.
In 1976, five years into Bok’s presidency, hundreds of Black schoolchildren in Soweto, South Africa, took to the streets to protest the mandated use of Afrikaans, a language introduced and enforced by Dutch colonizers, in classroom instruction. The students were brutally opposed by the South African police, who killed at least 176 children — though some estimate as many as 700.
The protests catalyzed a series of demonstrations against South African apartheid at American universities, including Harvard.
In the 1980s, at the peak of the protests, Harvard affiliates held rallies decrying the University’s investments in South African companies through its multibillion-dollar endowment, chanting, “Hey, hey, Derek Bok, throw away your racist stock.” In 1986, students created a shantytown in the Yard to represent the one on the outskirts of Capetown to which Black South Africans had been driven under apartheid.
When the protests erupted on campus, Bok decried apartheid — but rejected calls for Harvard to divest.
In a May 1984 open letter, Bok called South African apartheid a “cruel and shameful form of racial exploitation.” Yet the question at hand, he insisted, was not the ethics of apartheid itself but what an educational institution like Harvard ought to do about it.
“My views on this matter are not casual; they involve the essential purposes of the University and the terms on which it exists and does its work in our society,” Bok wrote. He added that universities require an “insulation” from external political forces that would “impose an orthodoxy of ‘safe’ ideas or use the University for ends other than learning and the pursuit of truth.”
Bok’s stance on divestment remains unchanged to this day. Asked about his response to student criticisms in an email correspondence in September, the former president pointed to the open letters he penned in the 1980s.
Many of the undergraduates who advocated for divestment during Bok’s tenure still maintain that he got it wrong. For them, the protests exemplified a crucial misstep in Bok’s leadership, as well as the influence that powerful players like the Harvard Corporation had in his decision-making.
“This was a case where, in retrospect, we were 110 percent right — 1,110 percent right — and pretty much everyone acknowledged it,” says Damon A. Silvers ’86, a key player in student organizing against apartheid. “It became very clear that the people who were demanding divestment were the good guys, meaning that Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress, the United Democratic Front — they were asking Harvard to do this. And they were right.”
Silvers, who is now a policy director and special counsel for the American Federtion of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, says he believes the apartheid protests put Bok “in a very tight spot.”
“Harvard is not a democracy,” he says. “Harvard is run by a small group of people, ultimately, who the president has to answer to. Those folks at that time were not liberals — I think Derek Bok was meaningfully to their left. And the financial and political underpinnings of the University were not going to allow them to take really aggressively hostile acts toward the major corporate powers at the time.”
It wasn’t just Bok’s stance on divestment that sparked campus controversy. Some found his policy on gifts morally dubious, too.
In an open letter to Harvard affiliates in May 1979, Bok wrote that for the most part, he was willing to take money from unsavory or immoral actors because the University can use the money in ways that use “such funds constructively.”
“The tangible benefits of using the money for scholarships or faculty salaries should overcome the more abstract, symbolic considerations that might lead us to turn down such benefactions,” he wrote.
Consistent with these views, Bok worked to intervene in pressing global problems without compromising what he saw as Harvard’s educational integrity. In 1979, he established a fellowship to allow some South Africans disadvantaged by the apartheid system to study at Harvard; in the years to come, Harvard would partially divest from its holdings in South African countries, focusing on those that directly promoted the apartheid regime.
Still, University of Pennylvania Professor of Russian and Eastern European Studies Mitchell A. Orenstein ’89, who participated in divestment demonstrations as a Harvard undergraduate, says administrators failed to take decisive action on a morally decisive issue.
“They were trying to give a pragmatic defense of something that was pretty indefensible,” Orenstein says.
In May 1990, after 20 years in office, Bok announced that he would resign from the presidency the following year. He cited his lengthy tenure, as well as his desire for a new president to oversee a multi-year fundraising effort, as factors in his decision.
In his final presidential report, Bok reflected on the peculiar sway that Harvard held over him.
“I sometimes ask myself how I can have suffered through so many crises, gone to so many breakfast meetings, forced myself to give so many speeches, and still consider myself extraordinarily lucky to have served as Harvard’s president,” he wrote. “No other institution offers such freedom to think and write as one chooses, to enjoy such a wealth of stimulating people and engrossing activities, to be creative and independent, yet have the satisfaction of serving others in important ways.”
After his exit from Massachusetts Hall, Bok’s fixation on teaching did not end. He wrote more than 10 books following his retirement from the presidency, many of which probe the role of universities in national affairs and the ways new research can drive innovations in pedagogy.
Roger L. Geiger, a professor emeritus at Pennsylvania State University who studies the history of higher education, says Bok’s books possess an uncommon quality.
“Bok had just great respect for the truth, in finding out things,” he says. “The books that he wrote, unlike the books of most other university presidents, are based on research. He actually went out and read the scholarly literature on these things, and footnoted them, and so forth. That’s very unusual, but that’s really characteristic of him.”
After Bok stepped down, Rudenstine succeeded him during a recession, overseeing the first University-wide capital campaign and navigating how to build Harvard abroad during a decade-long tenure. Then came Lawrence H. Summers, brimming with bold aspirations for Harvard’s expansion into Allston and a revamped undergraduate curriculum. But early in his term, Summers sparked ire for his remarks on supposed reasons for the lack of female representation in science, and later for his reticence about a close friend and former colleague who had been charged with criminal activity.
In February 2006, an embattled Summers resigned in the shortest presidential tenure since the Civil War. After a disruptive presidency that had sown distrust among the faculty’s ranks, the University called upon Bok, then 76, for an unprecedented second act.
Putnam, who served as dean of the Kennedy School under Bok, said he believes it is Bok’s integrity that made him an attractive candidate after Summers’s abrupt exit.
“The most important gift of character that a president can have — or any leader can have — is that you’re honest, you’re trustworthy,” he says. “That allows you to even do unpopular things, because they’ll think, ‘Nevertheless, he’s honest, he never lied to me.’ And Derek was the ultimate in that.”
After Bok’s one-year stint as acting president, Harvard gave the nod to historian and former Radcliffe Institute Dean Drew G. Faust, who became the first woman to lead the University. In her first year in office, Faust faced the 2008 recession, as well as the Occupy Wall Street movement — one she faced criticism for her reticence about. The capital campaign she oversaw raised a record-breaking $9.6 billion.
Bacow, who took office in 2018, braved the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and weathered the political headwinds of the Trump administration — which was frequently hostile to elite universities like Harvard. Like his predecessor four times removed, Bacow has been charged with defending affirmative action.
But what set Bok apart from them all was his larger-than-life presence in the national ethos, the sense of purpose about what a university ought to be that he so boldly put forth and the respect he received in turn. This type of figure, Grieger says, is one that “we’re certainly lacking today.”
“He was the spokesman for American higher education,” he continues. “You don’t have people who are willing to look at the state of higher education and say something meaningful about it. Bok was one of the very few presidents who really stood out.”
Harvard Government and Sociology Professor Theda Skocpol says Bok — alongside Charles W. Eliot, Class of 1853, and James B. Conant, Class of 1914 — are the three Harvard presidents who “have been giants to date” for their ability to fold more people and themes into Harvard’s mission while preserving its historic legacy.
“He was always anxious to protect the University’s integrity as a separate institutional space; he wasn’t about to let it be taken over by extreme forces pushing from the outside, one way or another,” Skopcol says of Bok. “And I don’t think he’s somebody who just listens a lot. That’s the style of many university administrators now — they’re into making people feel good. That’s not what Derek Bok was about.”
Over the years, Bok has been at turns commended for the progress he made and criticized for his unwillingness to go further. What remains constant in people’s recollections is that no matter the substance or reception of his ideas, he conveyed them to the world in earnest — that he was loyal to the best of what he believed Harvard was.
Silvers, who spent the bulk of his undergraduate years organizing against Bok on apartheid, says he believes Bok was and remains a man of integrity. “He reiterated his concern about rising inequality with no caveats, no nothing, for decades afterwards,” he says. “That rates very high in my book.”
“In ’71, everything is a mess,” says former Harvard physics professor Gerald J. Holton, recalling a fractured faculty after the University Hall takeover of 1969. At age 100, he has witnessed every Harvard president since Conant took office in 1933. “So he comes, gently smiling usually, tall, an atmosphere of sunny California about him. To find such a person was a stroke of enormous luck, because everything else was pointing in the opposite direction.”
Leonard, a key architect of Harvard’s affirmative action program, faltered when asked to describe his close collaborator in an oral history interview before his death in 2015.
“I believe that Derek Bok — ” Leonard paused, pressing his hands together for a few moments before attempting another formulation. “When one looks at his background and his history, one sees that here is a person who is quite sensitive to what the world is all about.”