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  Lowell, Abbott Lawrence
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AffiliationNonpartisan  
 
NameAbbott Lawrence Lowell
Address
, Massachusetts , United States
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Born January 01, 1856
DiedJanuary 06, 1943 (87 years)
ContributorThomas Walker
Last ModifedThomas Walker
Jan 04, 2010 02:53pm
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InfoAbbott Lawrence Lowell (January 1, 1856–January 6, 1943) was a U.S. educator and legal scholar. He served as President of Harvard University from 1909 to 1933.

Lowell was born on January 1, 1856 in Brookline, Massachusetts, the second son of Augustus Lowell and Katherine Bigelow Lowell. His siblings included the poet Amy Lowell, the astronomer Percival Lowell, and Elizabeth Lowell Putnam, an early activist for prenatal care. They were the great-grandchildren of John Lowell and, on their mother's side, the grandchildren of Abbott Lawrence.

Lowell graduated from Noble and Greenough School in 1873 and went on to attend Harvard College, graduating in 1877 with highest honors in mathematics. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1880 and practiced law from 1880 to 1897 in partnership with his cousin, Francis Cabot Lowell, with whom he wrote Transfer of Stock in Corporations, which appeared in 1884. On June 19, 1879, while a law student, he married a distant cousin, Anna Parker Lowell.

His first scholarly publications appeared before he undertook an academic career. Essays on Government appeared in 1889, designed to counter the arguments Woodrow Wilson made in his Congressional Government. The two volumes of Governments and Parties in Continental Europe followed in 1896. Lowell was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, joining his father and brother, in 1896.

In 1897, Lowell became lecturer, and in 1898, professor of government at Harvard. His publishing career continued with the appearance of Colonial Civil Service in 1900, and The Government of England in two volumes in 1908. Lowell succeeded his father as Trustee of the Lowell Institute in 1900. In December, 1901, Lowell and his wife donated funds anonymously to erect a building housing a large lecture hall, a facility the university lacked at the time. It became the New Lecture Hall (since demolished), at the corner of Oxford and Kneeland Streets, and held a 928-seat auditorium as well as 8 meeting rooms.

In 1909, he became president of the American Political Science Association. That same year, he succeeded Charles William Eliot as president of Harvard University, a post he held for 24 years until his retirement in 1933.

Lowell immediately embarked upon a series of reforms that were both academic and social in nature. Under his predecessor, Charles W. Eliot, Harvard had replaced the single standardized undergraduate course with a system that allowed students free choice of electives. That was a logical extension of the trend in U.S. education that had modeled the university on the German system and thus adopted the German principal of student freedom in choosing courses. So dominant was Harvard's role in American education that all large American colleges and universities had adopted the elective system by 1904. It appealed to all student types, those intellectually curious and energetic as well as the lazy without intellectual ambition.

Lowell now implemented a second, equally revolutionary restructuring of undergraduate education. As early as his service on an ad hoc faculty Committee on Improving Instruction in 1903, he had determined that the elective system was a failure. Large numbers of students, lacking intellectual ambition, chose their courses with little concern for learning, more intent on the ease with which they could fulfill the course requirements, resulting in a course of study that was "neither rigorous nor coherent." Lowell dismantled the elective system and in its place established concentration (what is commonly call a "major") and distribution requirements that would soon become the new American model. Paired with the concentration requirement was a tutorial system in which every student had the guidance of a tutor to see he was prepared for examination in his area of concentration.

On admissions, Lowell continued Eliot's attempts to broaden the backgrounds of the entering class. Eliot had abolished the requirement in Greek (1886) and Latin (1898) so that students from schools other than elite preparatory schools could gain entry. Lowell in 1909-10 added a new admission procedure that allowed students to qualify through a new examination process designed to admit "the good scholar from a good school that does not habitually prepare for Harvard." The numbers of students from public schools grew steadily, forming a majority by 1913.

Academics were only one side of the crisis Lowell saw at Harvard. He analyzed the social divisions of the Harvard students in similar terms. As the admissions process changed over the years, Lowell recognized that the student body was divided sharply socially and by class, far from the cohesive body he remembered from a few decades earlier. Student living arrangements embodied and intensified the problem. As long ago as 1902 Lowell had decried the "great danger of a snobbish separation of the students on lines of wealth," resulting in "the loss of that democratic feeling which ought to lie at the basis of university life." Harvard had not built new dormitories even as the size of its undergraduate enrollment grew, so private capital constructed living quarters designed to serve as dormitory-like accommodations for those who afford it. That produced two classes, the underprivileged living in Harvard Yard in out-of-date buildings and the upper crust living on the "Gold Coast" of Mt. Auburn St, the "centre of social life."

Lowell’s long-term solution was a residential system that he only achieved with the opening of the residential houses in 1930. In the short term, Lowell raised funds and initiated construction projects that would permit the College to house all its freshmen together. The first freshman dorms open in 1914. In 1920, Harvard purchased the private dormitories on Mt. Auburn Street "so that the student body may enjoy what was the privilege of the few."

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson nominated Louis Brandeis, a private attorney renowned as a liberal opponent of monopolies and proponent of social reform legislation, to serve as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. As public opinion on the nomination divided along ideological lines, Lowell joined the Republican establishment, particularly that of his Boston Brahmin class, in opposition. He joined 54 others in signing a letter claiming that Brandeis lacked the requisite "legal temperament and capacity." An editorial in the Harvard Alumni Bulletin criticized him for needlessly involving the university in a political dispute. Some students organized their own petition in favor of the nomination. Though some opposition to Brandeis was rooted in antisemitism, Brandeis himself viewed Lowell's opposition as driven by social class prejudice. Writing in private in 1916, Brandeis described men like Lowell "who have been blinded by privilege, who have no evil purpose, and many of whom have a distinct public spirit, but whose environment--or innate narrowness--have obscured all vision and sympathy with the masses."

Following the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Lowell helped found a civic organization to promote international cooperation to prevent future wars. It was meant to be non-partisan, but was inevitably drawn into partisan politics as the subject of American participation in the League of Nations dominated post-war politics. Lowell described himself as "an inconsistent Republican" or "an independent of Republican antecedents." By the time the debate ended, many questioned that independence.

At a convention in Philadelphia's Independence Hall on June 17, 1915, with ex-President William Howard Taft presiding, one hundred noteworthy Americans announced the formation of the League to Enforce the Peace. They proposed an international agreement in which participating nations would agree to "jointly use their economic and military force against any one of their number that goes to war or commits acts of hostility against another." The founders included Alexander Graham Bell, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, and Edward Filene on behalf of the recently founded U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Lowell was elected to the Executive Committee.

The initial efforts of the League to Enforce the Peace aimed at creating public awareness through magazine articles and speeches. Then President’s Wilson specific proposal for the League of Nations met resistance from the Republican-controlled Senate and the opposition led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts. Lowell watched the high-minded debate deteriorate until the ideal of international cooperation was "sacrificed to party intrigue, personal antipathy, and pride of authorship." Lowell and the League to Enforce the Peace tried to hold the middle ground. He cared little about Wilson’s specific plan or the details of the reservations or amendments Lodge wanted to attach for the Senate to give its assent. Lowell believed American participation was the greater goal, the exact nature of the organization secondary.

One of the most widely publicized confrontations saw Lowell debate Lodge, the League's most prominent opponent, in Boston’s Symphony Hall on March 19, 1919, with Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge presiding. That debate proved gentlemanly, since Lowell believed that the resolution of the policy dispute required Wilson and Lodge to compromise. Lowell had sharper exchanges with the die-hard Republican isolationist Senator William Borah of Idaho. Lowell repeatedly argued that George Washington’s Farewell Address and its stricture against entangling alliances held no relevance for the present. Senator Borah saw a lack of patriotism: "There are a vast number of people supporting the league of nations who never let an opportunity go by of belittling...everything that is truly American: and Dr Lowell is one of them." The Harvard president replied in kind:

"I yield neither to Senator Borah nor to any other man in admiration of the Farewell Address and of the great Fathers of the Republic; but I would not use them as a cover for party politics. Never did I sneer at the Farewell Address; but I believe that the greatness of Washington was due to his looking the facts of his day in the face, and determining his conduct thereby, instead of by utterances, however wise of a hundred and fifty years before. I will trust the American people not to mistake short-sightedness for patriotism or narrow-mindedness for love of country.”
In the summer of 1919, the League to Enforce the Peace published a book of essays modeled on the Federalist Papers called The Covenanter: An American Exposition of the Covenant of the League of Nations. Lowell authored 13 of its 27 essays. The New York Times called it a "masterly analysis" and thought it perfectly suited for a broad public: "This—thank Heaven—is a brochure for the lazy-minded!"

As the election of 1920 approached, the Republican nominee, Warren Harding, campaigned on the domestic issues that united his party and sent confusing signals about his support for a League of Nations. With the election just weeks away, whole groups of League proponents chose different sides. One entire organization of independent voters chose James Cox, the Democratic candidate, who favored the League but showed no more flexibility than President Wilson. Lowell and many other prominent League supporters backed Harding, publishing a statement that became known as the Letter of the 31 Republicans on October 14, 1920. Lowell could not express his reasoning publicly. In his view, the League's proponents, and especially the League's Republican proponents, needed to control public perception of Harding's victory, which everyone knew was certain. They could not allow the election to appear as a victory of anti-League Republicans over pro-League Democrats. If the League had lost a referendum in that way, there would be no hope for its revival under the new administration.

Scorn greeted the Statement of 31 Republicans claiming to see greater promise for a League in Harding. Lowell came in for attack precisely because of his earlier claims to independence. One Harvard graduate, who had just formed the New Hampshire committee to raise funds for the University's endowment, wrote: "One can understand a Republican partisan and respect him. One can understand a Democratic partisan and respect him. But how can any man explain this recent act of yours consistently with the dignity, gravity, high character and devotion to truth which should attach to the President of Harvard College?"[21] Charged with sacrificing his principles to expediency, Lowell admitted he had but provided his own definition of expediency: "striving to find the most effective way of achieving a principle—refusing to beat one's head uselessly against a wall to attack an entrenchment in face instead if taking it by a turning movement."

Harding as president disappointed proponents of the League, but Lowell never his decision to endorse him endorsement. He did view the work of the League to Enforce the Peace more critically. Its oratory had failed to engage the public at large, he thought, so public opinion remained "indifferent" to its call for muscular internationalism, leaving isolation or at least inaction to win the day.

During World War I, when American universities were under great pressure to demonstrate their unambiguous commitment to the American war effort, Harvard under Lowell established a distinguished record of independence. The New York Times later wrote that Lowell "steadfastly refused to acced to the demands of the hysterically patriotic that German subjects be dropped from the curriculum." When a Harvard alumnus threatened to withdraw a ten-million-dollar bequest unless a certain pro-German professor was dismissed, the Harvard Corporation refused to submit to his demand. Lowell's uncompromising statement in support of academic freedom was a landmark event at a time when other universities were demanding compliant behavior from their faculty.

He similarly defended a student's anti-German poem with a statement of principle in defense of free speech within the academic community: "We have endeavored to maintain the right of all members of the university to express themselves freely, without censorship or supervision by the authorities of the university, and have applied this rule impartially to those who favor Germany and those who favor the Allies—to the former in the face of a pretty violent agitation for muzzling professors by alumni of the university and outsiders."

During the Boston police strike of 1919, Lowell called upon Harvard's students "to help in any way...to maintain order and support the laws of the Commonwealth" by providing security in place of the strikers. Harold Laski, a tutor in political science of socialist views and still too young to have a scholarly reputation, supported the strikers. Members of the University's Board of Overseers began to talk of dismissing Laski, which provoked a threat from Lowell: "If the Overseer's ask for Laski's resignation they will get mine!"

Harvard's Professor Zechariah Chafee, Jr. paid tribute to Lowell's defense of Harvard's teachers and students by dedicating his 1920 study Free Speech in the United States to Lowell, "whose wisdom and courage in the face of uneasy fears and stormy criticism made it unmistakably plain that so long as he was president no one could breathe the air of Harvard and not be free."

Lowell's health declined slowly and his lifelong hearing problems worsened. He resigned his position as Harvard's president on Nov. 21, 1932, and served through the following summer. During his years as president, enrollment at the College expanded to 8,000 from 3,000 and its endowment grew from $123 from $23 million. Lowell's construction projects, some based on the Freshman Halls and the College system, but including Widener Library, the Memorial Church and many others, had transformed the university's infrastructure.[45]Among the new campus buildings of Lowell's tenure is the President's House (today Loeb House) at 17 Quincy Street, which Lowell commissioned from his cousin Guy Lowell (Harvard 1892). It remained the residence of succeeding Harvard Presidents until 1971.

Lowell is remembered as well for establishing the Harvard Extension School and making a donation of 1 million dollars to help found the Harvard Society of Fellows.

Lowell's wife of 51 years, Anna Parker Lowell, died in 1930. They had been married for 51 years.

In retirement from Harvard, he lived on Marlborough St. in Boston's Back Bay and in Cotuit on Cape Cod. He headed Boston's Bureau of Municipal Research and chaired a Committee on the Reform of Judicial Procedure under he auspices of the Boston Chamber of Commerce. He also became head of the Motion Picture Research Council, a group established to promote studies of the social values of motion pictures. He published frequently in such periodicals as The Atlantic and Foreign Affairs.

He died at home on Marlborough Street on January 6, 1943. Funeral services were held at Harvard's Memorial Church.

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