abbott l. lowell

Abbott Lawrence Lowell


Abbott Lawrence Lowell (January 1, 1856January 6, 1943) was a U.S. educator, historian, and President of Harvard University (1909–33).

Abbott's siblings included poet Amy Lowell, astronomer Percival Lowell (Harvard 1876), and early activist for prenatal care Elizabeth Lowell Putnam. They were the great-grandchildren of John Lowell (Harvard 1760) and, on their mother's side, the grandchildren of Abbott Lawrence. As well as great-great nephew of Francis Cabot Lowell. In retrospect, he is a controversial figure because of his racist, anti-semitic, and homophobic policies for Harvard while president.

A life in public

This scion of a famous family was second son of Augustus Lowell and Katherine Bigelow Lowell, and born in Brookline, MA. The Lowells, a prominent Boston family, named their 10 acre Brookline estate Sevenels for the fact that there were 7 children in their family.

Lowell graduated from Noble and Greenough School in 1873 and went on to attend Harvard College. He graduated in 1877 with highest honors in mathematics, and from Harvard Law School in 1880. He practiced law from 1880 to 1897 in partnership with his cousin, Francis Cabot Lowell, with whom he wrote Transfer of Stock in Corporations (1884).

Lowell also wrote Essays on Government (1889), Governments and Parties in Continental Europe (2 vols., 1896), Colonial Civil Service (1900; with an account by H. Morse Stephens of the East India College at Haileybury), and The Government of England (2 vols., 1908).

In 1897, Lowell became lecturer, and in 1898, professor of government at Harvard.

Lowell succeeded his father as Trustee of the Lowell Institute in 1900. And in 1909, he succeeded Charles William Eliot as president of the university. In the same year, he became president of the American Political Science Association.

Lowell's election as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters reflects the regard in which he was held in his own lifetime.

Head of Harvard

Lowell served as president of Harvard University from 1909 to 1933 (24 years), a span only surpassed by his predecessors Charles William Eliot (40 years) and Edward Holyoke (32).

As president, Lowell continued pressing for the evolution of "concentrations" (Harvard's name for academic majors), which he had begun to develop while still a professor. His predecessor, Charles W. Eliot, had replaced the single standardized undergraduate course with a plethora of electives; Lowell encouraged, and eventually required, students to concentrate the bulk of their studies in one academic field. Although headed in very different directions, both Eliot's reforms and Lowell's had wide impact on higher education throughout the US.

Lowell is remembered for establishing the Harvard Extension School and creating Harvard College's residential house system (see Harvard College#House system), which today remains a central part of the undergraduate experience. He also co-founded the Harvard Society of Fellows.

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.

Critical re-appraisal

Lowell's contributions to Harvard and to American society have been revisited in the years since his death. Many have denounced Lowell for a wide variety of actions and statements which reflected his apparent bigotry towards homosexuals, Jews, African-Americans, and other ethnic minorities. In 2005, a small group of students, calling themselves the Lowell Liberation Front, lobbied unsuccessfully to have two likenesses removed from Lowell House, a Harvard house named for Lowell's family.

Opposed Brandeis nomination to US Supreme Court

In 1916, after President Woodrow Wilson nominated Louis Brandeis for the Supreme Court, Lowell and other "concerned" citizens sought to block his confirmation offered information that Brandeis was a "radical Zionist" even though he was not a practicing Jew. Brandeis aggressively outmaneuvered his detractors by mounting his own opposition research efforts, including a carefully constructed chart that exposed the social and financial connections of the group, mostly from Boston's Back Bay. Brandeis sent the chart to Walter Lippman at the New Republic who penned an editorial condemning "the most homogeneious, self-centered, and self-complacent community in the United States." Brandeis was confirmed after four months of hearings, in a Senate vote of 47-22.

Opposed clemency for Sacco and Vanzetti

In Lowell's own day, probably the biggest controversy surrounding him concerned his involvement in the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. The guilt or innocence of these two men, convicted of murder, had become a cause célèbre and in 1927 the governor of Massachusetts in considering clemency appointed an advisory committee with Lowell as chairman.

One author describes the result thus: "The committee...concluded that the trial and judicial process had been just, 'on the whole', and that clemency was not warranted. It only fueled controversy over the fate of the two men, and Harvard, because of Lowell's role, became stigmatized, in the words of one of its alumni, as 'Hangman's House.'

Supported quota for Jewish enrollment at Harvard

During his presidency, Lowell became disturbed by the rising number of Jewish students at Harvard, feeling that their presence harmed the university's character. As documented in Jerome Karabel's 2005 book The Chosen, Lowell thus urged Harvard to adopt a 15-percent admissions quota on Jewish students, warning "the summer hotel that is ruined by admitting Jews meets its fate because they drive away the Gentiles, and then after the Gentiles have left, they leave also."

Supported racial segregation at Harvard

In a 1922 letter to a black undergraduate, Lowell confirmed that he would not be permitted to live in the freshman dormitories: "I am sure you will understand why, from the beginning, we have not thought it possible to compel men of different races to reside together.

Expelled homosexual students

A 2002 article by Amit R. Paley in The Harvard Crimson focused on Lowell's role in a secret Harvard "court" that expelled eight students and one philosophy Ph.D. candidate for being homosexual or for merely associating with homosexuals-if not homosexual themselves. Two of the expelled students, Cyril Wilcox and Ernest Cummings, committed suicide that year. Another, Keith Smerage, killed himself 10 years later.

This compelled Harvard President Lawrence Summers to reflect, more than 80 years after the fact: "These reports of events long ago are extremely disturbing. They are part of a past that we have rightly left behind." Summers apologized, saying "I want to express our deep regret for the way this situation was handled, as well as the anguish the students and their families must have experienced eight decades ago." He continued, "Whatever attitudes may have been prevalent then, persecuting individuals on the basis of sexual orientation is abhorrent and an affront to the values of our university. We are a better and more just community today because those attitudes have changed as much as they have."



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