On my way in to Henry Rosovsky’s funeral recently at Temple Israel in Boston, I saw Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Photo of Henry Rosovsky
Henry Rosovsky

That made me smile, and it would have made Rosovsky smile, too. Rosovsky’s daughter Leah remarked in remembering her father that his proudest achievement had been his work with Afro-American Studies at Harvard, a department that Gates chaired from 1991 to 2006.

I’d come to the funeral mainly out of gratitude for another of Rosovsky’s achievements. As dean of Harvard’s faculty of arts and sciences from 1973 to 1984, he had shaped the Harvard core curriculum that was responsible for the really excellent education I got in the early 1990s.

The December 4, 1978 New Yorker magazine carried an interview with Rosovsky, headlined “An Educated Person.” Rosovsky was described by Lillian Ross as “the happiest-looking dean we’ve ever seen.”

He offered Ross his definition of an educated person. “An educated person should be able to communicate with precision, cogency, and force,” he said. “He or she should have an informed acquaintance with the mathematical and experimental methods of the physical and biological sciences, with the historical and quantitative techniques needed for investigating the workings and the development of modern society; with some of the important literary, scholarly, and artistic achievements of the past; and with the major religious and philosophical conceptions of what man is…He should know about other cultures and other times. He should have some understanding of, and experience in thinking about, moral and ethical problems. He should have high aesthetic and moral standards. He should be able to reject shoddiness in all its many forms, and to defend his views effectively and rationally.”

To the contemporary ear it may seem quaint, naïve, or overly ambitious. But as someone who was on the receiving end of it, let me tell you: it worked. Not perfectly, for sure—there was some slippage in the execution, mostly surely attributable to my faults as a student rather than any flaws in the intentions of Rosovsky and his faculty colleagues. But it worked well enough to draw me out on a rainy Boston morning to pay tribute to the dean who created my Harvard education.

At the risk of didacticism (a hazard in education), there are lessons to be learned from this approach even today. Rosovsky began by asking what an educated person should know and be able to do. He didn’t start by asking what faculty wanted to teach, or what would maximize tuition revenue or please eventual employers. By placing the student at the center, Rosovsky displayed the high moral standards he spoke of imparting. To implement the new core curriculum he chose some of Harvard’s best professors: Bernard Bailyn, James Q. Wilson. Many of the best courses I took—Richard Pipes’ class on the Russian Revolution, Bailyn’s on the American Revolution, Isadore Twersky’s class on Maimonides, Martin Feldstein’s introductory economics—were part of Rosovsky’s Core.

A student-centered education, though, is a different thing from a student-run university, and there is where the story of Rosovsky and Afro-American studies takes some interesting twists.

Also in the early 1990s, when Rosovsky did another stint as dean, I’d watched and covered student protests calling for Harvard to speed up the hiring of faculty in Afro-American Studies. One of the chants was “Dean Rosovsky, President Bok, we want more than just talk!” This could be heard along with, “Dan Steiner, Get the Word! This is not Johannesburg!” (Steiner was Harvard’s general counsel in the Bok-Rosovsky era, when Johannesburg, South Africa, was under the rule of a white minority that enforced cruel, overt discrimination against Blacks.)

I didn’t realize it at the time, but there was a long back story. Rosovsky, an economist, had chaired a Harvard faculty committee in 1968 and early 1969 that urged the development of an Afro-American Studies Program, but he resigned in April 1969 from a follow-on committee that had aimed at implementing the idea. A front-page article in the New York Times quoted Rosovsky objecting to a faculty vote to grant students a say in selecting the faculty. Rosovsky said in a statement that he did not object to student consultation and participation, but he told the Times that giving students “the privileges, rights and duties hitherto reserved for senior faculty at this university” was “too enormous a step.” A “man in the news” profile that the Times ran accompanying the article was headlined “Advocate of Calm.”

It was only in 1991—22 years after the 1969 episode—that Rosovsky lured Gates from Duke to turn Afro-American Studies at Harvard into the center of excellence and national powerhouse that it became after Gates’ arrival. In retrospect, having Rosovsky and the senior faculty, rather than the students, make the hiring decisions turned out to have a payoff in quality. (The chairman the students had brought in during the late 1960s, Ewart Guinier, turned out to be memorable mainly as Lani Guinier’s father.)

There was a second reason I turned out on a rainy morning to honor Rosovsky, and that has to do with Judaism. Rosovsky was “forthrightly, matter-of-factly Jewish,” as the Harvard Hillel executive director, Rabbi Jonah Steinberg, said in his remarks at the funeral. The Hillel building at Harvard is named Rosovsky Hall. It was erected while I was an undergraduate, and I recall that at the time, there was some pride and gratitude among the Jewish undergraduates, myself among them, and alumni, that Rosovsky allowed his name to be used for the elegant, Moshe Safdie-designed building nestled alongside Lowell and Quincy Houses and the Harvard Lampoon castle. He was more than a merely sectarian figure, and there were plenty of other buildings on campus that could have easily been named after him, including University Hall.

The Jewish Experience at Harvard and Radcliffe, a book by Henry Rosovsky’s wife Nitza that was produced in connection with an exhibit at the Harvard Semitic Museum on the occasion of Harvard’s 350th anniversary, provides context by way of an article by Henry headlined “From Periphery to Center.” It recounts how in the 1930s, “Jewish scholars who managed to become professors frequently became ‘closet Jews,’ anxious to dissociate themselves from their background.” The article is taken from Henry’s Rosovsky’s remarks delivered on September 16, 1979, at the dedication of a then-new Harvard-Radcliffe Hillel House, when he said Jews “represent perhaps a quarter of the student body.”

“Harvard has made us feel entirely at home,” Henry Rosovsky said then. “At this university we are neither hyphenated nor second-class citizens.” He asked what he called “a final question: Will our community remain strong or will it disappear? This is not a fanciful question.”

It proved, alas, prescient.

Here, according to the “College Guide” produced by Hillel nationally, are the percentages of Jewish undergraduates at Harvard College:


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