The Builder

Several summers ago, at an idyllic weekend of chamber music in Marlboro, Vermont, Neil Rudenstine asked me if we could meet between concerts for...

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Several summers ago, at an idyllic weekend of chamber music in Marlboro, Vermont, Neil Rudenstine asked me if we could meet between concerts for a confidential conversation. He wanted to talk about Radcliffe.

I had known Mr. Rudenstine casually for a number of years, at Princeton when, as dean at Bryn Mawr, I occasionally went to him for guidance on college issues, and again at the Mellon Foundation, when I was at Smith and looking for support. But that summertime conversation began a new and intensely interesting relationship with our president.

He told me that the Harvard Corporation and the Radcliffe Board of Trustees were moving toward a merger, and asked whether I would be willing to take some part in the conversation, and willing to serve as acting dean after the merger was complete. Of course, I said yes. I had for some considerable time thought that Radcliffe would be best served by entering a new relationship with Harvard, and by creating for itself a new mission, and the Radcliffe moment for it had come.

Neil was in the right place at the right time but he was also, I believed, the ideal person at Harvard to achieve this merger. He had a generous and profound sense of Radcliffe's history--of its splendid achievements in the education of women, of the difficult and sometimes dispiriting nature of its dependency on Harvard, and of the critical need for a reaffirmation of its identity--and this sense of history made him an unusually sensitive and humane negotiator. He was on very friendly terms with Nancy-Beth Gordon Sheerr '71, the chair of the Radcliffe trustees, and with Linda Wilson, Radcliffe's president, and because they greatly respected him as a man of integrity, the essential initial conversations took place in an atmosphere of trust.

Neil was a wonderfully patient listener during the protracted negotiations, able to understand how the Radcliffe trustees would feel in letting go, and giving them the time they needed to arrive at their decisions. Harvard was in a particularly strong position financially, which led to many, many ambitious plans coming to the president from throughout the University. But he was determined to bring about an agreement with Radcliffe, and with full courage of his conviction, he made it a top priority. Otherwise, it might never have happened.

In the period during which I reported to him, the most important task was the appointment of the Radcliffe Institute's first dean. I was astounded by the personal care and attention Neil gave to the task. He made literally hundreds of phone calls, gathering names and information. He traveled around the country to visit potential candidates. He drew Harvard faculty from all the schools into the search, in order to be sure that his final choice would be well received throughout the University. He consulted regularly with the committee of trustees and members of the Corporation, to make sure that his final choice would fit their vision of the future. And indeed, the appointment of Drew Gilpin Faust has been applauded on every side.

Meanwhile, I had his unfailing attention and guidance as the new institute made its first tentative steps into the future. No worry of mine seemed too insignificant, no detail too small, for his consideration. His help ranged from canny ideas for fundraising to wonderful conversations about intellectual luminaries who might give lectures in our Inaugural Lecture Series. Little pleasures came along the way--when I presented him with a sample of our new stationery, complete with an imitation letter in garbled Latin, he asked me to sign it, and at our next session showed it to me framed and on his wall. And frequently the work was fun. I enjoyed his huge smile, and the way he would roll back in his chair and lift his feet from the floor when he was amused.

A treasured memory is of a day when we found ourselves sitting next to each other in barber chairs at a local unisex salon. It was just after Professor Willard V. O. Quine had died, and the man who was cutting Neil's hair asked why Quine was so important. There followed an elegant and lucid three-minute talk on Quine's place in modern philosophy, after which they fell into amiable talk about families and Christmas.

The merger with Radcliffe, and the appointment of the institute's brilliant founding dean, surely rank among President Rudenstine's finest achievements for Harvard--and for Radcliffe. His qualities as a person, his intellectual values, his superb sense of history and justice, were all essential to this outcome--and all made it singularly pleasurable to join him in the enterprise. When I retired I said that this had been a great way to end my career, and I hope as he looks back he will think of Radcliffe as a great moment in his career, too.

Historian Mary Maples Dunn, Ph.D., was president of Smith College from 1985 to 1995, director from 1995 to 1999 of Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, and then acting dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study through the end of last year.

 

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