Independent Yet Integral, a Relevant "Refuge for Scholars": The Radcliffe Institute at 10

The advanced-study institute, formed when Radcliffe College was fully absorbed into Harvard a decade ago, prides itself on creative cross-disciplinary work.

Participants in the "From One Genre to Another" panel talk about how their time at the Radcliffe Institute helped them bridge boundaries between genres. From L to R: Leah Price, Beverly McIver, Jeanne Jordan, Tarik O'Regan, Anne Makepeace, and Hauwa Ibrahim.

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Hear panelist Dmitri Tymoczko outline his theory of five qualities that make music appealing—with musical examples.

For MIT geophysicist Maria Zuber, a 2003 Radcliffe Fellowship opened her eyes to the benefits of bringing a humanistic approach to arguing for the sciences—a discovery that led her to use a quote from Maya Angelou as she made her pitch for NASA to award her funding to study the interior of the moon. (The pitch succeeded.)

Painter Beverly McIver and documentary filmmaker Jeanne Jordan were part of the same class of fellows as Zuber. Although McIver and Jordan had their own separate projects, the filmmaker was intrigued by the painter’s struggle with a personal issue—her promise that after her mother’s death, she would care for her mentally disabled sister. Raising Renee, Jordan’s documentary about McIver, is scheduled to air on HBO next year.

To Nigerian women’s-rights lawyer Hauwa Ibrahim, RI ’09, the fellowship afforded the prestige that comes with international recognition. What’s more, the change of scene led to a political breakthrough: when an influential Nigerian politician visited Cambridge, Ibrahim invited him to her temporary home for dinner. In her home country, she has trouble getting time with politicians to discuss legal reforms (“I am not important enough to be seen in Nigeria,” she says). But at the dinner, this man was “so relaxed,” she recalls incredulously. “This was somebody who had called for my head.” As he departed that night, he told Ibrahim, “I think we misunderstood you.”



The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study is many things to many people. But in all its functions, it has met and surpassed the dreams of its founders, speakers said at a symposium held October 8 and 9 to mark the institute’s tenth birthday.

In the late 1990s, when Radcliffe College and the University were trying to determine a mutual path forward, “both institutions really did want to create something not just constructive, but imaginative and powerful,” recalled panelist Neil Rudenstine, who was University president at the time of the institute’s creation.

Added Nancy-Beth Sheerr ’71, who was chair of the Radcliffe College Board of Trustees at the time, “We all imagined that the Radcliffe Institute would make the merger much more than the sum of its parts.”

By all accounts, that has happened. Those who have been fellows spoke about the experience in terms most effusive.

Multimedia artist Shimon Attie, RI ’07, called it “a protective cocoon that allows for peace of mind and time that’s free of distraction, so that an artist can do focused and concentrated work.”

Novelist Gish Jen ’77, having completed a 2002 Radcliffe Fellowship and a 1987 fellowship at Radcliffe’s Bunting Institute as well as an undergraduate education at Radcliffe, said, “To a degree that is almost scary to me, all my novels and my whole writerly being have been wrung here at Radcliffe, out of this soil and in this yard.”

Although the fellowship program sometimes chooses “clusters” of scholars grouped around a common theme, it offers the freedom, said Rothenberg professor of the humanities Homi Bhabha, RI ’05, to “go and do what we wanted, side by side.” The fellows, Bhabha found, could consider “how to add to each other’s work, without necessarily always having to add up.”

This freedom can be intoxicating: at the conclusion of her fellowship, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and cultural critic Susan Faludi ’81, RI ’09, moved to Cambridge—largely because, she said, she wanted to maintain the intellectual connections she’d fostered as a fellow. “They can’t get rid of me,” she joked. “I’m like the Bartleby of Byerly Hall.” 


During her remarks at Morning Prayers in the Memorial Church on October 1, dean Barbara Grosz said the institute demonstrates “that an institute for advanced study can simultaneously provide a refuge for scholars and be an active participant in advancing a university’s intellectual agenda.”

The anniversary symposium highlighted ways it has helped to advance that agenda in culturally current areas.

Speaking about healthcare, two scientists and one lawyer gave status updates from their fields:

  • MIT biologist Susan Lindquist, Ph.D. ’77, RI ’05, reported on the ever-higher amount of money being invested in research and development of pharmaceuticals, and the discouraging results in terms of finding drugs that act on “really, really tough” categories of disease—cancers and neurodegenerative diseases.
  • University of Hawaii law professor Linda Hamilton Krieger, RI ’05, explored the nuances of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, or GINA, a bill passed and signed into law in 2008—but which, Krieger said, serves “to make us think the government is doing something to protect us,” rather than actually serving to protect.
  • Christine Mummery, RI ’08, a professor of developmental biology at Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands, gave an update on stem cells: progress made in the last few years, and exciting prospects for humans that have already proven successful in animals.

The institute has also focused on attracting scholars of technology and new media, including:

  • Welch professor of computer science Stuart Shieber, RI ’07, who discussed the impact of the digital revolution on academic journals and on the music industry, and on how those industries’ models can inform each other, and
  • Clowes professor of fine arts and of African and African American studies Suzanne Preston Blier, RI ’06, who told about the Africa Map project, an interactive map that imposes multiple layers of information—historical, cultural, epidemiological, and more—on top of basic GIS data.

"Exploratory seminars" funded by the institute have enabled scholars to meet at Harvard to explore and brainstorm on the newest questions and problems in their fields; in several cases, a symposium on the same topic, featuring more fully-formed arguments and open to the public, has followed. And the institute's academic engagement programs, launched this year, will further facilitate the participation of Harvard faculty members and students with the Radcliffe Fellows.

Another particular focus has been the arts, and presenters highlighted a sampling of projects Radcliffe Fellowships have produced, many of them genre-bending endeavors.

For Tarik O’Regan, RI ’05, the project was taking a collection of Petrarch’s poems dedicated to Laura, with whom he’d fallen in love at first sight, and figuring out how to represent them musically.

Dmitri Tymoczko, RI ’06, a composer who teaches music theory at Princeton, launched a mathematical investigation of what properties make music sound good. His presentation outlined the five qualities he identified, the subject of his forthcoming book from Oxford University Press, The Geometry of Consonance. (Listen to this recording of Tymoczko's presentation to hear his explanations and musical examples of the five qualities.)

Attie, the multimedia artist, spent his fellowship year doing postproduction work on a piece titled The Attraction of Onlookers: Aberfan—An Anatomy of a Welsh Village. Now scheduled for permanent installation in the Welsh national museum in Cardiff, the piece commemorates the tragedy that took place in Aberfan in 1966: excavated mining debris piled up on a mountainside collapsed and flowed downhill, burying the village’s elementary school and killing nearly all of its primary-school-age children. This catastrophe had gotten so much publicity that village residents felt they were "living in a fishbowl," unable to move on, Attie said; the BBC challenged him to make a new artwork that would honor the event while avoiding the pitfalls of news coverage and other memorials. (The BBC documented Attie’s creative process in the documentary An American in Aberfan, aired in 2006 to mark the event’s fortieth anniversary.)

Attie’s piece—a five-channel video installation set to music—shows actual villagers, dressed and posed according to their societal roles (minister, mayor, nurse, policeman, waitress, former coal miner). Each villager is filmed by himself or herself, stationary and expressionless, lit against a plain black background—to show the way people “freeze in response to trauma,” Attie said. Each villager is posed on a platform that rotates, giving the appearance of a statue—to symbolize the forces and continuation of life that bring motion back, he said. The video tells nothing about the avalanche; viewers don’t learn whether the people depicted lost family members or were perhaps survivors themselves. “I wanted to help the village take its place,” Attie said, “as a village among other Welsh villages.”

This attention to the arts, and to interdisciplinary collaboration, sounds familiar: these are touchstones of President Drew Faust’s administration thus far. It’s no coincidence; before assuming her current post, Faust was the Radcliffe Institute’s inaugural dean.

In a way, said Harvey Fineberg, who was University provost at the time of the merger, one could say that “Radcliffe less became a part of Harvard, than Harvard has been moving to become more like Radcliffe.” 



In creating the institute, Rudenstine said, it was always clear that quality was paramount.

“There is no point in having an advanced-study institute at Harvard,” he said, “unless it’s going to be the best.”

He and others involved in the institute’s creation haven’t been disappointed.

At least three Pulitzer Prize-winning projects have begun at the institute: Natasha Trethewey, RI ’01, started work on her third poetry collection, Native Guard, which won a 2007 Pulitzer. Professor of history Caroline Elkins, RI ’04, wrote Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, which won a nonfiction Pulitzer in 2005. Junot Díaz, RI ’04, wrote part of his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won the prize in 2008.

And, noted Harvard Overseer Susan Wallach ’68, J.D. ’71, who was a member of the Radcliffe College Board of Trustees at the time of the merger, “it is harder to get a Radcliffe Fellowship than it is to get into Harvard College.” (The fellowship program is able to accept just 6 percent of the applications it receives.)

A panel of fiction writers, assembled for the symposium, provided a window into the institute’s intellectual richness, and the type of conversations that routinely happen there.

The panelists—Gish Jen; Claire Messud, RI ’05; and Geraldine Brooks, RI ’06 (who had already completed her Pulitzer-winning novel, March, when she arrived for her fellowship)—took issue with the idea that an author would begin with a message, and purposefully construct a story around that message. “In the moment of writing, we have no control,” said Jen. “The characters are in charge. We’re just typing madly after them, and they have minds of their own, if you’re writing well.” (Jen did allow that writers have a duty to examine their work, ex post facto, from the perspectives of reviewer and reader and consider what messages might be gleaned, and whether it’s responsible to release the work.)

Brooks’s description of her latest project—a novel about the first Native American graduate of Harvard College, a real historical figure about whom almost nothing is known other than that he graduated in 1665 and died a year later—drew a question about the importance of accuracy when a story has its basis in fact. As long as an author makes clear up front that the account is fictionalized, Brooks said, “Beautiful lies are sometimes the greatest literature of all. You can make it the way you wish it were, rather than the way you believe it to be, and I think that’s a temptation that should occasionally be yielded to.” 


Radcliffe’s evolution—from an “Annex” of Harvard established in 1879, through the milestones of women’s admittance to Harvard classrooms (1943) and admission to the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (1963), to a full-fledged school within the University with a unique scholarly dynamism—echoes wider societal trends, Susan Faludi said.

She recalled her own days as an undergraduate as “a very confusing time.” Faludi’s diploma said she had graduated from both Radcliffe and Harvard, but, she said, “it was never clear to me what my connections to Radcliffe were.”

These growing pains resulted from conflicting opinions on a foundational question of feminism: as Faludi put it, ““Do we change the world by being part of it, or by insisting on a room of our own?”

Quoting from pivotal figures in Radcliffe’s founding, she concluded that it was never intended to be a room of women’s own. The college’s founders didn’t want it to be separate, like Bryn Mawr or Wellesley: “They wanted the key to Harvard’s rooms.” For example, these 1882 remarks from Radcliffe founding president Elizabeth Cary Agassiz: “…I fear that we shall drift into the building up of another female college, distinct from the university. I believe this would be a great mistake. We must be careful to avoid this rock.”

Even so, Faludi said, Radcliffe assumed a distinct identity that was cherished, and whose loss was lamented at the time of the merger.

Mary Maples Dunn, who served as interim dean of the Radcliffe Institute in its earliest days, before Faust’s appointment, said the institute held onto its Radcliffe College heritage by privileging issues of women, gender, and minority rights in its conferences and the fellows it selects, even as its programs cut across all disciplines. Participating in the symposium remotely, speaking via video from Paris, she said: “While men aren’t excluded, women are still at the center.”



To highlight just how much things have changed for women since her days as a Radcliffe undergraduate, Faludi—whose books include Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women—read from a Crimson article, published her freshman year, on a meeting of the Harvard Dames, a group for graduate students’ wives: “Members last night ate 12 kinds of cookies, drank pink punch from the club’s engraved silver punch bowl…” The article quoted the club president as saying that the club was founded “to keep wives off their husbands’ backs during exam time.” Today, Faludi noted, “a Harvard dame”—lowercase d—“is more likely to be the one taking the exam.”

As the times have changed for women, so have they changed for libraries. Marilyn Dunn, executive director of the institute’s Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, recalled that when she began working in libraries in the 1970s, “the library infrastructure was dominated by shelves, measuring tapes, typewriters, and also by very well-read, well-educated women.”

Radcliffe’s new life as an institute has allowed the Schlesinger to add to its collections—in 10 years it has acquired 23,400 printed volumes, 8,700 audiovisual items, and 1,800 manuscripts—and to begin working through its backlog of unprocessed donations and acquisitions.

But more exciting, Dunn said, are the library’s forays into new media—not just digitizing books, but enabling access to vast datasets such as the output of telescopes (one of which can generate a terabyte of data in a single day).

The library is beginning to address issues such as turning archived e-mail into a format that’s usable for researchers. “Archival collections receive more and more material that arrives locked in hard drives or DVDs,” Dunn said. “We are preparing ourselves for a future in which much of the material we collect will have been produced by electronic technology. Future donors live in a digital world, and are making a record of themselves in formats like e-mail, Word files, digital photos, and digital video.”

And in the Capturing Women’s Voices project, the Schlesinger is archiving blogs with voices from groups and on topics that are underrepresented in the library collections, such as African-American women and Latinas; religious and politically conservative women; transgendered people; women writing about reproductive health; and teenagers.

Beyond adapting old materials to the new digital reality, the library is exploring ways that electronic media can make a unique contribution to the study of women’s issues—a central concern not only to the library, but to the institute as a whole. Said Mary Maples Dunn: “While history shouldn’t chain us, neither should we forsake what it has given us.”


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