Harvard University, which celebrated its 350th anniversary in 1986, is the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. Founded 16 years after the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, the University has grown from nine students with a single Master to an enrollment of some 18,800 degree candidates, including undergraduates and students in 10 graduate and professional schools. Six presidents of the United States--John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Rutherford B. Hayes, and John Fitzgerald Kennedy--were graduates of Harvard.

Harvard College was established in 1636 by vote of the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and was named for its first benefactor, John Harvard of Charlestown, a young minister who, upon his death in 1638, left his library and half his estate to the new institution.

During its early years, the College offered a classic academic course based on the English university model but consistent with the prevailing Puritan philosophy of the first colonists. Although many of its early graduates became ministers in Puritan congregations throughout New England, the College was never formally affiliated with a specific religious denomination. An early brochure, published in 1643, justified the College's existence: "To advance Learning and perpetuate it to Posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate Ministry to the Churches."

The election in 1708 of John Leverett, the first president who was not also a clergyman, marked a turning of the College toward intellectual independence from Puritanism. As the College grew in the 18th and 19th centuries, the curriculum was broadened, particularly in the sciences, and the College produced or attracted a long list of famous scholars, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, William James, the elder Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Louis Agassiz.

Charles W. Eliot, who served as president from 1869 to 1909, transformed the relatively small provincial college into a modern university. During his tenure, the Law and Medical schools were revitalized, and the graduate schools of Business, Dental Medicine, and Arts and Sciences were established. Enrollment rose from 1,000 to 3,000 students, the faculty grew from 49 to 278, and the endowment increased from $2.3 million to $22.5 million.

Under President A. Lawrence Lowell (1909-33), the undergraduate course of study was redesigned to ensure students a liberal education through concentration in a single field with distribution of course requirements among other disciplines. Today, 51 fields of concentration are offered to Harvard College students. The tutorial system, also introduced by Lowell and still a distinctive feature of a Harvard education, offers undergraduates informal specialized instruction in their fields.

Recent presidents James Bryant Conant, Nathan M. Pusey, and Derek Bok have each made significant contributions toward strengthening the quality of undergraduate and graduate education at Harvard while, at the same time, maintaining the University's role as a preeminent research institution. Conant (1933-53) introduced a system of ad hoc committees from outside the University to evaluate tenure candidates being considered for faculty positions. Conant also initiated the General Education Program to give undergraduates breadth in fields outside their major study.

Under Pusey (1953-71), Harvard undertook what was then the largest fundraising campaign in the history of American higher education, the $82.5 million Program for Harvard College. The Program strengthened faculty salaries, broadened student aid, created new professorships, and expanded Harvard's physical facilities. A similar but greatly expanded fundraising effort, the Harvard Campaign, was conducted under the leadership of Derek Bok (1971-91) and raised $356 million by 1985.

Some of the important educational initiatives Bok undertook include: reform of the undergraduate course of study through the innovative Core Curriculum, the introduction of graduate programs crossing traditional borders of professional disciplines, new approaches to the training of lawyers and doctors, and a renewed emphasis on the quality of teaching and learning at all levels. Bok strengthened undergraduate and graduate education while maintaining Harvard's role as a preeminent research institution. He addressed major issues affecting higher education in our time and joined other educational leaders in proposing a renewed partnership between the federal government and higher education to address economic competitiveness, equal education opportunity, improved quality of life, and ethical standards.

Neil L. Rudenstine took office as Harvard's 26th president in 1991. As part of an overall effort to achieve greater coordination among the University's schools and faculties, Rudenstine set in motion an intensive process of University-wide academic planning, intended to identify some of Harvard's main intellectual and programmatic priorities. Those goals have become an integral part of the current five-year capital campaign. In addition, Rudenstine has stressed the University's commitment to excellence in undergraduate education, the importance of keeping Harvard's doors open to students from across the economic spectrum, the task of adapting the research university to an era of both rapid information growth and serious financial constraints, and the challenge of living together in a diverse community committed to freedom of expression.

Information taken from http://www.news.harvard.edu/guide/intro