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Class of 1876 alumni protest a Harvard-MIT merger at the Atlantic House on Nantasket Beach on June 8, 1904.

In 1904, MIT’s inaugural reunion brought to campus more than 1,600 alumni—and a brewing controversy. Beyond celebration, the gathering aimed to mount opposition to a merger with Harvard. Advocates argued that joining forces would eliminate educational redundancies, allow resources to be shared, and strengthen the Institute. Opponents feared that MIT would lose its distinct identity and culture, along with alumni support.

Alumni were fired up, to say the least. An evening at Symphony Hall turned into a raucous demonstration. According to the Boston Herald, alumni from the classes of 1885, ‘86, and ‘87 marched up Huntington Avenue singing a rallying cry to the tune of the Civil War song “John Brown’s Body.” Their words: “You can’t make crimson out of cardinal and gray … We don’t give a damn for Ha-a-arvud … as Tech goes marching on.” When they arrived at Symphony Hall, other classes cheered them.

That merger attempt was squelched, but the threat hovered four times in the Institute’s first 50 years—events well documented in the book A Widening Sphere: Evolving Cultures at MIT, by MIT research associate Philip Alexander. So how did MIT manage to maintain its independence?

First Challenge

The first three merger attempts resulted from the persistence of one of MIT’s original faculty members, Charles Eliot. When MIT founder William Barton Rogers hired him, Eliot was a 31-year-old up-and-coming chemist who had left Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School because of its resistance to progressive, hands-on education—the approach practiced at MIT. Eliot was among the faculty and two dozen students who assembled for MIT’s first semester in 1865.

Rogers personally shaped the developing Institute, so the school was stupefied when he suffered a stroke in the fall of 1868 and moved to Philadelphia to recuperate. Mathematics professor John Daniel Runkle temporarily took over the helm, but he lacked Rogers’s authority. Within a year, Eliot had left to become president of Harvard, where he would serve until 1909. From the outset, Eliot had his eye on MIT.

Eliot wasted no time in wooing MIT’s strongest faculty to Harvard and trying to boost its reputation by convincing Tech to become a Harvard department. Eliot deemed it an amalgamation, Rogers an annexation. Eliot even traveled to Rogers’s sickbed in an effort to persuade him, at one point offering to name the new entity after Rogers himself—a bribe the modest man found offensive.

Rogers had established MIT on his unwavering belief that students learn best by doing, and he was adamant that the Institute, which had already gained notice as a top scientific school, must remain independent. Although Runkle went forward with merger talks, Rogers stood firm. The Institute “cannot without a kind of suicide merge itself into any other institution,” he said.

Times of Turmoil

Eliot’s advances coincided with moments of turmoil for the Institute. He stayed away from the commanding presence of MIT president Francis Amasa Walker, who served from 1881 to 1897 and was against a merger. But just months after Walker died unexpectedly at age 56, Eliot again officially reached out to Tech, which was effectively leaderless and in the process of a presidential search.

Tech representatives including faculty chair James Mason Crafts, who later that year reluctantly became president, were receptive to an alliance or other coöperative strategies but outright refused to discuss union. Crafts, though Harvard-trained, held his ground with Eliot, and in November 1897 both sides agreed to a loose association. Crafts, however, wanted to exclude Eliot from any governing board, and eventually Eliot balked at the deal, fearing that Harvard had lost the upper hand.

The third merger attempt came closer to succeeding than the other two. MIT had outgrown its Boston location, and in 1904-‘05 MIT President Henry Smith Pritchett—a close friend of Eliot’s—needed funding to move. So when Eliot again approached MIT about a merger, in January 1904, he came armed with promised support from philanthropists including Andrew Carnegie, an alumnus’s multimillion-dollar legacy gift for engineering education, and a line on a good deal for 40 acres on the Charles River Parkway.

Alumni Raise Their Voices

But now MIT had enough established alumni to voice opposition. A delegation of alumni told Pritchett in January that it would never support a merger that would “sink Tech’s individuality” and would try to raise the money to match Harvard’s legacy gift, a vow that led to the creation of the Technology Fund later that year. In April, the Alumni Association mailed petitions to alumni asking them to support the demand that the Corporation “entertain no proposition to unite, ally, or associate itself in any way, financially or otherwise, with any other educational body.” By mid-May, it had received 1,637 responses—and all but eight backed independence.

Soon the MIT Corporation backed away from merger talks but resolved to investigate an educational alliance that would “preserve the organization, control, traditions, and the name of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.” Alumni used Tech Reunions to voice their disapproval of this plan.

Nevertheless, by November Pritchett and Eliot had drafted a “Tentative Plan of Co-operation.” By June 1905, despite faculty and alumni disapproval, Pritchett had persuaded the Corporation to vote in favor of the merger. The plan fell through only when the state supreme court prohibited MIT from selling its Boylston Street property or expanding on it, preventing the Institute from raising the necessary capital to move to Cambridge.

New presidents Richard Cockburn Maclaurin at MIT and A. Lawrence Lowell at Harvard persisted in trying to find ways for Tech and Harvard to coöperate. By 1910, the two schools agreed to faculty exchanges and student cross-registration. By January 1914, both schools had signed an agreement on coöperative teaching and research efforts in four engineering programs, funded in part by the trust from a Harvard alumnus. In 1917, a court ruled that the trust could be used only for Harvard, a decision that voided the agreement.

Under President Maclaurin’s leadership, MIT continued to build its reputation as an academic powerhouse. Maclaurin secured funds needed to purchase the Cambridge land in 1911, and the Institute moved to the new campus in 1916. These days, no one questions MIT’s stature as an institution or its educational philosophy of “mind and hand.” But as history shows, that independence and culture were hard won.

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Credit: Courtesy of the MIT Museum

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