MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections

Alumni Petition Opposing
MIT-Harvard Merger, 1904-05

Petition opposing merger Petition altered to support merger

Petition opposing the merger

Petition amended to favor the merger

MIT President Henry S. Pritchett

Henry S. Pritchett

Henry S. Pritchett (MIT’s President, 1900-1909) and Charles W. Eliot (Harvard’s President, 1869-1909) attempted in 1904 and 1905 to negotiate a merger between their respective institutions despite rampant resistance from MIT alumni and faculty. Under the terms of the proposed plan MIT would have retained its name and charter, but would have become in effect the engineering school of Harvard University, replacing Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School and absorbing its faculty.

Harvard President Charles W. Eliot

Charles W. Eliot

Arguments in favor of the merger emphasized the redundancy of having two competing schools of engineering and applied science in the same area and suggested that MIT students could benefit from the broader educational opportunities and humanistic perspectives available at Harvard. Opponents believed that such a merger would betray MIT’s ideals and inevitably result in the Institute’s domination by its more established and wealthier neighbor. A circular letter sent to over 3700 former MIT students in April 1904 enclosed a petition on a postcard to be signed and returned. As one of the examples reproduced here demonstrates, not all alumni were content to simply sign their names without commentary. Of the 1637 cards returned, 1557 expressed firm opposition to any merger. A number of alumni in 1904 and 1905 also sent letters to the MIT administration developing their opinions more fully.

Robert Richards (a member of the Institute’s Class of 1868 and an influential professor of mining and metallurgy at MIT from 1871 to 1914) wrote, “I do not believe that a modern scientific school can have its best development under the wing of a university…The graft may break the tree, or the tree wither the graft.” George Weld (Class of 1890), who had also been an undergraduate at Harvard, asserted that the standards at the two schools were quite different and that if MIT were “close to the easy-going atmosphere of Harvard, its present high standards would inevitably deteriorate, [explaining that] Harvard sets high standards…but cannot enforce them. Tech sets high standards and in some way does infuse the average student with them.” But Frederic Gulliver (Class of 1887) offered his opinion that a “wise union” of the “best technical college with the finest university” would “greatly advance higher technical education.”

The proposed merger nearly became a reality. A majority of trustees from both institutions approved the scheme, but it was financially contingent upon MIT’s ability to sell its property in Boston’s Back Bay to raise funds for rebuilding on Harvard’s land at Soldiers Field. In September 1905 the intended merger failed because the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court determined that MIT could not sell its Back Bay lands without violating the terms under which it had originally acquired them. Letters, post cards, minutes of meetings, and other documents relating to the merger controversy of 1904 and 1905, as well as previous attempted takeovers, are available for use in the MIT Institute Archives and Special Collections, 14N-118.

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