In Praise of Humility — The Forgotten Story of Edward S. Harkness

The Residential Colleges were created 85 years ago. Though they have the names of many famous Yalies, the donor of these colleges is nowhere to be seen. Why?

What is a Yalie? When I think of the archetypical Yalie, I think of two things. First, a Yalie is someone who will do great things and change the world. Second, a Yalie has great human qualities of humility, philanthropy and caring for others.  While Yalies are always reminded of our great alumni plastered across campus, we rarely see the humbler and more human side. That’s why it’s important to remember Edward S. Harkness.

When looking for the great men and women of Yale, we can see many of them on the names of the Residential Colleges. The topic of “Great Yalies as Names of Residential College” was highly debated in recent years with the discussion over Benjamin Franklin (not a Yalie) and John C. Calhoun (a great orator but certainly not a great man). At Yale, I took it for granted that Yale’s Residential Colleges were named after great Yalies.  But as I got older, I started to wonder why the residential colleges aren’t named after donors who funded them. Most big buildings on the Yale campus are associated with the men who donated them. Vanderbilt Hall comes to mind. Not to mention Sterling Memorial Library, Sterling Law Building, the Sterling Hall of Medicine, Sterling Chemistry Lab and the endowment of the Sterling Professorships.

So who built these residential colleges? The name most associated with the colleges is James Gamble Rodgers, the great architect of Yale. While Rodgers famously designed the buildings, he didn’t come up with the idea or donate the funds for it. The great builder of the Residential Colleges is the rarely mentioned Edward S. Harkness Yale ’97.  Edward is the cousin of William L. Harkness ’81 (who donated William L. Harkness Hall) and of Charles William Harkness ’83 (for whom Harkness Tower is named).

The story of Yale’s residential colleges is a fascinating one, told extensively in George W. Pierson’s Yale: The University College 1921-1937 and summarized in a Yale Alumni Magazine piece on How the Colleges Were Born. In brief, the story is that Edward Harkness, seeing the rapid expansion in the size of Yale college classes, approached the President of Yale to fund a residential college system in the style of Cambridge and Oxford. But Harkness wanted the university to agree to the plan without knowing that he would provide funding for it. When Yale took too long to make a decision, Harkness made the offer to Harvard. Harvard quickly took Harkness up on the offer and built the House System. When Yale found out about this, they quickly went to Harkness to protest and ask for the same offer. And that’s how Edward Harkness funded both the Harvard House System and Yale’s Residential Colleges.

So why don’t we hear more about Edward Harkness? While Edward Harkness was one of the largest donors to Yale, he was also one of the humblest.  Steven V. Harkness, Edward’s father, made the family fortune as John Rockefeller’s partner in Standard Oil. In his history of Yale, George W. Pierson describes Harkness as a “shy fat man who was unknown to many of his classmates.” His freshman year got off to a rocky start. He had few friends, lived in a lowly rooming house on Elm Street and studied under a tutor who he disliked. Seeing his troubles, the dean of Yale College asked his classmate Henry Slone Coffin to coach him. He was able to get on his feet, joined the fraternity Psi Upsilon and eventually joined the secret society Wolfshead. All in all, Harkness had a very good undergraduate experience.

But something kept bothering him. What would happen to the others that were less lucky? What happened to the “average men” that fell through the cracks? University housing was in short supply and many students lived off campus limiting their social and educational opportunities. With the class size ballooning, the Yale culture was breaking apart at the seams. Large classes were providing impersonal instruction rather than individualized learning.

So Harkness built the Residential Colleges to provide a great college experience for the men that he knew and liked and had not been chosen by fraternities and societies. He was drawn to the idea of personal instruction and small social groups of Oxford and Cambridge. The colleges would provide ample housing, personalized instruction and a social atmosphere for everyone at the college.

But despite these massive gifts, he was described as the shyest and most modest of men. The university tried to honor him in numerous ways. On one occasion the Master of Branford thought he’d finally gotten him to visit. Harkness made the trip to New Haven; however, he got cold feet and turned around while walking through the green. Harkness also refused to accept an honorary degree three times, in 1931, 1934 and 1937 before dying in 1940. Harkness may have been the only Yalie to remove his family name from a Yale building by transforming the Harkness Memorial Quadrangle into Branford and Saybrook colleges.

It’s easy to visit Yale and see the wonderful history in the names of the Yale Residential Colleges — the Timothy Dwights and Grace Hoppers. But next time you visit Yale, spend some time digging deeper and thank the humble servant of Yale who made it all possible — Edward S. Harkness.