Pardon My Harvard Accent
IN 1920 Harvard was beginning to grow, beginning the enormous building program that increased its size from forty buildings to a hundred and eighty. No longer could the faculty with a few meetings and the help of a few clerks plan its financial program. Harvard had outgrown its business methods. Each year it was going deeper in the red. Because it was necessary to keep track of more than a thousand different endowments, each of which had been given for a special and a different purpose, a year or more had to elapse before anyone could discover how deep in the red it had been in the previous year, by which time it was still deeper in the losses of another year.
The situation was worse than this, because the red figure finally arrived at showed only what Harvard had spent; no one knew how much more Harvard owed. Even Jordan, Marsh could not tell how much they were owed by Harvard, for any one of a thousand or more professors, doctors, and clerks could charge things to Harvard or to himself or herself, put the bill in the pocket of another suit of clothes to be completely forgotten, or, if he remembered it a few months later, say to some bewildered credit man, ‘Harvard owes you that, not I.’
Harvard with millions to spend was poor, for a man is poor who spends more than he has and rich when he spends less, it making little difference, once food and shelter have been provided, how many zeros there are before you come to the decimal point.
Fred Mead changed all that. It was a Herculean task uprooting old habits, traditions, and prejudices to bring order out of chaos, and I am glad and proud that I too was called to Harvard to take my small part under him in this reorganization, to be one of those who for twenty years have helped to keep Harvard in the black. In 1910 the corporation had voted to have the Harvard Co-operative Society do Harvard’s purchasing, announcing in the next year’s report that the annual purchases by the Co-operative had been fifteen thousand dollars — not a very large percentage of the million or so that Harvard was spending for supplies. The Society’s buying function had died a natural death by the time I was called in as purchasing agent in December of 1923.
Nobody seemed to think a purchasing department was needed. A hundred and fifty department heads could tell their $18-a-week stenographers to spend the million or so dollars available with quite as good results as any single expert buyer could accomplish; but an analysis of twenty thousand bills from a hundred stationers, fifty hardware stores, and a thousand other sources, seemed to indicate a possibility for improvement. My report so indicated, making modest claims that some savings could be made on perhaps an annual volume of $350,000.
In the days that followed, much was added to the routine day’s work that my four clerks and I had to do — if it can be called routine to order such items as
Hæmometers, hæmacytometers, and hæmoglobinometers
Praying mantis oöthecas
A hundred yards of diaper cloth — not for the freshmen
An electric hair dryer for the Athletic Association
Sirens for Zoölogy (Note that a Siren is not what you and I thought it was, but a kind of frog)
Cockroaches for Abnormal Psychology — finally found in an abandoned sugar mill, to the indignation of the sugar company
A picture of a general of the South Dominican Republic, who had been dead for many years
A gallon of stallion urine
The skeleton of a bullfrog
A baby carriage for Dr. Dillon’s Fatigue Laboratory (I do not know how it was used, but perhaps practical knowledge that pushing one can be fatiguing is of value to the young graduate)
Ten dozen Squalers
Two hundred yardsticks, with metric measure on the other side; but please be sure, Mr. Morse, that they are not meter sticks with yards on the other side (Which is the other side of a stick?)
Guinea pigs to be got through the Custom House, from Canada, with the Consular Invoices, Customs Declarations on forms 3321 and 3343 sworn to as correct at the start, but proving to be quite inadequate to cover what arrived two weeks later
An inanimate Busybody for the Warren Anatomical Museum (Dr. Canavan has a sense of humor and was trying to stick my office on something of which we knew nothing. We got it for her from a Philadelphia mirror manufacturer)
A million and a half index cards for the library. These will weigh two and one half tons — and at the same time send another million to the Harvard-Yenching Institute in Peiping, China
A Swedish flag to be rented and put up half an hour before the Crown Prince reaches Harvard (Remember that a few thousands or millions of people will notice the frontpage headlines the next day criticizing Harvard if the flag is bigger, smaller, cleaner, dirtier, brighter, dingier, or otherwise superior, inferior, or equal to either the Harvard or the United States flag hung on the same building)
In starting a purchasing department at Harvard I was expected to sink or swim without annoying anybody in the process. By the nature of his work a purchasing agent annoys everybody, for everybody likes to spend the money himself — if it is somebody else’s money. It is lots of fun to give a salesman an order; it gives one a warm feeling around the heart. But unfortunately the purchasing agent almost never can give a salesman an order without taking it away from someone else. That is one reason why the amateur, the department head, likes to do his own buying. He can jump in and have all the fun, leaving the agony of pacifying the losers to the purchasing agent. Placing eighty or a hundred orders a day, the buyer should expect to make eighty or a hundred enemies a day, except for the fact that most of them are already his enemies; and this he accomplishes without satisfying the people for whom he is buying, who know they could have done it better themselves.
Sixteen hundred professors, doctors, and instructors had the authority to do their own buying if they could get any money appropriated from the Harvard Treasury. Not all of them could get money, but many individuals and more than a hundred and fifty departments and committees had funds. All of these had the right to buy and thought they were doing their own buying. But they were not, for they were busy, each one turning to a woman clerk and telling her to order what was wanted. Several hundred women clerks had made themselves important to their employers by their ability to supply them with whatever they wanted. In short, my job was to take the authority to buy away from important men who liked to buy, and at the same time to reduce the imaginary self-importance of their women clerks. This I was to do without annoying them, and without any authority to do so, for all I had was a title — Purchasing Agent of Harvard University.
There was also the problem of the department head and the individual professor or doctor. Jealous of his privilege of freedom of choice, freedom to do as he pleased, each would be afraid that no purchasing agent would get him what he wanted. Always he would be suspicious of this new buyer, who any minute might acquire the power to force him to accept supplies other than what he wanted. This was a genuine fear, justifiable. At one time a keg of ordinary hypo for fixing photographic plates was purchased for the Harvard Observatory, a particular grade from a particular chemical house being specified by the observatory. When the keg arrived it bore the wrong name. Now this was a cheap chemical which came loose in a car — in bulk, as it is called; different chemical houses took their kegs to this car, which they had bought in common, and shoveled the kegs full, each putting his own label on his own kegs. The observatory was taking pictures of the stars nightly; to have a batch go wrong in developing the plates would have been a catastrophe, for once April 1, 1940, has gone by it will never come again; stars will have changed position. Our stargazers had lost confidence in that particular keg of chemicals; explaining would only have hurt, not helped. It was right for us to send the keg back and replace it with another keg from the same car but with the right label.
Harvard is a loosely knit organization with many departments, commissions, committees, and activities, so many that it is difficult to count them. However, a safe estimate would be a hundred and fifty, some of which might be subcommittees or subcommittees of subcommittees, but each of them having funds available, granted to them perhaps by Harvard, perhaps by some wealthy friend or some charitable or educational organization or fund. These departments or committees, by whatever name you choose to call them, may be located anywhere.
An observatory in South Africa, an aquarium in Bermuda, a botanical station in Cuba, an island in the lake through which runs the Panama Canal, all are owned and operated by Harvard. A small building is going up this year in the Colorado mountains; there is affiliation with Yenching University at Peiping, China; our Loeb Classical Library is printed in England; the Harvard Oriental Series was printed until recently in Germany.
One week I received through the Boston Custom House for our Peabody Museum the following objects coming from Borneo (the cross-word puzzle trade please note): —
A banga for cooking fish
A dapulan or cooking stove
A barahan or incense tray
A babatu for use in making pottery
The same day there came two cases from Mexico containing manuscripts and archives from Leon Trotsky, and a hundred and forty-one dozen negatives of the stars from Africa. I am trying to obtain a list of two hundred native utensils and instruments shipped in 1935 from Arequipa, Peru, because a Custom House inspector is wondering if Donald Scott of our museum staff has violated our Permanent Exhibition Bond No. 4937 of that date by lending them without permission to some other museum.
On one occasion the head of a department, one of Harvard’s finest professors but a man with ideas of his own, was looking for a suitable chair for a lecture room. He and I were talking it over. I said: ‘There is a chair at the business school —’
‘Damn the business school!’ and his fist pounded the table until large volumes bounced.
‘All right, damn the business school!’ said I. ‘At the business school —’
‘I beg your pardon, 1 have a nasty temper.’
‘So have I,’ said I, telling the truth, for I was a bit upset too. ‘At the business school — ‘
‘All right, Morse, tell me about the chairs at the business school.’
He has a lot of them today in his lecture hall.
An important doctor, the best man in the world on biochemistry, — a man perhaps about to give to the world some great discovery, the result of years of research, — is paid not only in money, but in comfort, in happiness, freedom from annoyance, freedom to concentrate without distraction upon the problem at which he is working, the ability to reach out his hand and have placed in it silently the exact instrument needed next. Around him his helpers stand breathlessly watching the result. Standing with mind focused, concentrated on the object before him, the doctor reaches behind him to have a helper put in his hand an unfamiliar tool, a tool just as good, but with a balance unfamiliar. Contact has been broken. With a rustle of annoyance the little group straightens up, breathes deeply, shifts, and concentrates again. I should not want to be the object under that doctor’s unaccustomed tool. The experiment over, with taut nerves relaxed, the doctor goes to his office, where his stenographer tells him she does not like the only carbon paper she can get and the janitor complains that his broom is no good.
The doctor calls the dean to tell him there is a fly pestering him. ‘Please shoo him away. He calls himself a purchasing agent.’
It took three years of patient work and the aid of a progressive manufacturer before we could standardize the university on one kind of paper towel — twelve hundred cases, or four and a half million towels, being required yearly in our public washrooms. It was another year before we could standardize on soap.
In spite of the difficulties, our department progressed rapidly, for it was badly needed. Our Fogg Art Museum requisitioned two hundred chairs, specifying the kind and the company from whom they were to be bought at $13.50 each, as selected by Harvard’s architects. I recognized the chair and was able to buy it elsewhere at $9.00, a saving of $900 on the lot. The middleman had expected to earn this sum without lifting a finger to perform any service for Harvard, as the manufacturer made the delivery, the middleman’s part being to collect money from Harvard in ten days and pay the manufacturer in thirty to ninety days.
For a number of years the senior class had graduated owing the university about $2000. Harvard eventually would get paid, but maybe not for twenty-five years, and this made things unpleasant both for Harvard and for the graduating class. Most of this debt came from inefficient managing of Class Day, which is a senior party, run by the seniors themselves, and paid for out of the money received for the tickets they sell to themselves. I was asked to stop this, but of course given no authority. It was another typical college situation. There were amusing developments, for I found that each senior committee received the records of the year before and knew no better than to run Class Day accordingly.
Because for many years 10,000 folding chairs had been rented, 10,000 were rented again. Investigation proved that at least 4000 of them were never unfolded, being piled in ugly heaps in different parts of the Harvard Yard. The boys were being charged ten cents a chair, or $1000, while two days later these same chairs were carried across to the Commencement Exercises and Harvard was billed for them at eleven cents apiece, making a total cost of $2100. I was warned that it was hopeless to try to do anything about this, for there was only one supplier who had 10,000 chairs. I do not like to be told a case is hopeless; it is a challenge. It was not true in this case, for competition brought the price from twenty-one cents down to five cents, reducing the cost for the smaller quantity from $2100 to $300, plus another $75 to have our own laborers move them from the Yard to the back of Sever Hall for Commencement.
Music for Class Day cost $2500, besides the cost of erecting a pavilion where the orchestra played — now and then; for nobody gave them any instructions and nobody listened to them, so most of their time was spent sitting under trees in the Yard in some of the 10,000 chairs. Today the budget for music is $600. Orchestras play for dancing with not more than three-minute intervals between dances and one hour’s rest in every four hours of playing.
There was a tradition that bay trees must be used for decorations for Class Day dances. Class Day could not be Class Day without bay trees. Bay trees do not grow in New England, and they are liable to a disease which makes it illegal to bring them in. One company owned the only bay trees that could be had. Age, thunderstorms, and many trips to and from Cambridge had made them a bit mangy, and committees had bought them and given them back (it was called renting) many times. There are no bay trees now on Class Day.
Japanese lanterns used to be strung in courtyards on a forest of overhead electric wires, at a cost of $1000 a year. Daylight saving had come, and no one had noticed that it was still daylight at nine o’clock when the old people went home and the young people went indoors to dance, coming out between dances to stroll in the moonlight in cloistered courtyards that are now lit only with an occasional doorway fixture and from light shining through the windows of all the available surrounding rooms. In daylight, Japanese lanterns strung on festoons of heavy insulated electric wire do not add to the landscape. All the lighting now is a floodlight here and there to call attention to the vista through an archway, or to throw a welcome shadow over steps where a couple are sitting.
Each department, each activity, each committee, sometimes an individual professor, is granted a budget for the year. So much they can have to spend, and no more. This money comes from a thousand sources, more than a thousand special funds, each given to Harvard for a special purpose. One fund (I think it amounts to a few hundred dollars a year) is for the purpose of providing geological lantern slides. How many slides we already have I do not know, but there will have to be a building to keep them in in a few hundred years more. There is a fund for the sole purpose of helping worthy students of the name of Murphy. There is always a Murphy, but sometimes he does not need help.
Each department, activity, committee, or professor is naturally eager that his all-too-small budget can be stretched to cover as much space as possible. That is the purchasing agent’s opportunity, how he can help; that is what induces cooperation, though not always. It was Dean Pound, when he was Dean of the Law School, who would not allow the Law School roof to be repaired. He wanted to spend the money on his investigation into criminal law. So instead of roof repairs he bought buckets to place around in different parts of the library bookstacks to catch water that might damage the books. Not liking to spend money for paper towels, he refused to allow us to buy any, until he found that the increase in the number of rolls of toilet paper which the students unrolled to dry their hands cost more than the towels.
Professor John Livingston Lowes, — whom our catalogue describes as Ph. D., LL.D., L.H.D., D.Litt., and Francis Lee Higginson Professor of English Literature, — coming home from Europe with too many personal possessions, was assessed by the Custom House for a duty of $15.49. Later the Custom House sent him a bill for additional duty of $10 which he could not understand. This he took to his son, John W. Lowes, Financial Vice President of Harvard, to see if he could understand the reason for the additional charge. John Lowes, knowing it was my job to attend to United States Customs matters, brought the bill to me. After looking up the Tariff Act of 1930 and reading through various paragraphs without finding any adequate reason for the extra charge, I sent the bill to our customs broker for an explanation. He returned it to me, I to the vice president, who in turn gave it to his father with the explanation that, as anyone could see at a glance, the original bill for $15.49 had been added up wrong, the four items on the bill adding to $25.49, the very first item being more than the original total. It is not only college professors with letters after their names who live in worlds of their own!
Crossing Harvard Square one day, I met Professor Wambaugh, one of our finest Law School professors. As he was quite old and getting blind, I tucked his arm under mine to pilot him and myself over a busy traffic square. A delightful man and companion, with a keen wit and sense of humor, he lived around the corner from my home on Craigie Street, and as we reached the sidewalk he asked me if I knew which was the shortest way to my house, to go by Brattle Square and Brattle Street or out Garden Street to Concord Avenue.
‘I measured it very carefully once, on my bicycle,’ said he.
Then, as he said nothing further, I asked, ‘And which was the shorter?’
‘Oh, I’ve forgotten that,’ was the answer.
There is a kindly sweetness, a thoughtfulness for others, a genuine humility attained by the biggest of these men, so universal that I cannot help thinking there is something in the search for knowledge, as opposed to the search for the dollar, which is ennobling. Perhaps, as the student learns, there is so much more to learn opening up before him that it brings humility. Dean Briggs, who never forgot a face or a name, used to tell me who he was on entering my office for fear I should not know him and might be embarrassed — I who had met him a dozen times, read his books, and known of him and loved him for many years.
That the Harvard staff is not motivated by self-interest, but by the search for truth, is true at the top, and less true the nearer one approaches the bottom; for breadth of mind and tolerance seem to come with the mastery of any branch of learning. Department heads and important professors were always willing to coöperate, willing and glad to make concessions on unimportant details that did not bear directly on their own study, willing and glad to be relieved of the burden of making the small decisions necessary for the hundreds of minor items used by everyone. It was sufficient to say to them, ‘This has been adopted,’ to have them accept it. Opposition to my department came from lesser minds, from lower down in the organization, from men in each department who, reached by disappointed salesmen, hoped by coöperation with them to break up and undermine what I was trying to accomplish.
On the market are thousands of cleaning materials. Most of them are secret formulas mixed in the garage, in the cellar, in little factories and big factories, and ranging in price from two cents to two dollars a pound. When a buyer has resisted the blandishments of the salesman, the salesman goes to the janitor, often through a friend, renewing and increasing the pressure on the buyer to try his product. It is not right to destroy a janitor’s initiative by refusing to hear him; perhaps he is really trying to improve his work; yet to give in too often is to lose all hope of standardizing. A survey showed me one year that I was buying thirty-seven different kinds of soap and cleaning materials where five or six would do the work, the worst offender being the man who was trying the hardest to improve his work. Obviously he should be encouraged, and freedom to select his own particular pet compound taken from the less progressive ones.
A janitor went to his superior with one of these back-door salesmen, the three of them appearing in my office to put on the pressure. I had looked at his product before, knew what it was and disapproved, but I called for a trial at once. It was a furniture cleaner, so, drawing a line down the centre of a fairly dirty desk top in my office, I asked the salesman to go to work on one half, while I reached in the cupboard behind me for a quart bottle kept for just such an emergency. Each of us went to work with a rag, I stopping breathless some time before the salesman would give up. We looked at the result, squinting at the desk from all angles, while they waited for a decision from me. Although I could not see any difference in the two results, I pronounced the salesman’s side the best. All were smiling and happy until I asked the price.
‘Four dollars a gallon,’ said the salesman, rubbing his hands in anticipation of an order for at least a barrel of his cleaning compound.
‘Oh,’ said I. ‘Mine costs only a tenth of a cent a gallon.’
Mine was a teaspoonful of trisodium phosphate in a quart of water, a fortieth of a pound of a four-cent-a-pound chemical; not the right thing with which to clean a desk, though it is really the rubbing that removes the dirt. The salesman left us a disappointed man, but I had stopped a threatened leak; the janitor had learned something without having his feelings or his initiative injured, and his boss was convinced of my open-mindedness.
Naturally leaks are everywhere, in front and behind; when one is stopped, two others spring up elsewhere. With the sellers in front of you, coöperation lacking on each side and behind, progress is slow, but life is interesting.
Someone must have started the rumor that Harvard was dirty, for hundreds of salesmen have tried to help us clean it up. I had to ask one company to call off its salesmen, as more than thirty of them tried to sell me the same vacuum cleaner. I learned that the company had four hundred salesmen in New England alone, each of whom would in time get the bright idea of cleaning up Harvard, and cleaning up a nice commission for himself by selling me a hundred or so vacuum cleaners. Poor fellows — probably twenty housewives slam the door in their faces to one who tells them politely she doesn’t want to buy.
Testing out all the well-known makes, I finally selected one, buying a hundred vacuum cleaners. There was a loser that interested the business school enough so that I was asked to buy one machine for trial. This I did, issuing the usual Harvard purchase order. Soon letters began to come in from schools and colleges all over the United States, saying that they understood I had tested all makes of vacuum cleaners and had adopted for Harvard and purchased a hundred of this particular make. This company had made photostatic copies of my order for one machine. Their salesman would tell their prospects how ‘Harvard had tested all, bought a hundred, and here is a copy of Harvard’s order to us,’ the thumb being held over the quantity.
Salesmen for the most part believe the stories they tell. One of them pulled a piece of blackboard, some chalk, and an eraser from his bag. Wiping the chalk sideways on the board he showed how perfectly his eraser cleaned off the mark, and was astonished when I marked his board with the end of the piece of chalk, instead of the side, to find that his eraser was very poor. He did not know that the best thing, except water, to erase chalk marks on a blackboard is an eraser which has itself become saturated with chalk dust.
Always there is pressure on the buyer to buy from this seller or that, pressure from heads of departments, pressure from sellers, pressure from friends of sellers, from friends of Harvard, from graduates and officials. Pressure from the sellers is easiest to resist, until they go round to the back door to see employees, offering them I know not what inducements. Sellers have demanded my orders because the heads of the company had contributed to the Harvard Endowment Fund — not such a good reason. There is one Harvard graduate who has written long letters saying that if Harvard will not buy his white ink he will cease his contributions to the endowment fund. In fifteen years the only white ink of which any record can be found was bought from him — three one-ounce bottles, two of which are still in stock. He still sends a contribution. Business and charity are not supposed to mix.
To a committee which was discussing the building of the new biological laboratories I made the statement that I could save $30,000 if they would allow me to outfit the building with steel shelving and cupboards instead of the wooden equipment planned by the architect; and that from an inspection of the new museum at the University of Michigan I was convinced that the steel would prove more satisfactory. It does not matter whether I was right or wrong, for one of the committee asked: ‘Why, Mr. Morse, should we save $30,000 when it will only have to be given back to the donor?’
I could only sit dumfounded and shocked at such a question, while the committee voted for the wooden equipment. That type of mind, that type of control of the spending of Harvard money, is wrong.
I had lost, and I have debated with myself many times whether I should have walked out of a meeting that could come to such a conclusion. I think I was right to stay, for if I had walked out it would probably have meant my walking out of Harvard, and I like to think that it was right to stay on and keep fighting, sometimes to lose a big fight and sometimes to win a little one.
How we all should have liked to have available that $30,000 before the building was completed, for while I had put in an estimate covering a hundred pages of itemized needs for the furnishing of this laboratory, amounting to $200,000, it was shelved and forgotten, since I was not a popular member of the committee. Smilingly I was told, when it came time for me to do the furnishing, that $60,000 had been saved for that purpose. The committee had done their own estimating by the cubic-foot method, their experience having taught them that a certain allowance per cubic foot would do the furnishing — forgetting that this was a building for use by scientists, and scientists cannot work without tools. The microscope equipment alone cost $60,000. I furnished the building for $130,000, for of course I had allowed a margin of safety; but the extra $70,000 came out of the income set aside to run the building, and its loss cramped the operation of the various occupants until it had been paid back.
I too wasted money on the furnishings, for the biological professor is temperamental and must be kept happy. We equipped a machine shop in the basement, probably not needed at all, and I am sure we could have got along without one of the $3000 lathes, for it was a duplicate, bought only so that when the head of that department wanted to play with the lathe himself he could leave his work all set up in it while the rest of the world used the other one. I did not suggest that Harvard could hire expert machinists to run lathes at lower wages than are paid to professors.
Another one got away from me when I took a Friday-to-Monday week-end in the summer, for the same professor ordered and got possession of five Marchant calculators at $550 each, so that he could have one on each floor, never climbing stairs when he wanted to calculate. All five are not used a total of an hour a day, or twelve minutes each.
The buying for all educational and charitable institutions lags behind industrial buying — a paradox when you learn that the best study course on industrial buying in the country is given at the Harvard Business School and the textbook used by most of the business schools in the country, a book on the shelves of more than five thousand of the country’s best purchasing agents and their buyer’s bible, was written by a Harvard professor in our business school. Industry is awake to its value. Education has not yet learned to use its own resources.
One doctor sent us a sample of a small, sharp-pointed staple which we tried for several days to duplicate, only to find it was no longer on the market. Thinking it might help to know what he wanted to use it for, I called him on the phone.
‘I want to pin a tag on a cat’s ear,’ was the answer.
We bought him a ten-cent box of cloth-pricing tags, which proved satisfactory.
Not long ago a well-known professor, Kirsopp Lake, came into the purchasing office and said that he and his wife and five others were going to Mount Sinai, which, my atlas shows, is somewhere in the Arabian desert; they would be in the desert six weeks, a four-day camel journey from their nearest source of food supply, where even their water must be brought in by a two-day camel journey.
He wanted to know whether we could outfit them. It seems that on their preceding trip, for which they bought their food in England, they did not take pains enough in the selection and were somewhat troubled by scurvy. Did I think we could help them? At once a few questions were asked and the answers given: —
How much can a camel carry? Three hundred pounds.
How should the material be packed? In three cases, each weighing about one hundred pounds, one case on the camel’s back and one on each side.
What supplies could best be bought in Alexandria, the nearest town?
How hot was it in the desert?
When the preliminary information had been obtained, we asked that the problem be left with us for a while. After a little investigation as to the rates of exchange, freight charges, and so forth, we found that Boston was as good a place as any in which to buy, and so the expert in one of the prominent grocery houses in that city was enlisted on the job. He gladly took it in hand. With some misgivings we reported to the professor that it could be done, but that it would cost between $300 and $400 and would require fourteen camels. I confess that the fourteen camels staggered us until the professor said over the telephone, ‘Fourteen camels. Let me see. A camel and driver costs six piastres a day; that’s thirty cents each and is not excessive.’
Next, the grocery expert made up a menu for seven people for a week. That one week’s supply was multiplied, of course, by six in order to cover the duration of the trip. Then we planned the packing of the foodstuffs. Not all of the dried prunes were put in one box and the powdered eggs in another. What a mess that would be in the hot desert! It was easy to imagine what would happen if the explorers had to pry open forty-two cases, more or less, for their first meal and then leave them open at the mercy of insects and natives until the last meal of the trip. So, with the exception of a few staple articles such as cans of evaporated milk, the food was divided into days, forty-two days and forty-two cases — about one day’s food in each case.
When we had gone thus far, having consulted the professor and his wife once or twice on their likes and dislikes, they stopped in at our office one day to say they were off to New York in a hurry and would not be back. Would I finish up and see that the food reached Alexandria in time? As they walked out I called after them: ‘I suppose the university bursar is to pay the bills.’ ‘Oh! I forgot that. No, here is a check for $400 — deposit the balance in my bank.’
A few years ago a professor cabled us from Yugoslavia, ‘Send half ton discs.’ We knew what he wanted because he had taken a thousand aluminum discs over with him to make phonographic reproductions, I had supposed for recording Balkan dialects, and now he wanted three thousand more. When he came back I found it was not dialects; he claimed he had found the last place in the world where the troubadours of the days of chivalry were still singing their songs of gallant deeds, for it was the only entertainment available for the illiterate peasants. One song took more than twelve hours in the singing, almost equaling some of our American radio serials.
This professor also had forgotten about paying, and as he had taken with him all the money to which he was entitled we had to cable him for $900.
Lacking coöperation, Harvard has not yet learned to use her own resources. In the early part of the twentieth century Professor Sabine of our Department of Physics developed the formulæ for calculating acoustical results, by which it is possible to calculate how to build a lecture hall so that the lecturer can be heard, how to build a library and a dining room for the suppression of noise. That this could be done successfully Professor Sabine proved by his assistance in the designing of Symphony Hall in Boston.
Thirty years later Harvard was building Lehman Hall, an architect planning, unsuccessfully, how to keep the rooms quiet. I say unsuccessfully, for after the building had been in use most of the rooms required soundproofing material on the ceilings. At the same time another architect was building the Harvard Business School, and with the aid of Sabine’s formulæ successfully reduced the noise in the Baker Library Reading Room. Another lecture hall was being built by a third architect on the third floor of the Germanic Museum. Here no attempts were made to plan the acoustics, with the result that neither the lecturer nor the students could tell what the lecture was about until several hundred dollars had been spent to correct the architectural defects. While these three scattered attempts at solving the acoustical problems of Harvard were in process, the Johns-Manville Sales Corp. sent a representative to my office to tell me about Professor Sabine’s wonderful discoveries and how they had commercialized them. For three hundred years we built lecture halls without learning how to build them.
Our athletic association wanted loudspeaking equipment in the Harvard Stadium so that the plays in football games could be broadcast to the audience, and other athletic events described. This stadium of concrete is a difficult place in which to amplify a speaker’s voice, for it was not built according to any of Sabine’s acoustical formulæ, nor did it occur to anyone when it was built that acoustics would ever be a problem. The result is that there are focal spots where echoes are bad. For several years our electrical experts, with the coöperation of the acoustic experts from the physics laboratory, spent Athletic Association money experimenting, each year renting equipment and services for each game. They finally announced that because it was Harvard a certain company, which had installed loud-speaking equipment on a Long Island race track at a cost of $100,000, would sell us equipment of the same type and power at the ridiculously low cost of $10,000. There were to be no guarantee of satisfaction and no trial of it, the company assuring us that we should be satisfied.
Our Athletic Association, which struggles gallantly to make both ends meet, did not have $10,000 that could be easily spared. They had, however, sent a football team to Princeton. Bill Bingham, our Director of Athletics, went to Princeton and watched the game. Princeton won, because it played better football than the Harvard team. When I asked Bill how he enjoyed the trip he said: ‘Even the loud-speaking was better than ours! It was good. Why can’t we find out what they have?’
I did, and got a price of $3000 and an offer to install it, with a year’s free trial before we had to accept or reject it, we to be the sole judge of whether we liked it or not.
We ordered the installation —to have the most persistent pressure I have ever experienced put on us to reject this equipment. This pressure came not only from the rival company but from our experts, who proved on paper that what we had bought could not come within 10 per cent of giving us the volume of sound required. When Bill and I said that it had worked well at Princeton, it only led to two hours’ more lead-pencil demonstration of how 150 watts of amplifier capacity would produce less than 80 decibels of sound.
‘But it has worked at Princeton!’
That was in the spring. In the fall at our football games we had our new $3000 equipment. Also there was the installation of the rival company, which had by now offered free trial and reduced its price to the approximate equal of what we had purchased in good faith from the manufacturer of the Princeton outfit. It seemed to me to be the kind of competition — of brutal effort, by a trust, to destroy its only competitor so as to have a monopoly — that is responsible for our antitrust laws.
During that football season one half of a game would be amplified by one outfit, the next half by the other. Watchmen guarded the outfits for fear of complications. Engineers and experts climbed around the stands recording sound decibels on gauges. Mornings were filled with trials until libraries and lecture halls across the river complained of the noise. Without the knowledge of the Athletic Association, ushers were given postcards and asked to vote. Letters of protest from experts and hours of conferences followed, until our Athletic Association, in despair at the persecution, asked me to hire an outside unprejudiced expert for an opinion. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology said our Princeton supplier had done a good job. His equipment is still doing a good job. In the course of the battle he had offered to present his equipment to Harvard free, but we could not accept a gift forced by that kind of unethical procedure.
Another job wished on the purchasing department was that of passing goods imported for Harvard through the customs. Some of these are books ordered by our libraries, or apparatus for our doctors and scientists. Some things are the collections made by various expeditions, exchanges from other colleges, gifts, or whatever the professor in his travels picks up and sends home.
The traveling professor who has a budget of Harvard money, or money of his own to spend, cannot resist shipping these things back to Harvard addressed to himself. He does not want them to go astray, he wants to find them when he himself returns; so instead of addressing them to Harvard, in care of himself, he addresses them to himself, in care of Harvard, and then forgets to write home to explain. I have power of attorney to sign for Harvard, but none to sign the name of each of our sixteen hundred professors. If the article belongs to the professor, it is probably dutiable; if I can swear it belongs to Harvard, it is dutyfree. In 1931 a traveling professor shipped many art objects from Persia addressed to himself. Some were for himself, some for Harvard, some to be given to other institutions, some to be sold to other institutions, and all were mixed in the cases that arrived. We are still trying to find out which are his and where they all are, for I swore they all belonged to Harvard and were for permanent exhibition in one of our museums. If the Collector of Customs were not reasonably lenient, I should probably be in jail.
A member of the staff, connected with Professor Hooton’s department and traveling in Yucatan, cabled: ‘Try arrange better freight rate on 100 Indian skeletons.’
It was from a port where steamer sailings were not frequent, and a little investigation showed that a clerk in the Ward Line office had quoted a rate of $100 each, or $10,000 for the lot.
‘Yes,’ he said over the phone, ‘these are dead bodies. Furthermore you’ll have to get a certificate from the Board of Health before we can bring them into the country.’
As the skeletons were more than a hundred years old, they certainly were dead; but it was not difficult to persuade officials of this line that they could also be classed as ‘old bones,’ reducing the total freight to $400. However, during the investigation other shippers had been approached, and before instructions were issued to the Ward Line one of the other steamship companies called up to say that their vice president was a Harvard man and interested in our problem; that a cargo of sisal was soon to leave that port on one of their ships bound for the Plymouth Cordage Company in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and if the skeletons could be shipped as a deck cargo, and Harvard would take delivery at Plymouth, his company would make no charge whatever. So the Indians made their last voyage ‘deadhead,’ as first-class passengers or distinguished guests of the company.
When they arrived, the customs officials were a bit worried about the unusual cargo and asked for a list of the contents of each case; but they were satisfied when told there was no record of the names of the Indians and there was no knowing if the heads in one case did or did not belong to the feet in another.
I despair when I attempt to interpret Harvard, even to one of its graduates, for Harvard is to each graduate what he himself thinks and feels about it. Harvard has been described as a State of Mind, and this would be a good description if we could only fit an adjective or two before the word ‘State.’ Certainly Harvard is not a group of buildings, not a constantly changing group of professors, graduates, or students. Professor Childs once said that the university would never be perfect until we got rid of all the students, meaning of course, in his humorous way, that the heart’s desire of every professor and instructor was not to teach but to study, to pursue his own branch of knowledge.