The Experiment Begins

Class of 1939

Contrary to Conant’s gloomy expectations, 309 journalists applied in the first year. In announcing the inaugural class, the university said it could only award nine fellowships because the income from the Nieman fund was less than expected. Harvard said it anticipated that in future years, the class size would be 12 to 15. The applications fell to 250 the second year, then to 150 and stabilized in the early years of the program at about 100. The class size grew to 12 for the 1939-40 academic year and increased to 16 in the class of 1943.

The president considered himself fortunate to persuade Fortune magazine editor Archibald MacLeish to head the project. They agreed that since MacLeish would be responsible for the microfilm collection as well as guiding the fellows, he should carry the title of curator.

Reflecting on it later, MacLeish said he realized he was going to be given the title “because I was going to be the curator of the microfilm. Well, there was no microfilm, but the name stuck and it amused everybody ever since. It was a good name for that reason.”

Jerome Aumente, Nieman Class of 1968, interviewing MacLeish for Nieman Reports in the summer of 1989, described him as a “wonderful amalgam of writer and scholar, teacher of poetry and poet, magazine journalist and law teacher…Conant’s insight in recruiting him, assiduously wooing him really, turned out to be a brilliant survival stroke for the program. MacLeish had graduated from Yale and Harvard Law. He was comfortable in the worlds of journalism and the university.”

Soon after the school year began in 1938, Conant met with the class and is famously said to have told them, “Here is the university. Take it.” Not all the faculty shared the president’s enthusiasm; some were apprehensive about the idea of having reporters in their classrooms.

To help open doors at Harvard, MacLeish recruited respected members of the faculty as friends of the Nieman program, among them the historian, Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. and Felix Frankfurter, then at the Law School.

Traditions Take Hold »