Derek Curtis Bok (born 1930) served as dean of the Harvard Law School until he was named president of Harvard University in 1970. In this position he helped broaden the university's mission in its relationship to the larger community while retaining its tradition of intellectual and academic excellence.
Derek Curtis Bok was born March 22, 1930, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, to Curtis and Margaret Plummer Bok. He came from a prominent Pennsylvania family which includes great-grandfather Cyrus Curtis, founder of the Curtis Publishing Company; grandfather Edward Bok, the first editor of the Ladies Home Journal and author of the classic autobiography The Americanization of Edward Bok; and father Curtis, who was a novelwriting Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice. Bok attended Stanford University, where he received a B.A. degree in 1951 and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Following graduation he came close to selecting the Foreign Service as a career, but instead entered Harvard Law School, receiving an L.L.B. in 1954. During 1954-1955 he was a Fulbright Scholar in political science at the University of Paris, where he met and married Sissila Ann Myrdal, the daughter of Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal. She earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard. The Boks were the parents of three children.
Derek Bok served as a legal officer in the U.S. Army from 1956 until 1958, during which time he earned his masters degrees in economics (1956) and psychology (1958) at George Washington University. It was during his army stint that his career objectives emerged and he decided he wanted to teach.
Bok went to the Harvard law school in 1958 as an assistant professor specializing in antitrust and labor law. He was lured to Harvard by one of his professors, Kingman Brewster, who later became president of Yale. Bok became a full professor in 1961 and was named to succeed Erwin Griswald as dean of the Harvard law school in 1968. His leadership began at a time of great student unrest, and he wasted little time in initiating reforms to meet the changing needs of students and society. He affirmed the link between the law school and wider concerns of racial unrest, the Vietnam War, and a perceived confidence gap between students and institutions. Symposia on Vietnam issues, increased minority recruitment, emphasis on success of lower ranking students, and emphatic opposition to Nixon Supreme Court nominee Harold Carswell were a few of his activist initiations as dean. His style and deliberate manner were tested by both faculty and students in a series of confrontations and resulted in respect for his ability as a mediator and problem solver. Bok's reputation soon became one of firm decision-making and of unwavering keeping of commitments.
Nathan Pusey, for 18 years president of Harvard University, announced his retirement from that position effective June 1971. The seven-man Harvard Corporation initiated a long search that resulted in the naming of 40 year-old Derek Bok as Pusey's successor. Significant in this decision was the choosing of someone whose primary credentials lay in decision-making, compromise, and conflict management, and of the first non-Harvard alumnus to be named president. (Later the university would award him an honorary bachelor's degree.)
Within a year after Bok's coming to Harvard as president the Vietnam War was settled. The issue of race then became the predominate societal concern of Harvard in the 1970s. Bok inherited a campus with African-Americans numbering only 290 of the 1,500 students and with few African-Americans in significant professional positions. Bok quickly realized the difficulty in making minority undergraduates feel at home in a tradition-bound intellectual atmosphere.
Unrest over admission and hiring policies precipitated a presidential letter in 1981 which publicly committed Bok to developing a strong minority presence at Harvard. "Our minority students are welcome here as fully as any other group because they meet our intellectual standards (and) enrich our diverse community." Bok viewed affirmative action as a means of increasing a minority presence on campus but rejected the concept of a strict numerical quota. He filed an "amicas curiae" brief in the Bakke case on behalf of the University of California, Davis, regents. Arguing that although Harvard didn't reserve quotas for minority students, it did deny that a student had a right to admission based on academic merits alone. He further contended that racial problems would never be fully resolved until substantial numbers of African-Americans assumed positions of responsibility in major corporations, law firms, teaching hospitals, and agencies of government.
In the early 1980s the issue of divestiture of economic interests tied to South Africa surfaced at Harvard. Student demands at many major institutions led to the selling of such assets. Bok objected to such divestiture, saying he would need proof that such action would help overcome apartheid. For Harvard, divestment would have caused the diversion of millions of dollars and created a myriad of financial headaches. Bok strongly stated his opposition to the South African regime and pledged to chart a course best calculated to affect South African policy.
Bok stepped down as university president in 1991. His years as president of Harvard University were hallmarked by a broadening of the university's mission while holding fast to intellectual tradition and academic excellence. No longer was the undergraduate college student characterized as a prep school graduate and Harvard legacy. The leading intellectual center of the world was indelibly marked by his leadership.
Bok was a member of the American Bar Foundation, American Law Institute, and Phi Beta Kappa. His publications included several books and numerous journal and periodical articles. He and his family lived in a home near the campus where his leisure interests of gardening, tennis, and swimming provided diversion from his professional responsibilities.
Further Reading on Derek Curtis Bok
Bok was the subject of several articles in Time, Newsweek, Life, and other periodicals at the time of his selection as president of Harvard and in the late 1970s and early 1980s when issues of divestiture, deregulation, and racial quotas were at the forefront. The following books by Bok should provide additional insight: Beyond the Ivory Tower: Social Responsibilities of the Modern University (1982); Cases and Materials on Labor Law, 9th ed. (with Archibald Cox) (1983); and, Labor and the American Community (with John T. Dunlap) (1970).