Neil Rudenstine

The practical poet

It is strange fate that Harvard engineering should at last find its champion in a poet, the university’s 26th president Neil Rudenstine.

Before Rudenstine’s tenure (1991–2001), Harvard presidents were indifferent at best to engineering and the applied sciences. Rudenstine saw things differently. For Harvard to provide a world-class education to future generations of students, it needed to embrace science and technology with open arms.

Rudenstine grew up in Danbury, Connecticut. His father, an avid reader whose formal education ended in the 8th grade, worked as a prison guard.

Scholarships launched Neil Rudenstine into higher education. The financial support allowed him to attend his hometown’s prestigious prep school, the Wooster School, then Princeton, and Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, where he studied with the likes of poet W.H. Auden. He earned his doctorate in English literature from Harvard in 1964, with an emphasis on Renaissance literature.

As a Princeton undergrad, his roommates were engineers, and he never forgot the vital intellectual exchange he shared with them. Rudenstine would sit atop his desk and describe the poetry of Keats and then listen as the budding engineers described their problem sets and methods.

As president of Harvard, with quiet, steady persistence, Rudenstine made a point to support what was then the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences from the time he took office in Massachusetts Hall. His presidency marked a turning point for what would become Harvard SEAS.