A Man of Firsts

Former professor and dean Bernard Harleston talks about his upbringing, what brought him to Tufts, and things he learned here
Bernard Harleston
“I got great strength from the students. They wanted me to succeed,” says Bernard Harleston. “It obviously brought the best out of me.” Photo: Alonso Nichols
September 19, 2016

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Tufts will honor a pioneer in higher education and a former dean of the faculty of Arts and Sciences later this week when the South Hall dormitory on the Medford/Somerville campus is renamed for Bernard Harleston. (Read about the dedication of Harleston Hall, and see a slideshow from the event.)

Harleston, 86, was also a professor of psychology at Tufts, beginning in the mid-1950s, for more than 25 years. He broke through many barriers during his distinguished career, and is perhaps best known for expanding access to higher education for minority and economically disadvantaged students.

He was the first graduate student of color at the University of Rochester, the first African-American tenure-track faculty member hired at Tufts, and the first African-American president of the City College of New York. Today he is a senior associate at the New England Resource Center for Higher Education, based at UMass-Boston, where he continues to be a voice for invigorating teaching and learning and widening opportunities for minorities. Tufts awarded him an honorary degree in 1998.

He talked with Tufts Now recently about his own career and turning points in Tufts’ history.

Tufts Now: You were born in New York City, but soon after your family moved to Hempstead, Long Island. What was your home life like?

Marvelous. We didn’t know that we were poor. There was a real joy. There were 10 of us kids. My father was a mechanic, and my mother was an organist—they both came up to New York from South Carolina. But at the core of it, remarkably, there was no question that education was going to be a big part of what happened in our lives. And in that process, seven out of the 10 of us went to college.

When it was time for homework, my mother would have us sit at this big table and she’d go around and check everybody’s work. That’s how it was done. We were fortunate.

You went to Howard University as an undergraduate. How did you pay for it?

In my senior year, I was awarded a scholarship that covered all of tuition, but before that, I had paid my way with money I had saved. I worked in the center of Hempstead in a fruit and vegetable store called Smilen Brothers. I guess I was good at it. I literally had customers waiting to be served by Bernie. After I got to Howard, every summer, I was not home a day, but there I was, back at Smilen Brothers. 

Why did you choose to study psychology?

At first I thought I was going to be a medical doctor. But my second year, I took a psychology course and I said, You know, I really am interested in psychology. So the third quarter, I had decided I wouldn’t be pre-med after all. When I didn’t sign up for organic chemistry, the professor came to the dormitory to ask me, “Why did you not sign up for Organic II? It seems to come easy to you.” I said, Well, I decided to be a psychology major. He said, “What?” Then I had to tell my parents. My father’s big concern was, “Can you make money as a psychologist?” I said, Well, I don’t know, but I don’t want to think about that right now.

What intrigued you about the field?

In part it was a faculty member who made the material come alive—Dr. James Bayton. He was an important mentor and dynamic teacher. He was also very helpful when I started looking at graduate schools. His own faculty mentor was the chair of the department at the University of Rochester. This professor, Dr. [G. Richard] Wendt, wanted to interview me at the Hay Adams Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Well, people of color could not get into the Hay Adams Hotel then. I went to Dr. Bayton and I said, Here’s the problem. Dr. Wendt wants to interview me, but he’s picked the Hay Adams, because that’s where he’s going to be staying. But I can’t be served there. I ended up being interviewed at the counter in Union Station in Washington, D.C.—in the train station.

Did discrimination ever hold you back?

It was very clear from my parents that we could do anything we put our minds to. We got enormous support from within the family. For me, the work at Smilen Brothers was also remarkable, because it exposed me to the wider world. That’s not to say that we were not aware of discrimination. We were mindful of it, and yet forces driving us to something constructive were stronger.

As a graduate student, what was your focus?

I was particularly interested in motivation and learning, including what effect anxiety has on performance. I could see certain students getting so anxious that I just knew they were not going to perform well. It was very clear in my research on test anxiety that they didn’t do well because they were preoccupied—their anxiety interfered.

The question was, how can you get students to stop being anxious? I also thought about this question as a teacher—again, with modesty, I think I developed some techniques. I tried to make every student feel comfortable. Nobody was going to be laughed at for “a stupid question.” If you raised your hand, I was going to respond. I also tried to say things more than one way, and I would often stop and say, Any questions so far?

After you earned your Ph.D., you got an invitation to come to Tufts for a job interview. How would you describe Tufts in 1956?

It was a small university of high quality—that was [former president] Nils Wessell’s famous comment, his mantra. So I was thrilled to get the interview. Leonard Mead was chair of the department of psychology—he was later acting president from 1966 to 1967—and there were 20 people he was interviewing. I was invited to come down, and I knew I would be the first African-American faculty member at Tufts if I got the job.

I was also interviewed by the chair of the board of trustees, a man named Arthur Anderson. We had lunch, and it was tricky, but finally he said, “I don’t like this sandwich.” And I said, You know, I don’t like mine, either. He stopped eating his tuna fish salad sandwich, and I stopped eating mine. He may not have liked it. He may have felt that that would relax me. I’ve always loved this story because it really happened.

But this tuna sandwich remark might have been a way of saying, look, let’s just have a job interview.

Exactly. It became a wonderful metaphor.

What was the climate like at Tufts then?

The psychology department was totally receptive and welcoming, and I got great strength from the students. They wanted me to succeed. I sensed it, and it was not patronizing. It obviously brought the best out of me. And they responded. It was just really supportive. I think it tapped a concern of some faculty that Tufts should be doing more, and I probably became the catalyst for making real changes in faculty hiring and in admissions.

In 1964 President Wessell asked you to chair the faculty Committee on Negro Education. What were your hopes for that committee?

Wessell recognized that Tufts ought to be doing more—it needed a more aggressive strategy to address the lack of diversity. There were very few kids of color on campus, and the faculty situation wasn’t much better. Wessell was a progressive thinker. I remember he went out of his way to meet me when I arrived at Tufts. I was working on building a teaching lab in North Hall, and he walked by to say hello—I was impressed!

It was very much in the Wessell spirit that we convened this committee, and also, from an even larger perspective, that he wanted us to find a way to strengthen the background of students who were not encouraged to think about college or didn’t have the resources and support—financial and otherwise—to even try to apply to college.

One of the outcomes of this committee was the Tufts Precollege Enrichment Program, which recruited minority and economically less-advantaged high school students. 

Getting kids ready for college was our aim. And we wanted it to have the context of a diverse group, so the first year we had African-American students from Mississippi and black and white students from Massachusetts who lived and studied together. It was very successful—and one thing that thrilled me was that a number of students did apply to Tufts. One was Charlie Yancey, Class of 1970, who went on to be elected to the Boston City Council.

Assess the progress that American higher ed has made on expanding access.

There is no question that access has been expanded, and that is wonderful. It will have to continue as a conscious effort, because of economic factors. So it’s going to have to be a continuing priority to help students afford college.

I would say that we also need to do a better job of explaining the cost of higher education to the public and what really goes into educating a young person. It’s more than teachers and books. But no question, access is expanding, and when students see that expansion, their motivation to go beyond high school increases.

You left Tufts in 1968 to become provost at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, and then returned in 1970 as dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Why did that particular administrative role bring you back?

It was a chance to really exert influence on the direction that I felt Tufts ought to be going. I felt that the range of options for our students was not as wide as the students wanted. For example, the international relations program was developed during my deanship. We also developed the combined bachelor’s-master’s program with Fletcher and began the community health program. These represented areas that broadened the range of options for students. They were intellectually challenging and, in general, they forced students and faculty to think across disciplines. Those were two things I wanted. I wanted to really get this interdisciplinary bit going. And it worked—that was really exciting.

It’s not always easy to pull off changes like that in academia.

No, but when I came back as dean of the faculty, I remember a psychology faculty member came in and said, “Bernie, you have no idea how happy some people are that you’re here. And they’re happy because they know you’re not narrow—you’re not just psychology.” The kids deserved choices. Education is the opposite of just going down a narrow path.

Was there a difference in the student body?

When I returned, yes, you could sense the edginess. There was no question that the students were much more aggressive about their interface with the administration. I had my challenges. They loved me, but I had my challenges. Again, they knew that like it or not, I was going to be as open as I possibly could. Sometimes they asked me to speak in the dormitories.

What did you talk to them about?

Whatever they wanted me to talk about. Once I remember they wanted me to talk about James Baldwin. Another time I was invited to the dormitory, and when I got there, I realized it was more like, not quite a coup, but they really wanted to talk about financial aid! So they got me there under somewhat false pretenses. That’s all right.

And now Tufts is naming a dorm after you. What does that mean to you?

It’s where I’d want to be, in the sense that I certainly invested a lot of energy and commitment to the undergraduate experience. I hope that by its name, it will adhere to the highest standards of intellectual experience for the students. That’s what it would mean to me.

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.

Harleston Hall will be dedicated on Friday, Sept. 23, during an event that will take place from 12:30 to 2 p.m. at the dormitory, located at 30 Lower Campus Road on Tufts’ Medford/Somerville campus.