South Hall Renamed for Bernard Harleston

The former professor and dean of arts and sciences led efforts to create more inclusion in higher education
 Bernard and Marie Harleston
“This public recognition for me caps what’s been a wonderful career for me at Tufts,” says Bernard Harleston, here with his wife, Marie. Photo: Alonso Nichols
May 2, 2016

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Tufts will rededicate one of its undergraduate residential halls this fall to honor a former professor and dean of the faculty of Arts and Sciences who was an early champion of access to higher education for students of color.

South Hall, completed in 1991, will be renamed in honor of Bernard W. Harleston, H98, a psychologist who was the first African American hired to a tenure-track position at Tufts and the first African American president of the City College of New York. He is a trustee emeritus of Tufts, having served on the board from 2002 to 2007.

“Bernie Harleston’s commitment to Tufts and his distinguished career as a scholar and academic leader have assured him a place of prominence within the Tufts community,” says President Anthony P. Monaco, who recommended to the Board of Trustees that the university honor Harleston in this way. “His life’s work has been committed to addressing issues of diversity, inclusion and access in higher education—values that define the fabric of Tufts University. We are deeply grateful that he dedicated 25 years of his academic career to Tufts, helping to strengthen this institution and shape it into the remarkable place it is today,” Monaco says.

“This public recognition for me caps what’s been a wonderful career for me at Tufts,” says Harleston, 86, who lives in nearby Lexington, Massachusetts, and continues to be involved in higher education. “I’m just thrilled and appreciative.”

Born in 1930, Harleston grew up in Harlem and in Hempstead, Long Island, where his father was a mechanic and his mother a church organist. He was “number six in a family of 10,” and seven of the Harleston children went to college. He graduated from Howard University summa cum laude in 1951 and earned a Ph.D. from the University of Rochester in 1955.

The president of Tufts in the mid-1950s, Nils Y. Wessell, had come from the University of Rochester, and Harleston’s wife, Marie Ann, whom he met at Howard, was from Cambridge, so he made the trip to Medford in 1956 to interview for a faculty position in the psychology department. At the time, there were no faculty of color in Arts and Sciences or in Engineering, he says, and the job interview included a meeting with the chair of Board of Trustees.

Bernard Harleston Hall will be dedicated on the Medford/Somerville campus this fall. Photo: Kelvin MaHe was hired as an assistant professor of psychology. He remembers setting up his lab in North Hall (it no longer exists): “In walked Nils Wessell,” Harleston recalls. “He said, ‘I want to introduce myself, and tell you how happy I am that you’ve joined us.’ He was extremely nice.”

Harleston was a popular teacher, and his primary scholarship was in motivation and creativity. He was awarded tenure and later was appointed the Moses Hunt Professor of Psychology. He says he became a better teacher after hosting the public television show Man and His Motives, which consisted of 14 lectures he taped at the WGBH-TV studios in the early 1960s. The show “really taught me how to teach; it taught me how to break down concepts that could be more easily understood.”

A Legacy of Inclusion

Harleston’s most influential work in higher education centered on opening doors for minority students. In 1964 the university established the Tufts Precollege Enrichment Program and recruited minority and economically less advantaged high school students to participate. 

“You could count on two hands at most the number of students of color” at the time, he says. “Obviously there was concern about that. The program was designed to strengthen their preparedness for college,” he says. “The overriding majority went on to college and many came to Tufts, and there are many alumni today who are very grateful for what we did.”

After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Harleston decided it was time to do something more for the African American community. He resigned from Tufts to become provost at Lincoln University in Oxford, Pennsylvania, America’s oldest historically black college. He served as acting president there during a tumultuous time in higher ed, when students were murdered at Jackson State and Kent State.

In 1970, Tufts invited him to return as dean of the faculty of Arts and Sciences, a position he held until 1981, when he was named the first black president of City College of New York, the first free public institution of higher education in the United States.

Over his 11-year administration there, the New York Times credited the “courtly and soft-spoken leader” with “bracing several sagging academic departments and expanding opportunities in engineering and science for minority students. . . . Under his leadership, the college . . . became the leading source of black and Hispanic engineers in the country.”

While at City College, he also served on several mayoral commissions appointed to examine such issues as special education, the black New Yorker, homelessness, at-risk youth, and science and technology.

After a year as a visiting scholar at Harvard, Harleston joined UMass-Boston in 1993 as one of the architects of the doctoral program in higher education administration.

“We could have filled the program with young folks from community colleges,” he says, “but we wanted instead a cohort from private, public, two-year and four-year institutions. To throw that pool together was exciting because they had such differences—put Roxbury Community College and Harvard together, and you really had something!

“We were also able to increase the number of people of color and the number of women in higher education administration,” Harleston says. “We were always looking for young people who could be change agents.” The Ph.D. program continues to thrive, he notes with quiet pride, “and even now some of its graduates are sitting [college] presidents.”

Currently, Harleston is a senior associate at the New England Resource Center for Higher Education, based at UMass-Boston. He is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including the Frederick Douglass Medallion, the highest award of the New York Urban League, and the Psychologist of the Year Award from the New York Society of Clinical Psychologists. Tufts awarded him an honorary doctorate in humane letters in 1998.

Bernard Harleston Hall will be dedicated on the Medford/Somerville campus this fall on a date to be announced.

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

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