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Events Will Be Set Amid Reminders of Its Rich History : Harvard Throwing Party for Its 350th Birthday

September 03, 1986|JOHN J. GOLDMAN | Times Staff Writer

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The 600-foot helium-filled polyurethane rainbow is ready. So are the fireworks depicting a giant hand signing graduate John Hancock's name. Security forces have been assembled for the visit of England's Prince Charles and other dignitaries. Fresh sod has been planted in Harvard Yard, and steps climbed by generations of students have been repaired. A big white speakers' tent has been erected in front of Memorial Church.

After months of careful planning, Harvard's party preparations are in place.

The university's 350th birthday party, beginning today, will be far more than students and faculty gathered around a table blowing out crimson candles. There will be three convocations, 100 or so smaller symposiums, a gala stadium finale, songs by Yale's Russian Chorus, music by the Boston Pops, prayer services, the issuance of a postage stamp and the narration of the university's history by Walter Cronkite--not to mention that plastic rainbow spanning the Charles River.

A Sheik and a King

The guest list is a who's who of power and prestige. Joining Prince Charles will be the Aga Khan, Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani of Saudi Arabia, the king of Nepal, three U.S. Supreme Court justices, Secretary of State George P. Shultz, Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger, leaders of business and the arts and 8,000 alumni. President Reagan, who was invited to speak, declined, but only after the university announced that it would not issue honorary degrees.

Harvard's birthday will be a celebration of the university's secure place in the pantheon of higher education. (Its faculty has 29 Nobel laureates and has won 27 Pulitzer Prizes.) But the birthday of the nation's oldest university is also a celebration of higher education itself and of the role of a very complex university in a very complex time.

"I think it provides an opportunity to suggest to a larger audience something about what a modern university is--and why what it does really matters," said Harvard President Derek C. Bok in an interview. "It provides an opportunity for many of us to think about where we've come and where we might be going in the next few years."

Book by Bok

As part of the anniversary, Bok has written a book discussing the problems and opportunities faced by universities and their presidents. In "Higher Learning" he sketches the present scope of Harvard, an institution founded with a single master and a dozen students 16 years after the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth:

"Within the past few years, colleagues of mine at Harvard have helped to write a tax code for Indonesia, created a new program for educating medical students, conducted seminars for recently elected members of Congress, won a Nobel prize for research conducted in Geneva, taught physics to high school students in the surrounding community, briefed several heads of state on domestic and international issues, designed major construction projects in Jerusalem, written hundreds of books, given thousands of lectures and taught tens of thousands of students."

Some of this diversity will be on display at birthday symposiums featuring Harvard professors. Topics range from "The Universe: The Beginning, Now and Henceforth" to "The Role and Social Value of the Large Law Firm."

The symposiums, stretching over three days, surround three major convocations--centerpieces of the celebration. Prince Charles, who will deliver the main address at the opening convocation on Thursday, is a graduate of Cambridge University, where Harvard's founder, John Harvard, was educated.

Shultz to Speak

On Friday, Secretary of State Shultz will be the main speaker at a convocation with the theme "The University in a Changing World."

The third convocation, on Saturday, will consist of a meeting of the Harvard Alumni Assn. with Bok as speaker.

Harvard's party will begin this evening with a light and laser show along the banks of the Charles River, which will be spanned by the 600-foot helium-filled arch. It will close Saturday night with pageantry and fireworks in Harvard's football stadium, a show directed by Tommy Walker, who produced the fireworks for the Statue of Liberty weekend.

For some faculty members, the fireworks and the plastic rainbow have come to symbolize a frothy celebration that is out of character with Harvard's underlying seriousness. But the anniversary was planned by a committee of faculty members and administrators, some of whom felt a touch of show business would liven an otherwise too cerebral occasion.

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