The official seal of the
. Found on Harvard diplomas, it carries the university's original motto, Christo et Ecclesiae
("For Christ and Church")
, later changed to Veritas
Harvard was established in 1636 by vote of the Great and General Court of the
Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1638, it obtained British North America's first known printing press.
 In 1639 it was named
Harvard College after deceased clergyman
John Harvard an alumnus of the
University of Cambridge who had left the school
£779 and his scholar's library of some 400 volumes.
 The charter creating the
Harvard Corporation was granted in 1650.
A 1643 publication gave the school's purpose as "to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity, dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches when our present ministers shall lie in the dust";
 in its early years trained many Puritan ministers.
 It offered a classic curriculum on the English university model—many leaders in the colony had attended the
University of Cambridge—but conformed to the tenets of
Puritanism. It was never affiliated with any particular denomination, but many of its earliest graduates went on to become clergymen in Congregational and Unitarian churches.
The leading Boston divine
Increase Mather served as president from 1685 to 1701. In 1708,
John Leverett became the first president who was not also a clergyman, marking a turning of the college from Puritanism and toward intellectual independence.
Throughout the 18th century,
Enlightenment ideas of the power of reason and free will became widespread among
Congregational ministers, putting those ministers and their congregations in tension with more traditionalist,
:1–4 When the
Hollis Professor of Divinity David Tappan died in 1803 and the president of Harvard Joseph Willard died a year later, in 1804, a struggle broke out over their replacements.
Henry Ware was elected to the chair in 1805, and the liberal
Samuel Webber was appointed to the presidency of Harvard two years later, which signaled the changing of the tide from the dominance of traditional ideas at Harvard to the dominance of liberal,
Arminian ideas (defined by traditionalists as
In 1846, the natural history lectures of
Louis Agassiz were acclaimed both in New York and on the campus at Harvard College. Agassiz's approach was distinctly idealist and posited Americans' "participation in the Divine Nature" and the possibility of understanding "intellectual existences". Agassiz's perspective on science combined observation with intuition and the assumption that a person can grasp the "divine plan" in all phenomena. When it came to explaining life-forms, Agassiz resorted to matters of shape based on a presumed archetype for his evidence. This dual view of knowledge was in concert with the teachings of
Common Sense Realism derived from Scottish philosophers
Thomas Reid and
Dugald Stewart, whose works were part of the Harvard curriculum at the time. The popularity of Agassiz's efforts to "soar with Plato" probably also derived from other writings to which Harvard students were exposed, including Platonic treatises by
John Norris and, in a Romantic vein,
Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The library records at Harvard reveal that the writings of Plato and his early modern and Romantic followers were almost as regularly read during the 19th century as those of the "official philosophy" of the more empirical and more deistic Scottish school.
Charles W. Eliot, president 1869–1909, eliminated the favored position of Christianity from the curriculum while opening it to student self-direction. While Eliot was the most crucial figure in the secularization of American higher education, he was motivated not by a desire to secularize education, but by
Unitarian convictions. Derived from
William Ellery Channing and
Ralph Waldo Emerson, these convictions were focused on the dignity and worth of human nature, the right and ability of each person to perceive truth, and the indwelling God in each person.
Richard Rummell's 1906 watercolor landscape view, facing northeast.
During the 20th century, Harvard's international reputation grew as a burgeoning endowment and prominent professors expanded the university's scope. Rapid enrollment growth continued as new graduate schools were begun and the undergraduate College expanded.
Radcliffe College, established in 1879 as sister school of Harvard College, became one of the most prominent schools for women in the United States. Harvard became a founding member of the
Association of American Universities in 1900.
In the early 20th century, the student body was predominately "old-stock, high-status Protestants, especially Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians"—a group later called "WASPs" (
White Anglo-Saxon Protestants). In 1923 a proposal by president
A. Lawrence Lowell that Jews be limited to 15% of undergraduates was rejected, but Lowell did ban blacks from living in Harvard Yard; Lowell believed that "forcing" blacks and whites to live together "would increase a prejudice that ... is most unfortunate and probably growing." But by the 1970s, Harvard was much more diversified.
James Bryant Conant (president, 1933–1953) reinvigorated creative scholarship to guarantee its preeminence among research institutions. He saw higher education as a vehicle of opportunity for the talented rather than an entitlement for the wealthy, so Conant devised programs to identify, recruit, and support talented youth. In 1943, he asked the faculty make a definitive statement about what general education ought to be, at the secondary as well as the college level. The resulting Report, published in 1945, was one of the most influential manifestos in the history of American education in the 20th century.
In 1945–1960 admissions policies were opened up to bring in students from a more diverse applicant pool. No longer drawing mostly from rich alumni of select New England
prep schools, the undergraduate college was now open to striving middle class students from public schools; many more Jews and Catholics were admitted, but few blacks, Hispanics or Asians.
Harvard graduate schools began admitting women in small numbers in the late 19th century, and during World War II, students at
Radcliffe College (which since 1879 had been paying Harvard professors to repeat their lectures for women students) began attending Harvard classes alongside men,
 The first class of women was admitted to
Harvard Medical School in 1945.
 Since the 1970s Harvard has been responsible for essentially all aspects of admission, instruction, and undergraduate life for women, and Radcliffe was formally merged into Harvard in 1999.
Drew Gilpin Faust, previously the dean of the
Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, became Harvard's in 2007.
 In February 2018,
Lawrence Seldon Bacow was designated to take office as its 29th president on July 1, 2018.