The success of Standard Oil produced many fortunes and several great philanthropists—including Stephen Harkness. One of the company’s first investors, he ultimately put much of his wealth toward charitable causes. His wife and their only son, Edward, continued and extended his habit of giving. (See, for instance, the 1918 entry on the influence of Harkness family money on child psychology.)
Edward Harkness was of the opinion that American undergraduates could benefit from greater collegiality, and some his most consequential personal philanthropy went to building residential colleges where students could live, study, and socialize on a more intimate scale than university-wide activities allowed. As a Yale alumnus he first approached his alma mater with the idea, but the school would not accept the gift because of uncertainty as to how it would be managed. Undeterred, Harkness shifted his offer to Harvard, where he found a sympathetic ear. His $13 million donation was used to construct an undergraduate “house” system, modeled on the example of the decentralized college system employed by Oxford and Cambridge. A few years later Harkness went back to Yale, which this time accepted the money and with it built a much-loved residential system of its own. Today, many other universities have copied these smaller-scale residential structures, believing as Edward Harkness did that close relationships are an invaluable part of a college education.
- 1908 description of the origins of college system, collegiateway.org/reading/seymour-1933
- Edward Harkness profile in the Philanthropy Hall of Fame, philanthropyroundtable.org/almanac/hall_of_fame/edward_harkness