When President Thomas C. Hudnut arrived at the Coldwater Canyon campus to take up the post of headmaster in 1987, the all-boys Harvard School was known almost exclusively for its academic reputation as an “AP factory” that churned out admittances to top colleges.
“But its performing arts were dismal, visual arts were under-appreciated and its athletics program was anemic,” Hudnut said.
His predecessor, Christopher Berrisford, had transformed Harvard School from a boarding school that had been founded in 1900 with a strong military tradition into a day school enrolling nearly 800 boys. When Harvard’s Board of Trustees reached out to Hudnut, he jumped at the opportunity to succeed Berrisford at a school that had always been on his “dream list.”
Yet, the well-reputed school was not a particularly happy one in the years leading up to his tenure and Hudnut, who arrived with a decade of experience heading schools, faced the immediate challenge of stemming a recent “series of defections” as boys dropped out to attend other schools.
“The trustees made it clear to me that they wanted me to do something about the morale of school and make it a happier place than that it had been,” Hudnut said.
Hudnut set out to improve the arts and athletics programs in order to make attending Harvard an enjoyable experience in itself and not simply a means to an end. But it was not until the merger with Westlake School for Girls and the resources of a larger school that Hudnut could conceive of a more ambitious educational vision—to create an institution which he describes today as having both “the academic program of a small private academy and the extracurricular opportunities of a public school.”
Hudnut also credits the merger, in retrospect, for keeping him on the same campus for 26 years, speculating that he would have moved on when either his older son graduated after eight years or younger son did so in 12 years.
“The two campus, co-educational setup and the big opportunities that have been presented with it have made it endlessly interesting,” Hudnut said. “Such would not have been the case if it had been Harvard School.”
As Hudnut was about to leave for a month in France with his family during the summer of 1989, he received word that Westlake’s Board of
Trustees had approached Harvard’s board and proposed merging the two single-sex institutions that had long acted informally as sister schools.
Though Hudnut, a veteran of single-sex boarding schools, “literally couldn’t imagine” attending a coed school, he had become a believer in co-education for providing a “a healthier learning environment” and for promoting gender equality.
A group of Westlake parents were not as easily convinced, fighting the merger with a lawsuit that ultimately failed but did not quench all doubts.
To reassure those who were still “irrationally afraid that girls would take a backseat in the merger,” Hudnut set forth on a deliberate program of modeling gender equality with one boy and one girl leading the student body as well as one boy and one girl serving as editor-in-chiefs of the new newspaper, the Chronicle.
Tremendous efforts were made to make the old Harvard campus less of a “men’s club” from changing the cafeteria food to adding women’s restrooms. Though Hudnut said most issues “never rose to my level” in a generally smooth transition, he does acknowledge difficulties, especially for the girls in the class of 1992 who were shipped to the Harvard campus for their senior year.
“I have to say that a number of the girls in that class of ’92 of made the merger work,” Hudnut said. “I’m very, very, very grateful to them 21 years later for all of they did.”
Shortly after the start of co-education, Hudnut sat in his former office as headmaster on the second floor of Chalmers and made a “conscious decision” with Chair of the Board of Trustees Cynthia Baise to model Harvard-Westlake on Stanford.
“It would be difficult to find a place, a university, that values high performance in athletics and the arts as highly as [Stanford] does the academic quality of its intellectual life,” Hudnut said.
The merged school was small enough to provide enough individual attention to each student but large enough to have students to succeed across a broad range of activities, Hudnut said.
Although he can list the names of schools in California with strong programs in either athletics or academics or arts, Hudnut proudly knows of “no school that is stronger in all three aspects that I consider school to be about.”
The year 1997 was a turning point for Wolverine athletics. Framed on the wall next to Hudnut’s desk, a red USA Today sports page nationally ranks the Wolverines’ basketball team with future NBA stars Jason ’97 and Jarron Collins ’97.
Around the same time, soccer and volleyball teams brought home championships for the first time, moving the school into a new era of athletic prominence.
“This was a place in the sports pages everyday,” he said.
Never much of an athlete himself, Hudnut saw how fans got caught up in the excitement of winning teams and the free publicity the teams brought.
In particular, he calls the growth of girls’ sports “one of the most gratifying things in the past 25 years,” but the goal with sports, Hudnut said, has been nothing short of “to be seriously good in everything.”
The merger of the two faculties provided an immediate boost to the visual arts, allowing for a larger program that reached across more disciplines.
“Whatever happened—that was the perfect merger,” said visual arts teacher John Luebtow, who started Harvard’s visual arts program in 1971.
Without any hesitation, Hudnut said the performing arts needed the most attention after the merger.
“How much of a orchestra can you have from six kids?” Hudnut said, referring to Westlake’s orchestra.
Hudnut said that Performing Arts Department Head Ted Walch’s arrival in 1991 was “the key to the overall success of the performing arts.”
“Performers and athletes have in common both what they’re getting from their pursuit and what they’re giving to the people who are watching and listening,” he said.
A professionally trained opera singer, Hudnut doesn’t need to see any recent awards to know how far the choirs have come.
“I know how good our singers are,” he said.
Building to Excellence
A December 1995 Los Angeles Times story “A Science Teacher’s Dream in Studio City” detailed the new Munger Science Center, the first new building at the merged school.
“Our approach to science […] necessitates first-class facilities,” Hudnut told the Times, justifying the $13 million cost of the building equaling to LAUSD’s science budget.
This all-out attitude to building projects has been guided by Hudnut’s inclusion of teachers in the design process, Building Committee Chair John Feulner said.
Just as Hudnut believes the opening of Feldman-Horn Gallery increased student interest in Visual Arts and expects the “school’s fortunes in swimming rise in pace” with the Copses Family Pool.
Changes at the Top
By 2006, Hudnut had served for 19 years as both the school’s public face and the man in charge of all of the school’s day-to-day needs for the students and faculty.
“It was just too much,” Hudnut said. “I don’t think I was paying adequate attention to any of the jobs’ components let alone all of them.”
The Board of Trustees approved splitting Hudnut’s position as headmaster into two. Jeanne Huybrechts as the first Head of School would run the school’s daily operations while Hudnut, as President, would manage the school’s external affairs, dealing with alumni and fundraising.
Hudnut moved from his Seaver office, once open to anyone dropping in, to the house he works in today.
“I have lost the kind of easy contact that I always enjoyed with faculty and students,” he concedes, though he teaches a Choices and Challenges class and his “Hudnut-isms” are constant presence on posters around campus. Recently, students dressed as Hudnut to celebrate his birthday.
“Fortunately, I continue to get to know some students, but not with the degree of intimacy that I enjoyed for so many years,” he said.
Aid and Diversity
Hudnut describes the ideal Harvard-Westlake student as both “adventuresome by nature” and also, “resilient.”
“There are going to be bad grades, parts in plays that you don’t get and teams that you don’t make,” he said. “You need someone who can deal with the negatives that crop up during adolescence and rise above.”
The school now is significantly more diverse than the one Hudnut arrived at partly due to an increased commitment to financial aid in the last decade. Currently, around 20 percent of students receive some form of aid. The consequently “constantly increasing and improving” applicant pool has made it more difficult to get into the school.
Hudnut said it was “tremendously important” to continue making the school “as affordable for as many possible and has spent his last year raising money for the new Thomas C. Hudnut Scholar Endowed Fund that will allow six students every year to attend the place he helped build.
The Kutler Center, the latest addition to campus, has “added cubits to intellectual life,” Hudnut said.
But he’s not as sure about the future of online education.
“Teaching machines can’t replace teaching humans,” he says, shaking his head at the idea that self-taught courses are the future.
Even as his time here comes to a close, he remains focused on the school’s future, starting off sentences with “We need… We need… We need…”
“Everything is ending well,” he concludes. “There of course have been a few blips along the away—a major unhappiness with a student death.”
Under his left sleeve, he wears an orange “Strikeout Leukemia” bracelet to honor the life of Chris Robinson ’13.
“Even with last year, a good one and even when there are blips, I hope that I have been helpful to those involved,” he added.
Last Friday, he laid out items from his office for any faculty to pick up.
Someone suggested leaving his Santa hat, which he wore for years dressing up as Santa, for his successor, Rick Commons.
Emphasizing the “personal relationship between administrators, teachers, students and their families,” Hudnut left a few words for the next President of Harvard-Westlake.
“The leader of this school has to be invested personally in the people who work in the school and the people who attend the school,” Hudnut said. “And this has to be an almost palpable sense of involvement and affection and respect.”