News & Ideas

Investing in Knowledge and Community

A man and a woman smile in front of the Schlesinger Library's elaborate iron-wrought staircase.
Bruce MacLennan and Wan Li, his wife, have long championed the mission of the Schlesinger Library. Photo by Kevin Grady/Harvard Radcliffe Institute

Seeking impact, Bruce MacLennan set his sights on Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library.

Bruce MacLennan ’90 grew up in Truro, a small town in Nova Scotia, where the local library played a major role in his and his family’s life and in their Maritimes community. “I grew up with a belief in libraries as important institutions, both as repositories of knowledge and as resources for the community,” he says, citing his parents and grandfather as influences.

He eventually became the first student from his high school to apply to college in the United States and went on to attend Harvard. Many years later, he is a dedicated supporter of Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library.

MacLennan first encountered the Schlesinger as an undergraduate history concentrator. Outside the classroom, he was a lightweight rower, walking on to the freshman team as a novice and continuing for four years. Rich in camaraderie and challenge, rowing would prove to be a cornerstone of his undergraduate experience. “It was just amazing to have the opportunity to compete in intercollegiate athletics at that level, and in a program with such a long tradition and culture of excellence,” he recalls.

It was proximity—three years living in North House (now Pforzheimer House) and a part-time job in Harvard’s admissions office, then located in Byerly Hall—that established Bruce’s connection to Radcliffe. Living in the Quad and having a roommate whose mother was a Radcliffe alumna gave him, says MacLennan, “more awareness of Radcliffe and Radcliffe’s history.” His job at Byerly furthered the association. “A couple of times a week, I would actually step into Radcliffe Yard,” he says.

MacLennan soon learned of the Schlesinger, the leading center for scholarship on the history of women in the United States: “I didn’t know much, but I did appreciate that the Schlesinger was unique and important.”

“I grew up with a belief in libraries as important institutions, both as repositories of knowledge and as resources for the community.”

MacLennan started giving back to Harvard immediately following graduation, as an alumni interviewer and supporter of the Harvard College Fund, along with an annual donation of $50 to Radcliffe, designated for library use. “My thought back in the day was, well, academic books are pretty expensive, but with $50 Radcliffe can buy a book for the Schlesinger,” he says. “I really liked the idea that there could be a book, then two, and over time more books that were available to students and scholars within this important collection because of my small but consistent support.”

“I also decided very early on that if at some point in the future I had the time and the means, I would support Radcliffe and the Schlesinger in a more significant way,” says MacLennan. Having heard of Harvard’s every tub on its own bottom approach to financial management and fundraising, “I suspected that compared to some other schools around the University, Radcliffe’s ‘tub’ was not as deep, and I thought my support could be more impactful in that shallower tub,” he says of his donor philosophy.

Longtime supporters of undergraduate financial aid, MacLennan and his wife, Wan Li, found that his 30th reunion in 2020 was the right time to increase their support for Radcliffe, establishing the Li MacLennan Family Fund for the Schlesinger Library. “We saw the opportunity to expand our engagement at Harvard in a way that, we hope, makes a positive impact at Radcliffe,” MacLennan says. He has since joined the Schlesinger Library Council, a group of the Library’s closest friends and advisors.

MacLennan in Radcliffe Yard. Photo by Kevin Grady/Harvard Radcliffe Institute

MacLennan has found the council’s vantage point fascinating, providing much more insight into the Schlesinger’s strategy and range of collections. The result is “a much better understanding of how an academic library works—in particular, a specialized collection within a major university,” he says.

Citing “friends, roommates, and rowing” among the most meaningful and lasting elements from his college experience, MacLennan says that Radcliffe and the Schlesinger have become a key part of his ongoing involvement with Harvard.

“Bruce saw at a young age that he could make a strong, positive impact at Harvard and in our wider society by supporting the Schlesinger, whose archives hold stories told nowhere else,” says Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of the Radcliffe Institute, the Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School, and a professor of history in the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “Since then, he has grown into a trusted advisor to the Library. I am so grateful for his philanthropy and partnership.”

Clea Simon ’83 is a novelist whose most recent title is Bad Boy Beat (Severn House, 2024).

Return to the spring 2024 Radcliffe Magazine home page.

News & Ideas