From Harvard to Princeton And Back Again Once More

Neil Rudenstine: Harvard's Next President

Neil L. Rudenstine has been approached by presidential search committees before, and each time he has declined to become a candidate. But the top post at Harvard, apparently, is one offer he couldn't refuse.

Rudenstine, the 56-year-old executive vice president of the New York-based Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, was confirmed as Harvard's next president last week at a special meeting of the Board of Overseers.

Although Rudenstine has held his current post at the Mellon Foundation for the last three years, most of his career prior to 1987 was spent in university administration. The Mellon Foundation is one of the nation's largest philanthropic institutions.

Over the course of 20 years, Rudenstine, whose academic field is Renaissance literature, held almost every major administrative position at Princeton University. Most recently he served as the university's provost for 10 years, working closely with former Princeton President William G. Bowen.

"During the last 15 years that he was at Princeton, he was something very close to the alter ego of the president," said Thomas H. Wright, a vice president at the university.

"They were complimentary to each other," Wright said, "It was a truly remarkable leadership period for Princeton."

When Bowen left Princeton to become director of the Mellon Foundation in 1987, many viewed Rudenstine as Bowen's logical successor. Instead, however, he followed Bowen to the Foundation, where he has been in charge of higher education programs.

Bowen and Rudenstine have co-authored a book on graduate education which they say they hope to publish soon.

Carl Wartenburg, an assistant to Bowen and to the current president, Harold T. Shapiro, said members of the Princeton community were disappointed that Rudenstine was not interested in filling Bowen's position.

"Had he chosen to be a candidate for president, he would have been a very popular choice," said Wartenburg, who assembled the on-campus presidential selection committee.

Wartenburg said Rudenstine has been sought after by a number of other universities as a possible presidential candidate, but he has always chosen to abstain.

"He's an extraordinary person, with a great deal of administrative acumen," said Wartenburg. "It would have to be a place as extraordinary as Harvard [for him to take a position as president]."

The Humanist

As the sole humanist among the reported presidential finalists, Rudenstine was a popular choice among members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, particularly those in fields close to his own interests.

While the social sciences have thrived under Bok, who has placed development of the Kennedy School of Government among his top priorities, many professors said they believed departments in the humanities had begun to decline for want of adequate attention and funding.


Rudenstine's family background is unusual for a Harvard president, most of whom have been of Northern European, Protestant origin. His father, who was Jewish, emigrated from Russia, and his mother is an Italian-American Roman Catholic.

Rudenstine attended the Wooster School, in Danbury, Conn., on full scholarship. He then attended Princeton College, graduating summa cum laude in 1956.

Rudenstine is the second Harvard president in the last few centuries not to hold an undergraduate degree from the College, once considered an unofficial prerequisite for the post.

As a Rhodes scholar, he spent one year reading history at Oxford University and then switched to English, eventually receiving first class honors in his field.

In 1964, he earned a Ph.D at Harvard. He then remained in the English Department for four years as an assistant professor and then an associate professor.

Lowell Professor of the Humanities William Alfred remembers Rudenstine as a skilled literary critic, commenting, "He had a wonderful, subtle sense of what makes a book really a book."

Colleagues also recall that Rudenstine distinguished himself at Harvard for his ability to negotiate with student protesters. They suggest that this was one reason why in 1968 the junior professor was offered a post as a professor and administrator at Princeton. After four years as a professor of English and dean of students, he became dean of the college in 1972.

Rudenstine continued to teach occasional English courses during his time as an administrator at Princeton. Since going to the Mellon Foundation, he has continued to lead a popular Shakespeare seminar for first-year Princeton students. He says that he plans to teach a freshman seminar at Harvard next spring.

Rudenstine's colleagues speak highly of his scholarship and teaching. "He's accessible and friendly, and has an obvious command of the material," said A. Walter Litz, a professor of English at Princeton.

Elaine Showalter, chair of Princeton's English department, said, "He's intellectually elegant, enormously courteous and has a tremendous analytical sense."

They also praise his skill at administration. While provost, Rudenstine was in charge of academic development and budget recommendations, as well as long-range financial planning.

"He is simply the most able academic administrator I have ever known or expect to know," said Rudenstine, even if they weren't all that concerned about who was given the post.

"He sounds better than Leder and Feldstein," said Cintra W. Scott '93. "I was happy to get someone in the humanities and I like that he's not the traditional WASP.