A Very Long, Very Secretive Search

It was drizzling lightly when he arrived in Cambridge on the 24th of March, but Neil L. Rudenstine was in high spirits when he was introduced to the world that day as Harvard University's next president.

"Thank you very much. I'm glad to be here," were Rudenstine's first words at the hour-long press conference that night, a memorable event that was the culmination of the largest search process in the history of the University.

Over the course of ten months, the presidential search committee sent more than a quarter million letters to students, faculty and alumni soliciting their advice. About 35,000 of them were personalized.

The committee also met with six faculty groups and nine student groups and conducted more than 350 in-depth interviews with faculty, senior administrators, alumni, presidents and faculty at other universities, foundation executives and even the chair of another school's presidential search committee.

University officials say the massive "outreach" easily topped the search that yielded the appointment of outgoing President Derek C. Bok.

Secretary to the Governing Boards Robert Shenton, who administered both searches, says that five individuals, in addition to himself and University attorney Michael Roberts, worked full-time on the project.

The committee that selected Bok needed only then-Registrar Shenton, an assistant and a few part-timers.

The hordes of letters mailed out resulted in 1536 replies. The committee even received 32 reponses to ads placed in newspapers.

But despite the efforts at inclusiveness, the presidential search committee--composed of the six Fellows plus three members of the Board of Overseers--drew strong criticism from student groups for being unnecessarily exclusive.

Members of the committee said they were sworn to secrecy and refused to speak to reporters. Committee chair Charles P. Slichter '45, the body's official spokesperson, barely said a word.

Their argument was, of course, that the identities of the candidates had to be kept secret to protect their reputations at their home institutions--from both the humiliation of rejection and the stigma of an employee seriously considering leaving.

"The purpose was not to conceal the process from the University, it was to protect the candidates. I think it was probably the right thing to do," says Overseer Peter Malkin. "It was unanimously agreed that this was understandable and appropriate."

"There was no reason to do such damage to the reputations of outstanding men and women," says John C. Whitehead, president of the Board of Overseers and a member of the committee.

After all, Whitehead says, all but one lucky candidate would be rejected.

In fact, the committee had to turn down 762 of the 763 names that were suggested. The winnowing process was a long and arduous one.