Finding Rudy: Secrets of the Search

Harvard's charter charges the Harvard Corporation--the oldest corporation in the Western hemisphere--with the business of picking presidents.

This used to mean that every two decades or so, some of Boston's older and more aristocratic gentlemen spent a couple of months surveying the city's upper education circles before they picked a candidate.

In recent decades, Harvard presidential searches have become more open and democratic than they were in the past. The corporation has become more diverse, and the pool of candidates that is considered has expanded. Searches are now longer--and perhaps taken more seriously.

A separate search committee was established for the first time in the 1990 search that brought President Neil L. Rudenstine to Harvard, with three members of the Board of Overseers--Harvard's second highest governing body--joining six members of the Corporation, the highest governing body.

The search committee was the most diverse body of its kind in history, including two women and a black man.

Not surprisingly, many parallels can be drawn between the 1990 search and the present quest for a successor to Rudenstine. The search committee wrestled with many of the same issues that this year's search committee faces. It also considered several of the same candidates. And it has several of the same members--including current search committee chair Robert G. Stone Jr. '45.

In talking about the present search, Stone frames many of his remarks in the context of his work on the 1990 search.

The Rudenstine search is a story of pomp, circumstance and glamour. Clandestine meetings in a Chicago mansion, at the Boston Ritz and in the New York headquarters of consulting giant McKinsey & Co. The sudden death of a key search committee member. Dramatic, last-minute revelations in the candidate list.

But, behind all of the glamour, the search was an intensive 11-month project involving extensive research, hundreds of interviews, and hours of contentious debate.

In the Beginning

Harvard announced the nine- member search committee in July, three months after President Derek C. Bok said he would resign. Most of the members came from the business world. Of the nine, three were academics.

On a weekend early in September 1990, the committee met and compiled a list of names. The Crimson reported at the time that between 50 and 100 names comprised the list, which would later grow even larger.

The Corporation spoke about the qualifications it sought through university spokesman Peter Costa. "The corporation has not issued a set of required prerequisites for the new president, but he or she should have a distinguished intellect and be a recognized scholar. The president also must be a strong leader, and have a keen sense of management and a deep concern for Harvard and for higher education," he said.

In interviews in the fall, several overseers said that the new president should be young enough to be in office for as long as two decades, as Bok had been.

As the end of September neared, The Crimson reported that the committee had completed compiling its list; it was now 200 strong, and the committee would shift its focus to culling candidates.

Two hundred thousand letters soliciting input from the Harvard community were mailed in October.

By late October, The Crimson reported that the committee had narrowed down its pool to 35 to 50 people.

Students Doth Protest

As the search process proceeded through the fall, a number of student groups fought to give students a greater voice in the process.

Harvard Watch, a Ralph Nader-sponsored watch group called for more student input in the search process which they termed "secretive and exclusionary." Nader came to campus for a rally urging openness in the search. More than 200 students attended, shouting slogans including "Hey! Hey! Ho! Ho! This secrecy has got to go!"

Nader's group also released salary figures for the search committee members serving on corporate boards.

"Exclusivity needlessly constrains the committee from incorporating on a wider, more human scale the citizens' and community's concerns and needs," said Jaron Bourke '88, of Nader's group.

More than 1,000 students signed a petition calling for the addition of two students--one undergraduate and one graduate--to the selection committee and the accessibility of the short-list of presidential candidates and search committee members to interested student groups. Versions of the petition were approved by the Undergraduate Council (UC), Phillips Brooks House and the Harvard-Radcliffe Democrats. The petition was authored by the Committee on University Practices (COUP), a watchdog group that was an agitator throughout the search process.

The council was also heavily involved in its own right. Council Chair Guhan Subramanian '92 wrote to the search committee in the summer to urge more student input.

The search committee agreed to meet with members of the council. After some controversy over the number of representatives that would meet with the committee, the council elected 15 students--including several students who were not members of the council--to meet with the search officials.

Council representatives and House Committee Chairs also used a previously scheduled lunch with members of the Corporation in February to lobby for increased student input in the search process.

Puttin' on the Ritz

When students returned from intersession in 1991, they learned that the search committee had been dealt an unexpected blow: search committee member and businessman Mockler, the CEO of Gillette Company, had suddenly died.

"We won't consider looking for a new Corporation member until the big question has been decided," Stone said then.

After the search committee met in New York on Feb. 5, 1991, The Crimson reported that three of the original 200 candidates had risen to prominence. Two were already well-known Harvard figures: Andrus Professor of Genetics Philip M. Leder '56 and Baker Professor of Economics Martin S. Feldstein '61. There was another name from outside of Harvard: Neil L. Rudenstine, an executive vice president at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and formerly a well regarded provost at Princeton.

But when the search committee presented its short list of candidates to the bi-monthly meeting of the overseers on February 10, the list had eight candidates. In addition to Leder, Feldstein and Rudenstine, they were University of Chicago President Gerhard Casper, Houghton Professor of Chemistry Jeremy R. Knowles, Rotch Professor of Atmospheric Sciences Michael B. McElroy, Columbia University Professor of Psychology Donald Hood and Stephen G. Breyer, Chief Justice of the U.S. Court of Appeals, First Circuit.

Speculation also focused on Former Corporation member and Acting Dean of the Faculty Henry Rosovsky, who was a member of the search committee, as a possible backup choice, despite the fact that he issued a public statement in the summer, just as the search was starting, saying that he was not interested in the post. Some scenarios had Rosovsky as a possible interim President if a permanent head could not be found.

On Feb. 10, Rudenstine met with the search committee in Boston at the Ritz.

Following the discussion, the soon-to-be president was ushered out a back exit, hiding his face from the press.

The meeting was first in a series of secret talks with the remaining candidates. During the week of Feb. 11, the search committee members met with Casper in search committee member Gray's mansion at the University of Chicago. As late as March 10, members of the committee members met with Feldstein at the Stanhope Hotel in Manhattan. He left in a chauffeured black Lincoln Towncar.

The Denouement

In late February there was talk that Harvard was within days of making an appointment.

But on Feb. 21, university spokesperson Costa announced that the search had been "delayed slightly" and that a decision will not be made until late February or March.

The chronology of the search committee's meetings in its final days becomes a little murky--what happened during this period will not be clear until the records of the corporation's meetings during this period are unsealed in 2071.

The group met on March 13 in New York at the midtown Manhattan office of McKinsey. They are rumored to have met again on March 15, and on subsequent occasions prior to Rudenstine's appointment.

All that is certain is that the appointment was confirmed on March 22, at a special meeting at the board of Overseers in New York.

His inauguration, like the search, was full of pomp and circumstance. Unlike the search, it was open. In a two-day gala--a far cry from Bok's 20-minute ceremony--Harvard featured famous faculty, alums and guests, including Yo-Yo Ma '76, Toni Morrison and Saul Bellow.

At the passing of the torch, long-time friends Bok and Rudenstine embraced.

Bok retreated to the status of emeritus, and watched his friend begin a decade as the most-watched university president in the nation.