Open the Search Process

Presidential search committee should formally include students and faculty

The composition of the University's yet-to-be-named presidential search committee will, in all likelihood, surprise no one. Traditionally, the task of filling Harvard's top job has been the domain of the secretive Harvard Corporation, the University's top governing body. In 1990, following the resignation of president Derek C. Bok, the Corporation named to the nine-member presidential search committee six of its own seven members (Bok, the seventh Corporation member, excluded). This search committee was charged with gathering a long list of potential candidates and recommending a shortened list to the Corporation--meaning, strangely, that six search committee members would be recommending names to themselves. Although the alumni-elected Board of Overseers had to rubber-stamp the Corporation's final recommendation in a hastily arranged vote, it was clear that the Corporation had almost complete control over the process, a process that hasn't changed much throughout much of Harvard's history.

It is disappointing that Harvard has given no indication it will reform what is clearly an antiquated procedure. Since the wave of radical changes on campuses in the 1960s, most American colleges and universities have opened up their president and chancellor selection searches--which were previously limited to trustees and overseers--to formally include students, faculty and staff members. For example, the 1989 search for current Princeton University President Harold T. Shapiro involved one committee composed of trustees and another composed of students, faculty and staff. A similar system was used at Stanford, where one student sat on the search committee of 15 that recommended President John L. Hennessy last April. At both schools, administrators lauded the selection process and said the procedure reflected the inclusive character of the institution. Princeton and Stanford rightly recognized that any university that values its students will let them have a role in the selection of the most important officer in their community. Students and faculty have too great a stake in the future of the university merely to sit on the sidelines.

The Harvard Corporation, on the other hand, has shown no such respect for openness. To compensate for the structural absence of outside input, the Corporation has, in past searches, claimed to rely on informal indicators of community opinion. But these attempts are often token gestures with little real value. For example, the last presidential search committee agreed to only one face-to-face meeting with undergraduates--and that was a closed-door meeting with 15 members of the Undergraduate Council. To think that such a meeting could realistically bring the search committee close to the pulse of the student body is absurd. If any of the other 6,500 undergraduates had an opinion, he or she might have replied to one of 200,000 letters sent by the committee to canvass community opinion. But common sense tells us that these trees died in vain. Decisions of such import are aided not by check-boxes and form letters, but by open, deliberative discussion.

The only way to ensure that the search for Harvard's 27th president includes a reasonable level of "student input" is to formally include students on the search committee. These students, entrusted with the formidable task of representing their peers, could accurately bring student concerns to the discussion table in a way no Board member alone ever could. The same applies to faculty and staff members, who have an equally vital interest in Harvard's future direction.

At the same time, we are not blind to reality. During previous presidential searches, we have called for formal student and faculty involvement on this page. Based on past experience, it seems unlikely that the Corporation will suddenly cave--although we would welcome such an outcome. Rather, we reiterate this call to highlight the troubling flaws of the composition and practices of previous presidential search committees. Putting students on the search committee would do much to address these flaws, but in the likely case that this will not happen, the committee must, at the very least, conduct its business more openly.

A shroud of secrecy surrounded the most recent presidential search process, a shroud darker than those found at other universities. Many members of the Board of Overseers, who ultimately voted on the final recommendation, did not know until the very end who the candidates were or how far the search had progressed. Those who did know were required to keep silent. There are merits to a confidential procedure, especially in the late stages. But the level of secrecy during the last presidential search was excessive.

It was not always this bad. In the 1970 presidential search, the Corporation released the long list of candidates to the media, prompting public discussion of the candidates, a move we would wholeheartedly support. This kind of openness has no effect on the integrity of the search but would facilitate healthy dialogue. The sort of public scrutiny and public debate this kind of openness would create would be a much more useful way to canvass the community's opinion than mass mailings or closed-door meetings.

The search for Harvard's next president has not officially begun. But the outcome of the search will be closely tied to the way the search itself is conducted. The Corporation has expressed a commitment to giving members of the community a voice in the search process. But unless some substantial changes are made, either to the composition of the search committee or to openness of the process, its words will ring hollow.

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