Summers' Provost Brings Broad Vision

Last week, a decade after University President Neil L. Rudenstine reinvented the role of the Harvard provost, Steven E. Hyman became the fourth man to fill that role. And with the University’s number two office at a historical crossroads, the best indicator of the direction in which he might take it is the interfaculty initiative he once directed: Mind, Brain and Behavior (MBB).

Like his boss-to-be, Lawrence H. Summers, Hyman, currently the director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), won’t be a familiar face in Harvard Yard when he arrives. But interfaculty initiatives, the hallmark of the provost’s office under Hyman’s predecessors, were designed to prompt academic collaboration between the University’s disparate parts, and MBB—arguably the crown jewel of those programs—has his fingerprints all over it.

“The faculty in very diverse disciplines realized that they needed each other,” Hyman says. “That’s something I’d like to build on.”

“I think that was a particular challenge demonstrating his leadership because it involved engaging senior faculty from non-scientific disciplines in an initiative that was clearly grounded in neuroscience,” says Harvard Medical School Draper Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience Joseph T. Coyle, who chaired the psychiatry department when Hyman was a professor there.

Though the provost’s office has worked since its inception to unite Harvard’s oft-divergent faculties, unifying the University remains a top item on Summers’ agenda. And many point to Hyman’s role in the MBB program as a sure sign that he’s the right man for the job.

“He brought together scholars from a wide range of disciplines, many of whom did not even know that they had interests in common with each other,” says Albert Carnesale, who was Harvard’s provost in MBB’s early days.

McLean Hospital President and HMS Psychiatry Professor Bruce D. Cohen says the NIMH post and the provostship require similar approaches.

“You have a variety of different constituencies and you’re trying to pull them together to reach a greater vision,” Cohen says.

Professional History

Hyman’s Harvard tenure began more than 25 years ago as a student at HMS. After graduating magna cum laude in 1980, he climbed the academic ladder to become a professor of psychiatry at HMS, and director of psychiatry research at Massachusetts General Hospital.

While at HMS, Hyman played a major role in organizing the neuroscience curriculum, led major research initiatives and served as founding director of MBB.

When National Institutes of Health then-President Harold Varmus tapped Hyman for the NIMH post in 1996, Hyman was presented with a mammoth task—balancing the needs of scientists, politicians, and patients—and a $1 billion budget.

“It was much bigger than anything he’d ever been up against,” says friend and former colleague Associate Professor of Neurobiology Barry E. Kosofsky of Harvard Medical School.

But with scientific savvy and administrative skills, NIMH Deputy Director Richard K. Nakamura says, Hyman made major changes.

“He helped to transform the institute into a very forward-looking, exciting research institute,” HMS Dean Joseph Martin adds.

But his interest in change may not be easy for everyone, Kosofsky predicts.