Whatever Happened to Neil L. Rudenstine?

Crimson FILE Photo

NEW YORK—Neil L. Rudenstine announced his resignation just a few months after members of the Class of 2004 received their acceptance letters. Their first year at Harvard was his last.

Now, the English poetry scholar and 26th University president sits in a sunny, book-crammed office on the third floor of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation on New York’s Upper East Side.

Nearly three years after leaving his position, the man who led the University’s $2.6-billion capital campaign and paved the way for Harvard’s future in Allston has settled into a new life away from public view.

At Harvard, Rudenstine often steered clear of the spotlight—a habit that has continued since his departure.

In his first interview since he left Harvard in June 2001, Rudenstine says he has not changed much since his days in Mass. Hall.

“I think I still have the same set of fundamental interests. I still get rewards from mostly the same kinds of things,” he says.

Indeed, he still enthusiastically muses about literature, art and higher education. And he still stares wistfully off into space as he speaks, occasionally fidgeting with his socks and shoelaces.

But one thing about Rudenstine is markedly different. After ten jam-packed years of wheeling, dealing and fundraising at Harvard’s helm, Rudenstine has his own time—and he knows exactly how he wants to use it.

“If I actually am going to be involved, I want to be involved. I don’t like just sitting on boards,” Rudenstine explains. “I really want the things I do to be pretty much in the heartland of things that I know something about and I know that I’m committed to.”

Bridging the Digital Divide

As Rudenstine’s last day at Harvard drew near, he says he received numerous invitations to join various boards. But he only agreed to sit on a select few.

Rudenstine, 69, now spends most of his time as the part-time working chair of the board at ARTstor, a non-profit organization created by the Mellon Foundation.

ARTstor aims “to create a large—and indefinitely growing—database of digital images and accompanying scholarly information for use in art history and other humanistic fields of learning, including the related social sciences,” according to the organization’s website.

It is modeled after JSTOR, the online scholarly journal database also started by the Mellon Foundation.

At least three days a week, Rudenstine works closely with the organization’s executive director and other staffers in their New York office, hashing out the details of ARTstor’s development. He also travels “quite a bit” on behalf of ARTstor, visiting art collections around the country.

“Like many half-time jobs it ends up being more than half-time, but that’s out of my own interest,” Rudenstine says.

Rudenstine says that many of the skills he uses in his work at ARTstor are skills he honed as a university administrator—particularly institution-building within the framework of teaching, learning and research.

“There’s hardly a week that goes by when some sort of a policy issue doesn’t have to be sorted through,” he says. “When you’re inventing an institution every step matters. You’ll make some mistakes, but if you make too many mistakes you’ll end up in a place where you don’t want to go.”

The Mellon Foundation is familiar territory for Rudenstine, who served as its executive vice president for three years before he was tapped for Harvard’s top job.

Not everything Rudenstine does at ARTstor, however, is old hat.

“Starting up an institution is new for me; every other institution I’ve been involved with has always been a formed institution, so yes, there were always new things to do, but it wasn’t as if everything was riding on what you did…Here there’s only one program, one institution, one mission.”

But after years of dealing with university bureaucracies, that can be refreshing.

“I can just literally walk down the hall and talk to anybody I want to talk to and they can do the same. And that’s the whole institution. I don’t even have to go into another building,” he says.

When Rudenstine announced that he would be heading to ARTstor at the end of his Harvard tenure, many were surprised to see him take on a venture so closely entwined with technology. After all, Rudenstine didn’t even have a computer in his Mass. Hall office. He was known for his hand-written thank-you notes; he left e-mail and typing to his assistants.

In his new office, however, Rudenstine has managed to cross the digital divide. A PC—turned off—sits on his desk amidst piles of papers and books.

“Don’t ask me how often I use it,” he laughs, noting that he still has his e-mails printed out for him every morning and relies on his assistant for most of his computing needs.

Though his personal use of technology is limited, Rudenstine says he has grown to appreciate it.

“I’ve had to learn conceptually a lot more about technology, and conceptually I’m interested in it,” he says. “From a practical point of view, it’s not anything I do, and I wouldn’t pretend to be able to get down to the level of thinking out how this program should be designed or should work.”

From Crimson to Orange

Though his work at the Mellon Foundation is largely administrative, Rudenstine has not left the classroom behind.

This fall, Rudenstine plans to teach a seminar on 20th century lyric poetry at Princeton, where he has taught several other seminars over the past few years.

“I vary the subjects because I find that’s a good way to keep myself mobile and keep my mind reasonably fertile,” he says. “It keeps me learning.”

Rudenstine and his wife, Angelica Zander Rudenstine, spend several days each week in Princeton, N.J., where they own a house a few blocks away from campus.

“The counterpoint between New York and Princeton is one that we both really like,” he says. “In terms of the pace of life there are things I can do in Princeton that it’s very hard to do in New York.”

In Princeton, Rudenstine says he is more free to shape his time.

“When I get up at seven in the morning and I start reading a book and listening to music or just want to go for a long walk or whatever the case may be, I feel that the time is there,” he says. “Angelica and I can have a long breakfast together, we can talk about a lot of things. We can go out for walks. We can think longer and more deeply—and certainly read longer.”

Rudenstine—who graduated from Princeton in 1956 and eventually went on to serve as dean of students, dean of the college and provost there—now sits on the university’s board of trustees.

Spending more time at Princeton, Rudenstine says, “is, for all kinds of reasons, interesting and has meaning for me and puts me in close touch with an institution I’ve been close to all my life.”

In addition, he serves on several other non-profit boards, including London’s Courtauld Institute, the New York Public Library and the Goldman Sachs Foundation.

What About Harvard?

Since he left Harvard, sightings of Rudenstine on campus have been few and far between. He attended the October 2001 installation ceremony for his successor, University President Lawrence H. Summers, and was also spotted at memorial services for former Harvard President Nathan M. Pusey ’28 and former University Professor Robert Nozick. He last sat onstage in Tercentenary Theater in June 2002 when he received an honorary doctor of laws degree.

“He feels like he did his job, came and went as he said he would. And I think that his legacy will only grow in luster—I’m confident of that,” observes Plummer Professor of Christian Morals Peter J. Gomes, who teaches a course on Harvard’s history and its presidents. “He’s the man for whom the ovations grow louder every time he returns.”

Though in his Mellon Foundation office, Rudenstine is only a few stories away from the courtyard where he met with Du Bois Professor of the Humanities Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. in 1991 and hashed out the development of Harvard’s powerhouse Department of Afro-American Studies, Rudenstine avoids any discussion of his successor’s flap with the department.

Indeed, he declines to discuss any details of Summers’ tenure.

With regard to Harvard, Rudenstine describes himself as “not at all uninterested but disengaged.”

“It’s really very important that the next president and the next administration have a sense of total…flexibility and freedom without the sense that there’s somebody hanging around and thinking about what they’re doing,” he says. “I didn’t read the curricular review report, not because I don’t care about the curriculum, but because it’s someone else’s curriculum now.”

Not all Harvard presidents remained as detached from the University as Rudenstine has become.

Presidential giant Charles W. Eliot, Class of 1853, was famous for retiring to his home on Brattle Street, where he provided an outlet for anyone looking to complain about his successor A. Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1887.

Lowell in turn promised his successor, James B. Conant ’14, that he would stay out the way, only to retire to Boston where he remained influential among the Brahmin elite that served on Conant’s Corporation.

Rudenstine’s predecessor, Derek C. Bok, spent the year after his presidency at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences before returning to Harvard as a professor at the Kennedy School of Government, where he remains.

Though he remains disconnected from the day-to-day operations of the University, Rudenstine says he still returns occasionally to visit with friends. And he says he comes to the Boston area at least five times a year to visit his family.

When asked whether he misses Harvard, he struggles with the question.

“You can’t be at Harvard and not have the feeling that it is an extraordinary community intellectually and in its wholeness, its entirety. As many parts as it has, it still has a powerful identity as a whole. And it’s not replicable,” he says. “And so to the extent which you are deeply engaged with that and stimulated by it and puzzled and perplexed by it, you’ve got to miss it in some ways.”

But don’t expect Rudenstine to be taking on any mammoth administrative tasks at Harvard—or anywhere else—anytime soon.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to teach. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to read a lot of books or listen to music or to go to any number of things in New York,” he says, pointing out that he and his wife attend numerous concerts, museums, films and opera performances in the city.

“The good thing is I don’t get myself into anything that I don’t want to get into,” he says. “Now I don’t always know where I’m going to be, but at least I know I have no one but myself to blame.”

—Staff writer Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at shoichet@post.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer David H. Gellis contributed to the reporting of this story.