Corporation Appoints First Black Female

Patricia A. King replaces Conrad K. Harper, who resigned over Summers

Patricia A. King, a Georgetown professor who helped pioneer the study of bioethics and law, was elected yesterday as the first African-American woman on the Harvard Corporation, the University’s top governing board.

King will replace Conrad K. Harper, the board’s first black male, who resigned in August amid growing discontent with University President Lawrence H. Summers’ comments on women and minorities. In a telephone interview yesterday from her office at the Georgetown Law Center, King said, “In my experience, times like these and troubles like these can often lead to positive outcomes.”

The Corporation elected King yesterday after a nearly four-month search that focused almost immediately on finding another African-American to replace Harper, according to an individual who has spoken to board members about the search. The Corporation will continue to operate with six members instead of seven until King officially assumes her seat on May 1, 2006.

As a black, female academic, King simultaneously addresses the three most prevalent criticisms of the Corporation: that it is too white, too male, and too corporate. She will become the second woman on the Corporation and just the third in the board’s history, joining Nannerl O. Keohane, the former president of Wellesley College and Duke University.

King said yesterday that the Corporation’s growing diversity was “an important step” for Harvard. She added, “I think it’s a tribute to all of us as individuals, as well as to diversity. It reflects the changes in higher education since I was in law school and since I first became a professor.” She graduated from Harvard Law School in 1969 and joined the Georgetown Law faculty in 1974.

King’s name was not included in early discussions among the search committee that ultimately selected her, according to the same individual close to the search, who requested anonymity in order to maintain his relationship with members of the Corporation.

The source said that King was initially overlooked because she did not fit the profile of “your typical Harvard alum.”

Unlike most members of the University’s two governing boards, the Corporation and Board of Overseers, King has maintained only a loose affiliation with Harvard since studying in Cambridge.

She served on an alumni advisory group for the Law School from 1975 to 1981, but she is not a major donor and has never served on any other Harvard committee.

But after considering and rejecting other black females with stronger ties to the University—including Deborah C. Wright ’79, president of Carver Bancorp, and Ann M. Fudge ’77, chief executive of Young & Rubicam—the committee broadened its search to include King, according to the source.

“I was approached and asked would I consider doing something like this,” King said. She was informed yesterday of her selection after a vote of the Corporation and the consent of the Overseers, according to Alan J. Stone, vice president for government, community, and public affairs.

King, in an interview, revealed little about her opinions of Summers or last semester’s controversy over the president’s remarks on women in science. The Corporation has grown ever more friendly to Summers since he took office in 2001, and Harper was said to be the only dissenter on the board.

“I wouldn’t have taken this position if I wasn’t in some sense optimistic that we can make a great deal of progress in terms of minorities and women,” King said.

In an interview last night, Harper, who met King at Harvard Law School, said, “I am pleased that Harvard will have the benefit of her wisdom and experience.”

The senior fellow of the Corporation, James R. Houghton ’56, did not return a phone call seeking comment. In a statement, he praised King as “a person of extraordinarily broad intellectual and professional interests.”

King’s academic research has long focused on the intersection of law, ethics, medicine, and public policy, with particular emphasis on biomedical science. Her appointment came five days after Harvard Law School announced the creation of a $10 million center to study those same issues, which have prompted increasing debate amid controversial advances in genetic research.

She worked as a lawyer in the federal government after graduating from the Law School, and served as deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s civil division from 1980 to 1981. Since taking her appointment at Georgetown, King has served on several national and government advisory groups studying biomedical issues ranging from genetic research to experimentation on human subjects.

She just recently completed a five-year term as chair of the board of trustees at Wheaton College, her alma mater, and remains on the board of Golden West Financial Corporation, the $120 billion asset management firm.

King’s husband is the Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Roger Wilkins, who is now a professor of history and American culture at George Mason University.

—Staff writer Zachary M. Seward can be reached at seward@fas.harvard.edu.