Harvard May Stretch for Etch

Stanford provost Etchemendy has qualifications, but lacks interest in taking the helm at Harvard

This is the fifth article in a continuing series.
Part 1: Provost Considered for Top Post
Part 2: Will These Cowboy Boots March West?
Part 3: Deft Historian May Be Harvard's Future
Part 4: 'Iowa Values' for Mass. Hall?

He’s a celebrated teacher and a respected manager who’s loved by his faculty. But despite the buzz surrounding the candidacy of Stanford Provost John W. Etchemendy for Harvard’s presidency, the respected philosopher will likely stay put in Palo Alto next year. He’s said repeatedly, after all, that his job is “the best position in higher education.”

Etchemendy is seen as especially qualified for the Harvard presidency due to his ability to work successfully with faculty and because his responsibilities at Stanford are similar to those of a Harvard president. But Etchemendy has been unequivocal in his disinterest for the Harvard job since September, when he told the Stanford Daily that he had “no intention or desire to leave my current position.”

“I am not a candidate, either in my own eyes or, I trust, in the eyes of the search committee,” he reaffirmed in an e-mail to The Crimson yesterday.

And in what would certainly be an unlikely move for someone courting Harvard, Etchemendy published an op-ed in the New York Times this past September criticizing editorial outlets for calling on other schools to follow Harvard and Princeton’s lead in ending early admission. Their praise was “short on facts and clearheaded analysis,” he wrote.

Notwithstanding his public statements and an uncertainty over whether the search committee has continued its interest in him, Etchemendy’s qualifications cause his name to keep surfacing.


As Stanford’s chief academic and budget officer, Etchemendy—whose boss is Stanford University president, John L. Hennessy—is “the number-two through which everything is funneled through to the number-one,” philosophy department chair Kenneth Taylor said.

“It’s a really big job. Our provost and our president really have to be partners for the place to run well,” Taylor said.

Etchemendy’s ability to work with faculty is one of his best qualities as an administrator, according to computer science professor Eric Roberts ’73.

He is especially talented at “promoting good relations between the faculty and the administration,” Roberts said. “He really goes out and listens to faculty opinion.”

Twenty-five deans and other top University officers report directly to Etchemendy.

An ability to cooperate with faculty might especially appeal to the committee given that the short tenure of former University President Lawrence H. Summers was due largely to an inability to work amicably with faculty. Faculty discontent with Summers culminated in a lack of confidence vote by Arts and Sciences professors in March 2005.

Unlike Harvard’s decentralized system of faculty governance, in which the professional schools and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) meet and make decisions separately from one another, Stanford’s Faculty Council—which awards degrees, creates concentrations, and approves new departments—is made up of elected members from the University’s graduate and professional schools, as well as its School of Humanities and Sciences and School of Engineering.

The provost and president, ex-officio members of the Council, provide a report to the Council every two weeks, according to Roberts, a former Faculty Council chair.

Etchemendy is “extremely good at explaining the reason for decisions that might otherwise be unpopular,” Roberts said. “He gets up in front of Faculty Senate or Cabinet, and says, ‘Here are all the facts. What can we do with this?’ He throws this on the table and lets us know that these decisions are hard.”

As part of the ramp-up for Stanford’s recently launched capital campaign—the largest in the university’s history—Etchemendy led a university-wide needs-assessment process, according to Taylor.

Taylor said that the campaign is geared towards positioning Stanford as the leading institution of the 21st century.

“We want to supersede Harvard,” he said.

Etchemendy is also well-respected by undergraduates, according to Casey A. Nevitt, a Stanford senior who Etchemendy helped start a student-initiated course on Basque Studies. Etchemendy is himself of Basque heritage.

“There’s definitely no negative vibe about the provost,” Nevitt said. “Students support him a lot, especially his effort to improve required classes or academic programs,” she said.


Before being named provost in 2000, Etchemendy had served as senior associate dean in Stanford’s largest school, the School of Humanities and Sciences, from 1993 to 1997.

Etchemendy earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Nevada, Reno and received a Ph.D. from Stanford in 1982.

He is also no stranger to presidential search committees, as he was the deputy chair of the committee that nominated Hennessy, then provost, in 2000. Hennessy later recommended Etchemendy, who was at the time chair of the Philosophy Department, to be his successor.

His academic speciality is in logic and the philosophy of logic, and he is the author of a best-selling logic textbook, Taylor said.

“He’s a big-deal philosopher, but now he’s a big-deal administrator,” Taylor said.

—Staff writer Brittney L. Moraski can be reached at