Denial: A Presidential Art

If you want to lead Harvard, reject interest in the post—but wiggle room is key

In the complicated dance that marks the choosing of a president, coyness is a virtue—as long as you’re interested in the job.

Of the 30 or so candidates that Harvard’s search committee presented to a board of prominent alumni last month, none has yet openly declared interest in the Harvard presidency. Of course, none probably ever will.

Unlike Lawrence H. Summers, who knew he would be leaving his post as treasury secretary on Jan. 20, 2001, nearly all the candidates under consideration currently hold positions in which their tenures are indefinite, forcing those who are interested to tread the fine line of having a day job while interviewing for another one.

It’s no surprise then that the strongest, most consistent denials have come from the presidents of other universities, namely the four other Ivy League presidents said to be on the search committee’s short list. (According to sources, the search committee is not taking candidates’ public denials into account.)

Ivy presidents may have fewer reasons than other candidates to leave their comparatively harmonious universities, given that leading Harvard may be only a marginal jump in prestige. But that’s not to say that some candidates aren’t interested in becoming Harvard’s president—and precisely who is often a poorly kept secret.

For many candidates, it would take only an unequivocal sentence or two to quash rumors about aspirations for the University’s top job.

Harvard Corporation member Nannerl O. Keohane, a former president of Duke and Wellesley and member of the current search committee, was often mentioned as a leading contender for the University presidency shortly after Summers announced his intention to resign. But in March she told The Boston Globe that she was “not available” for the job.

“I want to tell people to please stop putting me on the lists of potential candidates,” she added.

But unlike Keohane and other university presidents, none of the three leading internal candidates—Radcliffe Institute Dean Drew Gilpin Faust, Provost Steven E. Hyman, and Harvard Law School Dean Elena Kagan—has outright denied interest in the presidency.

For these candidates in particular, their denials—either a refusal to comment or an insistence that the candidate is focused on his or her current job—are designed to leave plenty of wiggle room in the event that the Corporation comes knocking.

POACHING A PRESIDENT

Probably the strongest denial to date has come from the University of Pennsylvania’s Amy Gutmann ’71, whose campus newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian, called on her in December to come clean about her interest in moving to Harvard Yard.

A few days later, Gutmann told Penn’s Board of Trustees, “I will say it, and I will say it for the last time: I am absolutely committed to being Penn’s president, and I am not interested in any other presidency.”

Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger—who, like Gutmann, was a leading candidate for the Harvard presidency during the last search—soon issued a denial to the Columbia Daily Spectator.

“There is no circumstance I can imagine under which I won’t continue to be here at Columbia for many years to come,” he said.

And University of Cambridge chief Alison F. Richard said in a statement to The Crimson that she “remains deeply committed to Cambridge and does not consider herself a candidate for the Presidency of Harvard.”

Similar statements were issued by Amherst President Anthony W. Marx—whose spokesman told Bloomberg only that Amherst “is flattered the Harvard search committee is taking notice of the important work that Tony Marx” is doing—and Tufts President Lawrence S. Bacow, who told the Tufts Daily: “I am very happy at Tufts and have no desire to leave. I took this job expecting it to be my last. I still do.”

A popular denial method employed by the presidents of other universities—perhaps to smooth over any feathers that may have been ruffled by their short-lived candidacies—is to declare their jobs the best in academia.

Princeton’s president, Shirley M. Tilghman, told The Daily Princetonian that she has “no interest” in the Harvard presidency, before asking rhetorically, “Why would I leave the best job in higher education?”

Stanford Provost John W. Etchemendy echoed that sentiment, saying that while “it is flattering that my name is mentioned in connection with the Harvard presidency,” he has “no intention or desire to leave my current position, which I believe is the best position in higher education.” Though the statement leaves one wondering whether Etchemendy would rather be Stanford’s provost than Stanford’s president, his denial also leaves little wiggle room.

But of all the denials issued by presidents of other universities, perhaps the most artful of all was Brown President Ruth J. Simmons, who managed to combine a denial, praise for Brown, and a dig at Harvard into one statement.

“I was just saying that I was very happy and satisfied to be at Brown and that I could think of no better job,” Simmons said, referring to an earlier speech in an interview with The Brown Daily Herald. “I even conceded as a Harvard alum that that was a perfectly respectable place, and I wish them the best as they search for a president.”

CLIMBING THE LADDER

The internal candidates, however, are a different matter.

Kagan, the Law School dean, has usually declined to say whether she wants to be the next University president, though her spokesman occasionally adds that she is concentrating on her current job.

“She’s focused like a laser beam on being dean of the Law School,” the school’s spokesman, Michael A. Armini, said recently.

Though the statement doesn’t actually rule out Kagan’s interest in the presidency, it has the benefit of being factually accurate: unlike contenders for president of the United States who build campaign organizations months and even years in advance, there is little that Kagan can do outside of her current job to “campaign” for the Harvard presidency.

While Radcliffe Institute Dean Drew Gilpin Faust’s has never publicly said anything about her interest in Harvard’s presidency—apart from a “no comment” issued by her spokeswoman—Provost Steven E. Hyman has shown a willingness to comment on his future, as long as the discussion steers clear of the presidency.

When asked in a recent interview if he were interested in being Harvard’s president, Hyman, as expected, refused to comment. But when asked if he might become dean of Harvard Medical School—his alma matter and the place where he was once a professor—Hyman said he was not a candidate for the deanship. His “unfinished business” at Harvard, he added, involves University-wide issues such as the establishment of a science and engineering committee and the Allston expansion.

Infer what you will.

Perhaps the most direct expression of interest in the Harvard presidency—indeed, the only one that didn’t rule it out or sidestep the question altogether—came from a former boss of several of Harvard’s key players, including Summers, Kagan, and Hyman.

When asked at an event if he were interested in Harvard’s top job, former President Bill Clinton offered no protestations about being happy at his foundation or the like, saying only: “I don’t know. Thank you.”

—Claire M. Guehenno, Laurence H. M. Holland, Samuel P. Jacobs, and Daniel J. T. Schuker contributed to the reporting of this story.
—Staff writer Paras D. Bhayani can be reached at pbhayani@fas.harvard.edu.