In Search for Next President, All Eyes on Loeb House

Weekend meetings could prompt 'white smoke,' but committee could take more time

The nine members of the presidential search committee are set to meet with Harvard’s alumni overseers today, fueling speculation that the University could announce a new president shortly.

While it was unclear last night whether a candidate had been chosen, the committee in recent days had been most seriously considering Radcliffe Institute Dean Drew Gilpin Faust for the presidency, according to two sources familiar with the search committee’s activities.

If the committee has agreed on a president, Faust would likely be the search panel’s choice, according to the two individuals. But the committee could also decide to take more time in completing the search if it still has yet to gain the unanimous approval of its members.

In order to appoint a new president, the six members of the panel who hail from the University’s executive governing board, the Harvard Corporation, must make a recommendation to the Board of Overseers, the less powerful alumni body. The recommendation is then put to a vote among the 30 overseers.

The Overseers met yesterday and are set to meet jointly with the Corporation today, providing an opportunity for a confirmation vote to take place.

But another source close to the search committee said that a vote was unlikely and that it did not appear yesterday that a decision had been reached.

Today’s meeting comes just days after Thomas R. Cech, a Nobel laureate in chemistry and president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, announced that he had withdrawn his name from consideration for the Harvard presidency. Prior to his surprise withdrawal, Cech was considered a leading candidate for the post by the committee.

With the announcement, Cech joins several other serious presidential contenders who have publicly said they are not candidates for Harvard’s top post.

The University now finds itself in a delicate position. Some committee members have expressed concern that if the panel were to choose Faust so soon after Cech’s public withdrawal, she might appear to be a second choice, according to two sources.

But if the committee demonstrates a willingness to reopen the search to other candidates, such as Provost Steven E. Hyman and Law School Dean Elena Kagan, it may make it hard to recommend Faust as the clear top choice—even if she is currently the committee’s preferred candidate—the sources said.

The panel’s members have called each other frequently over the past several days, an indication that they may have encountered difficulty reaching unanimity before today’s meeting, according to one of the individuals.

As recently as late January, the committee appeared to be leaning toward selecting Cech, but last week the panel appeared to be leaning toward Faust, the two sources said.

Corporation fellow Nannerl O. Keohane has said that all things being equal, she would prefer to see a female in the post, according to a senior faculty member and another individual familiar with the search committee’s activities. Robert E. Rubin ’60, Corporation fellow and former Treasury secretary, has also expressed interest in appointing an external candidate with an assertive leadership style, the two sources said. In 2001, Rubin, who was not yet a member of the Corporation, played a key role in convincing the search committee to select Lawrence H. Summers. Rubin, who was appointed to the Corporation in 2002, later defended Summers when his presidency was in turmoil.

Even with Cech out of the running, Faust does not have the support of at least two influential advisers to the search panel, former Corporation member Hanna H. Gray and former Princeton President William G. Bowen, who had both backed Cech, according to one individual close to the committee. In the last search, Gray’s support was key to Summers’ appointment.

While search committee members have said on previous occasions that they intend to take as long as necessary to complete the search, they have also expressed a desire to make a selection by the end of the month—about a year after Summers announced he would quit Harvard’s presidency—according to two individuals who have spoken with committee members.

But many top Harvard administrators, including deans and Mass. Hall officials, have urged the panel to finish the search soon to allow for new leadership appointments within the University and to provide ample time for the transition, the two sources said. Interim Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Jeremy R. Knowles is expected to serve through the end of the current academic year, which ends June 30. Medical School Dean Joseph B. Martin said last fall that he intends to step down on June 30 as well, and the dean of the Graduate School of Design, Alan A. Altshuler, has also announced plans to resign.

Although Faust oversees a school of only 81 staff members, fewer than 15 faculty members, and a budget of about $16 million, many faculty and administrators have praised Faust’s deft leadership style and experience making decisions across academic disciplines.

If she were selected for the top post, she would oversee a budget of about $3 billion and almost 25,000 employees. A Civil War historian, Faust would be expected to head a university that plans to aggressively step up its commitment to the sciences.

The Crimson granted anonymity to the six sources because the committee’s work is considered confidential and the individuals’ relationships with members of the committee would be compromised if they were named.

University spokesman John D. Longbrake declined to comment last night on the progress of the search.

Most search committee members are scheduled to leave on Monday, and the Corporation is scheduled to hold a regular meeting that day.

The search panel last met with the Overseers on Dec. 3. At that meeting, the committee showed the board a list of about 30 presidential contenders, although the panel was seriously considering a shorter list of candidates at the time.

—Lois E. Beckett, Nicholas M. Ciarelli, Stephanie S. Garlow, Claire M. Guehenno, Katherine M. Gray, Clifford M. Marks, Brittney L. Moraski, Rachel L. Pollack, and Kevin Zhou contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Javier C. Hernandez can be reached at jhernand@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Daniel J. T. Schuker can be reached at dschuker@fas.harvard.edu.

For additional coverage of the presidential search:
Woman To Take Lead? (Jan. 8, 2007): In its 370-year history, Harvard has never had a female president. But with several women under serious consideration, many wonder if 2007 will be the year that a woman finally takes the helm.
Deft Historian May Be Harvard’s Future (Jan. 12, 2007): The Crimson profiles Drew Gilpin Faust, a renowned historian and dean of the Radcliffe Institute.
Cech Bows Out of Harvard Race (Feb. 1, 2007): Thomas R. Cech, the head of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and a leading contender in Harvard’s presidential search, withdraws his name from the race, saying he already has a "great job."