Following the first significant changes in its more than 300-year history, Harvard’s highest governing body is entering a new era with a new leader—one who, members say, reflect the stated priorities of a Harvard Corporation of the 21st century.
After a dozen years on the Corporation, Robert ‘Bob’ D. Reischauer ’63 will retire from his post as the Corporation’s senior fellow as he hits a term limit that was the cornerstone of sweeping reforms that he helped implement over the past several years. Intellectual property lawyer William F. Lee ’72, in his fourth year on the board, will take the helm as senior fellow in July 2014.
Reischauer will step down from a very different Corporation than the one that he entered, and will do so with Robert E. Rubin ’60—both of whom were appointed by and close colleagues of former University President Lawrence H. Summers. In the spring of 2010, under then-senior fellow James R. Houghton ’58, the governing body launched an internal review of its policies in response to criticism that it was disconnected from the community and excessively secretive. The reforms entailed increasing member size from seven to 13, limiting six-year terms to two in number, and instituting subcommittees on specific areas such as finance, governance, facilities and capital planning.
Building upon the foundation of the review process set up by Houghton, who served on the Corporation for 15 years, Reischauer is largely credited for working with other members of the governing body and University President Drew G. Faust to make it more open and available to students, faculty, and alumni, and to “incorporate their views in our thought process,” in the words of University Treasurer James F. Rothenberg ’68.
“[Reischauer’s] legacy, as the senior fellow who did so much to shape and implement our recent governance reforms, will carry on for decades ahead,” Faust, who also sits on the Corporation, said after the announcement of Reischauer’s retirement.
That legacy, which Lee seems poised to continue despite representing a much different generation of Harvard alumni, also defines the role of senior fellow as a soundboard for the president, rather than a forceful driver of University policy.
After spending his early years living a stone’s throw from Harvard Yard at the end of Divinity Avenue—now the location of the University Herbaria—Reischauer’s affiliation with Harvard began at birth. His father, Edwin O. Reischauer, a Harvard professor in Japanese studies and former U.S. ambassador to Japan, carved the Reischauer family’s place at Harvard in stone when the University’s Institute for Japanese Studies was named in his honor.
Elected in 1996 to the Board of Overseers, the University’s other governing board for which he served a six-year term, the younger Reischauer served as director of the Congressional Budget Office and worked with Summers at the CBO. Reischauer began his term on the Corporation in 2002, and his years of service to the University made him a natural choice for senior fellow when Houghton retired.
Houghton recounts the process of the senior fellow’s appointment as something that “sort of happens.”
“It’s the fact you’ve been there the longest,” Houghton says of the “smooth” transition from him to Reischauer.
Though many also see Lee as a natural choice for the job, he differs notably from Reischauer in both his personal and professional background. While Reischauer grew up with strong Harvard ties, Lee says that he and his brothers, who also attended Harvard, could especially appreciate the opportunities it gave them, with parents “who got off the boat in 1948 without a penny to their name.”
"When the chance came to serve on the Corporation, it was just a unique opportunity to really come full circle," Incoming Corporation Senior Fellow William F. Lee '72 said.
After teaching at the Law School, involvement in a “number of different alumni activities,” and eventually election to the Board of Overseers, Lee served on the search committee for the next University President and helped make the decision to approve Faust.
“That’s where Bob and I first got to work together a lot, because it was a Corporation-Overseer committee,” Lee says. “I got to know University governance, I got to know her [Faust], and when the chance came to serve on the Corporation, it was just a unique opportunity to really come full circle and to give back to a place that had really given me an opportunity.”
Like Reischauer, many Corporation members refer to Lee as “very thoughtful,’ and say that the appointment, like that of Reischauer, came as little surprise considering his numerous years of his service to Harvard. Lee’s background in law, which Corporation members say has proven instrumental to handling legal issues, was an added bonus.
“He’s been very good about a lot of the topics that we have to deal with which...in today’s world are increasingly legalistic,” Rothenberg says.
LESS SENIOR, MORE FELLOW
With six new spots on the Corporation, which were gradually added over three years and culminated in a 13-member body in the summer of 2013, Corporation members say that the enlargement has had little effect on the group’s dynamic or Lee’s upcoming role as what has in recent years been called “the first among equals.”
Described by Faust as “a very calm voice” that will “take on any problem with great thoughtfulness and judiciousness,” Reischauer, Corporation members say, carefully considered the process of coming together and reaching agreement on a set of practices rather than dictating any outcome, a style that Lee plans to reproduce.
“He’s a low-key leader but a very effective one,” says Nannerl O. Keohane, a Corporation member since 2005 and Princeton professor who studies and teaches leadership. “He wants to make sure that issues are addressed [,] make sure that everyone is heard, and bring us to a resolution at an appropriate time. He doesn’t compose anything.”
Reischauer’s subtle leadership style fits the responsibilities required for the senior fellow of the Corporation, which is more collaborative than the title might indicate, according to other members.
“I don’t think of the senior fellow [of the Harvard Corporation] as much of a CEO or a powerful figure as you might in the corporate world,” Rothenberg says. “We generally use a retreat in the summer to set up the next year in terms of what our primary themes, topics, [and] focus will be, and it’s much different than what would be a corporate environment.”
Reischauer echoes that idea, saying that he primarily aimed to help Faust set priorities by tapping into the skills and experiences of the individual members.
“You have an extremely talented group of individuals who don’t need to be led,” Reischauer says.
An understanding of the Corporation’s cooperative nature allowed Reischauer to delegate duties to the subcommittees that formed as part of the reforms. Corporation members say that his ability to delegate has increased the group’s functional efficiency.
Keohane says that working through small-scale legal issues with six other people, as was their practice in the Corporation’s original configuration, was an inferior process to receiving recommendations from a subcommittee that has already reviewed a decision’s details, allowing the main body to strategize on a higher level.
“[Now] we’re able to sort through facilities issues, particularly financial issues, in committees and bring recommendations to the full Corporation,” Keohane says. “We discuss them around the big table, but we don’t feel we have to go into them in the same detail.”
Lee says that he intends to emulate Reischauer’s leadership style, given the open, engaged, and informal nature of the group that allows them to effectively tackle issues.
“The key to his leadership has been that he hasn’t been out front saying ‘follow me,’ and Drew’s leadership style is not ‘follow me,’” Lee says, adding that a governance structure not dependent on the particular identity of the senior fellow is crucial for the consistency and stability of Harvard’s top leadership.
To the same end, Lee emphasizes a strong and close relationship with Faust. He says that, since his appointment, he has been in contact with her two or three times each week.
ROADS TO LOEB
In addition to exhibiting an understated leadership style, Corporation members say that Lee is well-positioned to build upon the body’s progress toward opening up to the community from their meeting place in Loeb House—a central goal of its governance reforms.
Over the past three years, the Corporation has increasingly tried to shed its reputation as a mysterious black box by meeting with students and faculty on issues like divestment from fossil fuels.
“I think there’s a lot more input, a lot more openness to outside input that would not have been true a few years ago,” Rothenberg says.
A simple but important advantage of Lee’s appointment is his residence down the Charles River, which will allow a greater physical presence on campus than Reischauer, who lives and works in Washington, D.C. Lee is one of several that help constitutes an increasingly Boston-based corporation. Local businessman Joseph J. O’Donnell ’67, and Lawrence S. Bacow, president-in-residence at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and former president of Tufts University, also live in greater Boston.
"There's a lot more input, a lot more openness to outside input [than there was] a few years ago," University treasurer James F. Rothenberg '68 said.
Lee also relates his interest in openness and appreciation of that quality at Harvard in particular to his personal background.
“I was one of the people who were the direct result of President [James B.] Conant’s effort to open up the University to a broader group of folks,” Lee says.
In addition to forming stronger connections with the campus, Reischauer—and, going forward, Lee—has tried to open channels of communication with other institutions. For example, Reischauer has attended meetings of chairs of boards of trustees in the Ivy League, a move that Keohane said has been facilitated by the Corporation’s new committee structure and delegation of responsibilities.
“That has given us all a sense of what our colleagues are thinking,” Keohane says. “Far from diminishing the role, he [Reischauer] has gracefully expanded it.”
It is yet to be seen how effectively Lee will continue that expansion. He has remained relatively quiet about his own priorities relative to Reischauer’s, but Corporation members have speculated that he will continue the progress the Corporation has already made.
“We have a really dynamic student body and faculty,” Lee says. “The question for us is, looking at the short term and the long term, how do we ensure that that is true ten years from now, 20 years from now, 50 years from now?”
—Staff writer Amna H. Hashmi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @amna_hashmi.