Help Wanted: The 1990 Search for a New Harvard President

Secret and oft-turbulent deliberations yielded a result that surprised many so-called “Harvard insiders.” The presidential search committee selected former Harvard and Princeton professor Neil L. Rudenstine, a later addition to the list of candidates and a figure largely unknown to those outside of the elite academic circles of the Ivy League.

Nathan A. Cummings and Morgan J. Spaulding

In the summer of 1990, against the backdrop of an economy in recession, University budgetary cutbacks, and a war brewing in the Gulf, a committee of nine leaders in business and academia undertook a momentous task: choosing the next president of Harvard University. The search, which played out over the course of 11 months, was shrouded in secrecy and at times rife with controversy.

In May 1990, after nearly 20 years in office, University President Derek C. Bok announced he would step down in June of the following year, citing his age as the primary motive behind his decision. Faced with an upcoming capital campaign threatened by a struggling economy, choosing the University’s next president became a matter of the highest priority.

Secret and oft-turbulent deliberations yielded a result that surprised many so-called “Harvard insiders.” The presidential search committee selected former Harvard and Princeton professor Neil L. Rudenstine, a later addition to the list of candidates and a figure largely unknown to those outside of the elite academic circles of the Ivy League.

Creating the Committee

With Bok’s departure imminent, the presidential search began almost immediately. Prior to 1990, this responsibility had fallen to the Harvard Corporation, the University's highest governing body. The establishment of a search committee broke several significant precedents.

In July 1990, the Corporation announced that, for the first time, the president would be chosen by a separate search committee consisting of the six members of the Corporation and three members from Harvard’s Board of Overseers—the second highest governing body of the University—as opposed to the traditional process of internal deliberation by the Corporation.

Former University President Neil L. Rudenstine
Neil L. Rudenstine became President of Harvard University in 1991.

According to search committee chair and former Corporation member Charles P. Slichter ’45, this move to include Overseers sought to expand the knowledge and backgrounds of the search committee members. “It was useful because the Overseers [on the search committee] included academics who could provide unique knowledge about potential candidates,” he said.

In making its decision, the committee juggled selecting an academic with choosing a president with the administrative experience necessary to run a major university.

In a September 1990 statement, one of the very few that it released, the committee stated its intentions to chose a president who was a “recognized scholar” with a “distinguished intellect.”

Furthermore, the committee sought a president with a vision, writing in its statement that, "The president should possess imagination, vision and the eloquence to express those qualities to the University and to the world.”

The committee also sought a more experienced administrator to unite Harvard’s 12 decentralized, degree-granting schools.


“There are administrative problems involved when trying to work between faculties, so we wanted to pick someone who was accustomed to that and understood how to accomplish it,” Slichter said.

In light of impending budget cutbacks announced during the search by acting Dean of Faculty Henry Rosovsky, who declined to comment for this story, and an upcoming multi-billion dollar capital campaign, the University also sought a candidate who could manage the budget while acting as an effective fund-raiser, Slichter said.

The Search for a Successor

After its formation, the committee drew up an initial list of names in September 1990 and narrowed it down throughout the fall.

Many thought Rosovsky would be the likely choice to replace Bok. However, in late July 1990, shortly after the committee had formed, Rosovsky complicated the process by publicly announcing that he did not wish to be considered, citing his age as the primary reason.

Former University President Neil L. Rudenstine
Neil L. Rudenstine served as University President from 1991 to 2001.

By October of 1990 the Committee had successfully narrowed the list down to 35-50 candidates, including future front-runners Rudenstine and former genetics professor Philip Leder ’56. Although the proceedings were kept secret, The Crimson’s sources at the time confirmed that by late January 1991 Leder and Rudenstine, along with Professor Martin S. Feldstein ’61, were the top contenders for the post.

In the final weeks of the deliberations, between late February and early March, the committee appeared deadlocked, unable to decide on a single front-runner. Finally, on March 22, sources informed The Crimson that the committee had made its recommendation and referred Rudenstine’s nomination to the Board of Overseers for approval. Although the records of the deliberations will not be released until 2071, it is believed that Rudenstine’s experience as an administrator ultimately helped sway the committee in his favor.


Committee Faced Criticism

In addition to the frequent delays in the search process, due in part to the death of a committee member and a lack of consensus in deliberations, the search for a new president inspired controversy on multiple fronts.

First and foremost among the complaints was that the entire process had been shrouded in secrecy. Throughout its deliberations, the committee kept a tight lid on its progress, rarely releasing public statements and holding secret meetings in the Boston Ritz hotel and McKinsey & Co.’s New York headquarters.

This secrecy drew the ire of many groups at Harvard. In September of 1990, the Ralph Nader-sponsored group Harvard Watch, criticized the committee’s lack of transparency, with Nader even visiting campus to hold a protest rally.

When asked about these criticisms, Slichter said that the nature of the search process involved approaching individuals who were often already employed, which necessitated discretion. “Some of the people in whom you’re most interested… don’t want their bosses or colleagues to think they’re about to leave so confidentiality is a practical problem. That’s why the group is kept small.”

Many also criticized the lack of student input in the search process, with more than 1,000 students signing a petition in the fall of 1990 calling for the addition of students to the search committee. Versions of the petition were approved by the Phillips Brooks House and the Harvard-Radcliffe Democrats.

The Undergraduate Council was also involved, with Council Chair Guhan Subramanian ’92 writing to the search committee in the summer of 1990 to urge more student input. When asked about the council’s input, Subramanian—now a Harvard University professor—said he recalled the council eventually was allowed input into the process, but that he did not remember the specifics. Indeed, after much controversy, the search committee eventually agreed to let 15 students—a mixture of UC reps and other undergrads—meet with the search officials on several occasions.

Slichter said the idea that there was a lack of student input in the process is largely inaccurate. “We talked to a lot of students, both current students and former graduates, as part of our initial interview process,” Slichter said, positing that many students who complained likely did not understand the extent of research and consultation of different groups that went into the search process.

The makeup of the committee itself also came under critical scrutiny. Harvard Watch, in particular, criticized the corporate ties of the search committee members, publishing a report in the fall that detailed the $550,000 in income collected by six out of the nine members of the search committee by sitting on the boards of major corporations.

According to Slichter however, the search committee members made sure to solicit input from faculty and other Harvard-related groups at the beginning of the search process in order to educate themselves about the concerns and preferences of the University community. “ It was a huge education for the governing board. All the members of the board heard from faculty and outside experts about the important things that they should be considering.”

A Surprising Selection

Like the process itself, the selection of Rudenstine also elicited a mix of criticism and surprise. Rudenstine’s decision to follow former Princeton President William G. Bowen to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation rather than remaining at Princeton to likely become its next president caused some to question his commitment.

According to Slichter, the committee indeed considered this concern during its search but decided to look into the matter further. “We were told that he would never accept but… he’d been a student and faculty member so he had emotional ties to Harvard as well as intellectual ones.”


Indeed, according to Slichter, the committee sent Rosovsky to the Mellon Foundation in New York City to “sound out” Rudenstine. During this meeting, Rudenstine agreed to be considered for the position.

Some expressed doubts about Rudenstine’s qualifications, pointing to the fact that he was virtually unknown outside of academic circles.

When asked about their familiarity with Rudenstine in the fall of 1991, some students acknowledged that they had never heard of him in any significant context before his selection. However, the committee looked at Rudenstine’s experience at Princeton as evidence of his extraordinary qualifications.

“Rudenstine was a very well-liked and respected figure at Princeton… he is someone that was tried and true at an institution much like Harvard,” said Slichter.

Indeed, many did praise Rudenstine’s appointment. In an op-ed written in the Crimson shortly after his nomination, students praised Rudenstein as a “professional president,” lauding his administrative experience and abilities. Another op-ed pointed to Rudenstine’s prioritizing of inter-school cooperation on administrative and fundraising efforts and encouragement of academic exploration, describing them as in-line with the desires of the larger Harvard body.

If Rudenstine’s selection process was fraught with controversy, his 10-year term as President was relatively peaceful. Rudenstine made good on many of his stated goals and objectives, appointing a University provost for the first time in decades to facilitate administrative cooperation between Harvard’s 12 schools. He was also an adept fundraiser, although he quietly reduced the goal of Harvard's fundraising campaign at the time from Bok’s original $3 billion goal set in 1990 to $2 billion.

Reflecting on the process, Slichter stressed his belief in the strength of the current search system. “I think [the system] really left the governing boards with full knowledge. And I think this is a superior method,” he said.

Rudenstine made his own mark on the future of the Harvard presidency. As president, Rudenstine was a central negotiator in the merger between Radcliffe College and Harvard, out of which came the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

The institute’s first dean, former University of Pennsylvania professor Drew G. Faust, would later go on to become Harvard’s first female president.

—Staff Writer Laszlo B. Herwitz can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @laszloherwitz.


Faculty Reunions University University News