Students Promote Computer Science Professor for Harvard Presidency

UPDATED: October 18, 2017 at 11:07 a.m.

As the search for Harvard’s next president stretches into its fourth month, some students are launching an online campaign in an unconventional effort to promote Computer Science Professor Margo I. Seltzer ’83 as a possible candidate—and claiming she wants the job.

A Google document circulated over a private messaging board for Women in Computer Science, an undergraduate student group, urged students to send “physical letters” to the University’s presidential search committee supporting Seltzer’s candidacy. Though the document was distributed over the group’s internal lists, Woman in Computer Science co-president Lisa C. Lu ’19 said the group did not organize the effort or author the document.

“Reaching out with some exciting news! Prof. Margo Seltzer, an amazing CS prof… has expressed interest in succeeding Drew Faust as Harvard University President,” one student wrote in the messaging board. “I was wondering if you’d be interested in sending a letter of support for her—the letter needs to be sent in by 9/30!”

Seltzer said she “recently” became aware of the student-led effort, but that she did not ask the students to send letters supporting her candidacy. Asked whether she would like to serve as Harvard’s next president, Seltzer said she did not expect to get the job offer.

Breaking the Silicon Ceiling
Margo I. Seltzer, a computer science professor, speaks about the gender gap in computer science in 2016.

“I am incredibly honored that my students think that I would make a good president and of course if I were asked to serve there would be no way I could turn down such an offer,” she said. “I’m certainly not holding my breath expecting that this will be offered to me, but it would be my honor to serve the University in that capacity.”

In past searches, potential presidential candidates have often remained tight-lipped about whether they would like the job. By January of the University’s 2007 presidential search, the field had winnowed to 30 candidates—yet by that point, none of the 30 had openly declared interest in the presidency.

Some had actually given public denials of interest, though the 2007 search committee said it did not take candidates’ public denials into account.

University President Drew G. Faust announced she plans to step down next year in June 2018; since then, Harvard has mobilized to find its next president. Members of the search committee—comprising all twelve members of the Harvard Corporation and three members of the Board of Overseers—met numerous times over the summer to discuss the process and the qualities they’ll look for in potential candidates.

In July 2017, Corporation senior fellow and search committee chair William F. Lee ’72 sent an email to Harvard affiliates asking them to send the committee names of potential candidates.

A student search advisory committee will hold an open meeting on Thursday.

Women in Computer Science co-president Lisa C. Lu ’19 said her organization did not create the Google document, though members sent it over club lists. Lu said that—as far as she knows—the document was written by a few alumni who thought Seltzer might be a good candidate.

Suriya Kandaswamy ’20, a former student of Seltzer’s, said Seltzer would make a good president in part because she always puts her students first. Seltzer agreed to take on 20 advisees "even though she's on sabbatical," Kandaswamy said.

The Google document sent over the Women in Computer Science lists “talking points” for why Seltzer deserves to be Harvard’s next president, neatly divided into categories titled “Why Margo” and “Why now.” The two-page document suggests students focus on these “important points” in the letters to the committee.

Under “Why Margo,” the document’s authors highlighted Seltzer’s academic prowess, her experience mentoring students, her time working at various tech startups, and her “championing” of women in science. The document particularly notes that Seltzer serves as faculty advisor for Women in Computer Science.

Under “Why now,” the document’s authors argued Harvard’s next president must have a strong background in technology and engineering—a background, the document argues, like Seltzer’s.

“Professor Seltzer’s significant experience in the technology sector will enable Harvard to tap into fundraising opportunities and emerge as a leader in the technology, entrepreneurship, and engineering hubs,” the document reads.

—Staff writer Mia C. Karr can be reached at mia.karr@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @miackarr.

—Staff writer Hannah Natanson can be reached at hannah.natanson@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @hannah_natanson.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: October 18, 2017

A previous version of this article incorrectly indicated that Professor Seltzer has 20 freshman advisees. In fact, she has about 30 total advisees, some of which are freshmen.

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