Avoiding the Perils of the Transition

The presidential search committee must keep in mind the risks of a leadership transition at a time when Harvard faces challenges on many fronts.

All is not well in Cambridge. Internally, Harvard faces uncertainty over a controversial social group policy, questions of gender equity in both the Mathematics and Athletics Departments, disappointing endowment returns, and a recent National Labor Relations Board ruling mandating a new graduate student unionization election.

Nationally, the federal government is taking increasingly aggressive stances to challenge longstanding norms in higher education. For starters, the Department of Justice is considering a lawsuit against Harvard as part of a probe of its admissions practices. Congress is also contemplating an unprecedented 1.4 percent tax on Harvard’s endowment.

Many of these issues are Harvard-specific. Others, though impacting other peer institutions, end up being litigated by Harvard. The prominence, wealth, and prestige of the University make it a clear bellwether—and a target for those who would wish to make waves in higher education.

The stakes are rarely higher. At their core, these issues could force a re-examination of the relationship between the student and the University as well as the diverse makeup of the College.

In our view, these are must-win fights. Affirmative action has helped build a more diverse institution over the past several decades and must be preserved. The social group sanctions are the most concrete action in years to take action against bastions of exclusion that have tainted broader campus culture. The ongoing restructuring of Harvard Management Company must succeed to put the University on a more stable financial foundation and make all else possible in the future.

Unfortunately, at the same time as the University faces these important challenges, Harvard is undergoing a leadership transition. University President Drew G. Faust has announced that she will step down in June 2018. The presidential search committee—consisting of members of the Harvard Corporation and the Board of Overseers, the University’s highest and second-highest governing bodies, respectively—has been meeting over the past couple months to build a short list for Faust’s replacement.

Given the potential risks to Harvard, it is imperative that Faust’s successor be prepared to tackle these problems on day one. No time can be lost in the transition. It is possible that this means that an internal candidate, someone already familiar with the conflicts that Harvard faces, may be preferable. Alternatively, the search committee must be especially confident that an external choice could transition into the role without a ramp up period that might risk damage to the institution. It is heartening to see that care has been taken in the past to manage these risks.

Similar considerations should impact the credentials sought for the job. For example, the academic obligations of the university presidency may necessitate someone who has performed research at the highest level in their field, presumably denoted via a Ph.D. Experience with raising funds, overseeing investments, and shepherding a major institution through a time of belt tightening may also aid the transition of the job’s management responsibilities.

Though we know relatively little about the candidate pool so far, we are excited to hear that the search committee has begun to narrow the field along some of these criteria. It is critical that the student body should keep up with the pace of the presidential search and offer suggestions as potential issues arise. The stakes are too high for any alternative.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.


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