With only six months on the Harvard Corporation under his belt, David M. Rubenstein has been thrust into helping the University through one of its most consequential transitions: finding a new president.
While Rubenstein has spent his professional life in corporate boardrooms—Carlyle co-founder Dan D’Aniello said Rubenstein has “probably one of the most extensive networks of people”—friends and associates say it is his experience advising universities that will inform his approach to the search.
“David, I think, is approaching a university with a certain kind of reverence,” said University professor Paul Farmer, who knows Rubenstein through his humanitarian work and serving together on Duke University’s board of trustees.
“This a guy who knows the business world, he knows museums, he knows all kinds of philanthropic work. But he knows a lot about universities and what they need to function, and that’s what I heard him talk about–we need someone who understands that universities are different,” Farmer said, referring to the search.
The friends and associates say that Rubenstein will favor candidates with academic experience who will make Harvard more affordable and accessible.
“David was first generation. I think he got financial aid himself,” Ned Gilhuly, a member of Duke’s board of trustees, said. “So he’s very sort of viscerally connected to and believes in the importance of making sure that the fantastic institutions are available to people irrespective of their means.”
Rubenstein’s penchant for underdogs may lead him to turn to candidates who are less obvious at face value but who show “potential,” Farmer said.
“He’s looking for promise and opening doors,” he added.
Rubenstein has also promoted universities’ role in shaping public policy through significant donations to the Kennedy School and Duke’s school of public policy. (He has public policy experience himself; he served in President Jimmy Carter’s administration).
And he has substantial experience with higher ed fundraising: he chaired Duke’s $3.7 billion capital campaign, the Harvard Kennedy School’s most recent campaign, and Harvard’s ongoing University-wide fundraising drive that set a higher education record.
“He has a really clear understanding, born out of hands-on involvement and experience in a university, [of] what it takes to be a good university president. And that will make him a really good spokesperson, advocate, and selector or judge of candidates,” Gilhuly said.
During Duke’s presidential search, their committee outlined a set of requirements they wanted candidates to meet—namely, that they hold full professorships and have experience with university administration. Rubenstein agreed with those parameters, Duke search committee members said.
“We felt that that was incredibly important, particularly when it came to the faculty, so they could see this person as a colleague and not someone who had been selected from the outside—a retired politician, a retired general or admiral, a business background, any of these kinds of things,” said Jack Bovender, who led the search and replaced Rubenstein as chair of Duke’s board of trustees.
Search committee members traveled to universities around the country to conduct interviews, and Rubenstein sat in on the final three, according to Duke committee member and professor of public policy Donald H. Taylor, Jr.
Committee members declined to name specific candidates they considered, but said they looked closely at administrators at peer institutions. When Duke ultimately selected former University of Pennsylvania provost Vincent Price, Rubenstein praised Price’s scholarship, his recognition of the importance of diversity and inclusion, and his global reach.
Although Rubenstein’s involvement at Harvard runs long and deep, he is not an alum himself—and he is unlikely to accord particular weight to candidates who are Harvard graduates. In an interview last spring about his ascent to the Corporation, he said a Harvard degree is not a prerequisite for successfully stewarding the University.
“I think if you’re as important to the country as Harvard is you probably need to take a look at whether you should only have Harvard graduates doing certain things. Harvard has had a number of presidents for example who did not go to Harvard,” he said in May.
Rubenstein’s higher education networks wrap around the globe, so he may even turn to candidates outside of the United States. Faust credits him with launching the Harvard Global Advisory Council, a network of prominent alumni scattered across the world.
And colleagues say he will give significant consideration to faculty perspectives through the process. “In my experience with David, he was always very interested in what faculty thought,” Taylor said.
But despite his propensity to cater to academics, Rubenstein retains a businessman’s sensibility in his approach to university governance. Whoever Rubenstein decides to throw his support behind will be someone who can deliver tangible improvements, his associates say.
“I think he understands some of the subtle differences between the business world and academia, but at the same time I do think he is very results-oriented,” Gilhuly said. “He believes in metrics—he wants to measure an institution’s progress and success.”