As Harvard Gears Up for Presidential Search, Past Efforts Shed Light on Process

Faust and Lee
University President Drew G. Faust and Corporation member William F. Lee '72 share a laugh during Harvard Alumni Association Meeting in the Tercentenary Theatre.
UPDATED: June 20, 2017 at 2:25 p.m. When University President Drew G. Faust announced last week she would step down in June 2018, she set into a motion a months-long, secretive process that will set Harvard’s course for years to come: a presidential search.

While Harvard will conduct the search—still in its early stages—from behind closed doors, glimpses from hotel lobbies and conversations with insiders from searches past shed light on how one of the world’s most prestigious schools will choose its next leader.

In the past, Harvard has consistently eschewed the aid of an executive search firm. Instead, a search committee composed of members of the Corporation and the Board of Overseers, the University’s two governing bodies, have culled candidates from other Ivy League schools, the federal government, or, as in Faust’s case, within Harvard itself. The search will last months as presidential hopefuls and Harvard’s most powerful players fly cross-country in a mutual courtship that will ultimately, they hope, end in a lasting marriage.

At the beginning, the pool is a large one. In previous searches, the committee has considered hundreds of names in the initial months—763 in 1991, 400 in 2001, and 750 in 2006—before whittling it down to a short list in the months before a final decision.

Harvard’s next president will take the helm of the country’s oldest university at a time of expansion and turbulence. They will oversee the completion of the new Allston campus and the implementation of a controversial policy on single-gender social organizations. And they must also navigate significant financial challenges, in the wake of poor returns on Harvard’s endowment and an uncertain political climate that has cast federal research funding into doubt.

The search committee—which will form in the “coming weeks,” William F. Lee ’72, the senior fellow of the Corporation, wrote in an email Wednesday—will likely look for someone with significant experience leading a major organization to address these challenges. And while successful candidates often have existing connections to Harvard—whether it is a deanship or a degree—it is by no means a necessity.

While Faust, formerly the dean of the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study, came to the post with experience from one of Harvard’s schools, her predecessors and many previous candidates had led other organizations of comparable or larger scale than the University. Lawrence H. Summers was the U.S. Treasury Secretary before his selection, and Neil L. Rudenstine was an administrator at Princeton and executive vice president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation before holding the post.

During the 2006 search, committee members considered University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann ’71, then-vice chancellor of the University of Cambridge Alison F. Richard, and former Princeton University president Shirley M. Tilghman—now a member of the Harvard Corporation. And in 2001, Lee C. Bollinger—then president of the University of Michigan, now leading Columbia—was a top contender.

Even as Harvard becomes an increasingly complex and bureaucratic institution, the search committee will likely look primarily to Ph.D.-holders well-known in academia. When she was dean of Harvard Law School, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan was a contender for the presidency, but concerns about her intellectual background and the lack of a doctoral degree ultimately scuttled her candidacy.

“It would have to be somebody with strong academic credentials,” Peter L. Malkin ’55, a former Overseer, said. “In all likelihood it’s got to be somehow at the very least an M.A. or probably a Ph.D. and hopefully someone who has actually run a major operation because Harvard is a major business.”

Malkin said he doesn’t “know of anybody who is presently in the administration of Harvard that seems to be a likely candidate,” however.

Although the position is one of the most coveted in higher education, candidates are not always willing to leave their current posts. Thomas R. Cech, a Nobel laureate in chemistry and former head of philanthropic organization Howard Hughes, was a frontrunner in the 2006 search. But Cech withdrew his name from consideration in late January of 2007, throwing the search into limbo.

And in the past, many candidates have feigned disinterest in the position—so making conjectures about a candidate’s feasibility can remain difficult up until the very end. Still, some enterprising candidates will make sure they’re on Harvard’s radar.

“Sometimes people let it be known that they are available as a candidate,” Malkin said.

Though the search to replace Faust will likely resemble those of decades past, it will differ in one notable way: some members of the Harvard Corporation, now double the size it was when Faust took office, may not directly lead the search.

In searches past, the committee was comprised of nine members: the six members of the Corporation and three representatives from the Board of Overseers.

But in an effort to alleviate concerns about its transparency and ability to govern effectively, the Corporation underwent a dramatic overhaul in 2010 that doubled its size—not counting the President, who also sits on the Corporation—from six to 12 members.

While Corporation members consider the reforms successful, major donor Paul A. Buttenwieser ’60 said that including all 12 members—in addition to Overseers—in a hushed search process is impractical.

“The purpose of the search committee is so that you have a discrete number of people who are deliberating and who have access to information about all the candidates, and I think it would be impractical to have that much bigger than it is,” he said.

University spokesperson Paul Andrew declined to comment on the makeup of the search committee.

Biology professor and former Provost Steven E. Hyman said he hopes the Corporation will seek the input of representatives from across the University.

“I would assume that as in the past, the Corporation will supplement their own numbers with faculty and deans representing the University’s diversity—of course gender and ethnic diversity, but also representatives of different schools, so that everyone at the University has an opportunity to give voice to the process,” he said.

Hyman, whose name was floated in the past as a possible presidential contender, said he is not angling for the job.

“I think it’s past the time in my career for me to be thinking about that kind of role,” he said.

Hyman and Buttenwieser both said it is important to add student perspectives into the mix.

“I hope that the search committee will have procedures and processes in place so that students voices can be very seriously listened to,” Buttenwieser said.

During the 2006 search, search committee members consulted a student advisory group during the process.

—Andrew M. Duehren contributed reporting.

This article has been updated to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: June 20, 2017

A previous version of this story misidentified former Provost Steven E. Hyman's middle initial.

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