Batman for Harvard’s Next President

Why leading Harvard University is like saving the world

The Far Side

Every third-grader can tell you that Batman has no superpowers. Bruce Wayne, Batman’s alter ego, has cool gadgets, lots of money, a helpful butler, and, occasionally, a leotard-sporting sidekick, but other than that, Batman’s ordinary. Unlike his peers in the DC comic book hero canon, he can’t fly, run at super-speed, or shoot lasers out of his eyes.

But somehow, he still manages to lead the world’s fiercest ensemble of superheroes—the Justice League. Judgements of its cinematic quality aside, the new Justice League movie illustrates this point. Batman heads the ship of super-aliens, cyborgs, mythic gods, and Amazon warriors, not because he’s the most powerful hero, but because he knows how to bring together—and keep together—the right people. He uses his strength of mind and character to recruit experts, and he knows his teammates well enough to delegate unpredictable problems to each person according to his or her expertise. Batman makes sure the right people punch the right meteors, and the world gets saved.

In its ongoing hunt for a new University president, Harvard seems to be searching for Superman. We want a practically omnipotent administrative one-person juggernaut studly enough to handle all the work himself or herself. We called for a racially diverse, emotionally intelligent, intellectually curious champion with lobbying skills, social scene savvy, financial know-how, and, ideally, a Ph.D. in something related to engineering. It seems as likely that any name in the presidential search committee’s 700-candidate-long list could hit all of those specifications as it is that Superman could actually reverse time by flying around the world at super-speed. Maybe this is a sign that Harvard’s thinking about the presidential search in the wrong way.

So far, we’ve directed most of our efforts toward finding the mystery man or woman who has the right profile to fill University President Drew G. Faust’s shoes. We focus on asking how this person is going to steer Harvard through the Trump administration’s higher education policies, a disastrous College social reform, a sinking endowment, and other turbulent SEAS. From all the discussions up to this point, it seems like we’re looking for a fearless leader from Krypton who can use all their super-strength to single-handedly shoulder these burdens.

In short, we’re thinking of the next president in isolation—as the sole leader responsible for all Harvard’s important decisions during their tenure. Instead, it’s time we start thinking of them in the context of what it’s actually like to lead a university.

We should see this person not as absolutist decision-maker, but as the head of a network, the captain of a team who works with their teammates, selects new teammates, and depends on those teammates for the deliberation and execution of decisions. Such administrative networks, after all, are the mechanisms of most University decision-making.

So instead of asking which candidate has all the necessary expertise, we should ask which candidate will best cooperate with Harvard’s current experts—the provosts, lobbyists, financial advisors, deans, and faculty members who are already best qualified to make the difficult decisions in Harvard’s future. Would the candidate be a collaborative, respected, and enthusiastic leader of these people? Would they genuinely care about building relationships, understanding each group and each person’s strengths, and delegating the right tasks to leverage those relationships in the service of a shared vision? Would they fill vacant positions with people who fit this collaborative network? Victory is won through many advisers, and we should stop asking which presidential candidates have the most qualifications and start asking which candidates are going to use, bring together, and keep together the best people.

These are complex questions, and no resume or interview will provide the necessary information to definitively answer them. What is certain, though, is that this ability to prioritize team networks over unilateral executive know-how requires a bigger share of humility and integrity than political experience or intellectual heft. Harvard Corporation senior fellow William F. Lee ’72 summed it up nicely: It’s a “question of character,” of who has the interpersonal mettle necessary to lead a collaborative team, not an autocracy.

The next University president is going to be all too human for our current superhuman expectations. They will not be remotely qualified enough to handle all the increasingly complex problems Harvard will confront in the coming years. But Batman isn’t Superman, and he doesn’t have to be. All he has to be is Superman’s friend. What makes Batman a model leader is the people he’s wise enough to surround himself with, respected and disciplined enough to keep around, and smart enough to use appropriately in solving the increasingly complex problems the Justice League faces when saving the world.

Harvard’s next president doesn’t have to have superpowers. They just need to be Batman.

Lauren D. Spohn ’20, a Crimson Editorial editor, is an English concentrator in Currier House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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