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Nice Choice. Why So Secret?

By Brian R. Hecht

THE FIRST TIME that Harvard's student press encountered Neil Rudenstine, he was slipping out a side entrance of Boston's Ritz Carlton Hotel. His head buried in his jacket to shield his face from the cameras, Rudenstine dove into a waiting limousine, reportedly slouching behind the tinted windows to avoid the gaze of a small band of reporters.

The scene conjures up images of a celebrity defendant being rushed past hordes of reporters outside the courtroom, or, worse, a handcuffed murder suspect being escorted from cop car to courthouse, his newspaper-shielded head bowed in shame.

Neil Rudenstine is neither suspect nor criminal. In fact, he is a brilliant Renaissance literature scholar and talented administrator who has just been named the 26th president of Harvard. What would cause a man who is about to follow in the footsteps of Charles Eliot and A. Lawrence Lowell to behave in such a manner? The answer lies in the nature of Harvard's presidential selection process, which has earned a well-deserved reputation as unnecessarily exclusionary and almost obsessively secretive.

While the search was in progress, calls for more openness might easily have been dismissed as the product of a naturally curious Harvard community. But now the search is over, and the final result is known to all--the curiosity factor has been eliminated. We can now ask, with the benefit of hindsight, whether the search committee's secrecy was a necessary evil or an excessive obsession.

WHEN DEREK C. BOK announced last June that he would step down as president of Harvard, the Harvard Corporation--the University's supreme and self-selecting governing body--named six of its own members, along with three alumni-elected over-seers, to a search committee. The Corporation jealously guarded its virtual monopoly of the process, shutting out some of the University's top administrators and almost all of its faculty, alienating many in the process. And the students, in the collective mind of the committee, had no right or reason to know anything whatsoever.

As evidenced by the plethora of "no comments" plaguing the front page of The Crimson, the committee's designation of senior member Charles P. Slichter '45 as "spokesperson" was a euphemism at best. Slichter uttered nary a word to the media, driving reporters into a mad and desperate scramble for the smallest details of the mysterious search process.

Eventually, the Crimson obtained and printed a long list, a medium list and a short list of candidates--lists the search committee swore should never be seen by the public. By the end of the process, Crimson reporters had discovered the committee's pattern of holding secret meetings in various New York and Boston hotels and offices. Backed into a nearly-impossible game of Spy vs. Spy, reporters time and again spoiled the cult of secrecy, greeting committee members leaving "secret" meetings with a host of questions. But time and again, the only answer was "no comment."

HARVARD IS A PRIVATE institution and certainly has a legal right to conduct certain procedures behind closed doors. Hiring a president, arguably, requires a certain degree of secrecy, and should not be subject to the whims of the masses.

But although Harvard is private, it serves a public function to the thousands of students who live by its laws and in its houses, and to the administrators and faculty members who care for its well-being. If Harvard's governing boards want Harvard to behave like a community, they must treat it like a community. And while the community does not have a right to know everything about a presidential search, it certainly deserves the dignity of a response.

When the United States government placed restrictions on press coverage from the Persian Gulf they had a very practical reason for doing so. That policy, however misguided, was explained to the public in careful detail. The reasons for Harvard's secrecy were never explained and were, I suspect, more psychological than practical. Granted, it might be unreasonable to subject the three final candidates to public scrutiny. But why not release a long list to the press? (After all, there's no shame in being considered, along with 50 others, for the Harvard presidency.) Why not at least tell the community where the committee is in the search process? Is there nothing a well-informed Harvard community could contribute to the selection of a president?

The Crimson's exploits during the search process may themselves have seemed unnecessary. But we have to ask ourselves: what would the presidential search have looked like had there been 10 months of unbroken secrecy? If the search committee had had its way, students and faculty may never have heard the name Neil Rudenstine until his selection of president was a done deal. There is little serious objection to Rudenstine's selection, but what if it had been President Leder? Or President Feldstein?

ULTIMATELY, the search committee's obsession with secrecy backfired. Almost every step of the process was reported in the Crimson. And in the end, The Crimson was the first to report that Rudenstine would likely be the next president, two days before the Board of Overseers was supposed to have learned of the decision. The whole affair must have been somewhat embarassing for Harvard's top dogs, who were forced to play the game by rules that were not their own.

For those who were following the committee-Crimson game of cat and mouse, the whole affair must have seemed a little silly. And that is a shame. Because Harvard made the right choice in picking Neil Rudenstine. But it made the right choice despite, and not because of, its secrecy.

Brian R. Hecht '92 is the managing editor of The Crimson.

Is there really nothing the Harvard community could have contributed to the presidential search process?

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