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In Search of the Real Neil

By Matthew M. Hoffman

ALL RIGHT, I admit it. Neil L. Rudenstine sounds like a pretty good choice for the presidency of Harvard. It's hard to argue with the selection of a talented administrator with strong academic credentials who wants to improve the quality of undergraduate education. If the earliest reports were anything to go by, the choice seemed perfect.

A little too perfect, perhaps.

After all, the shameful antics of the University's search committee over the past eight months were not without their purpose. One reason the Harvard Corporation felt compelled to keep even the most basic details of the search under wraps was to forestall any criticism.

By keeping the University community in the dark as to who was even under consideration for the job, the search committee almost guaranteed that their ultimate selection would be seen as the perfect man for the job (no women were serious contenders). By that standard, it should come as no surprise that Rudenstine's appointment has faced little criticism from either students or faculty.

But what does anyone really know about Neil Rudenstine? Only the barest and driest facts are available to the general public. He had a long and distinguished career at Princeton. He plans to teach a seminar for first-year students and appoint a provost. He is said to be fond of opera.

But who is Neil Rudenstine, the man? Even the overseers who approved him don't seem to know. One overseer told me that he had not even known the former Princeton official was the search committee's top choice until the morning of the day when the announcement was made.

What kind of person is Neil Rudenstine? What does he take in his coffee? What movies does he like? Does he tip well at restaurants? Does he like anchovies on his pizza? Information like this is not provided in the University official News Office bio. And I tend to doubt that the overseers had adequate time in their two-and-a-half-hour meeting to truly judge Rudenstine's character. After all, Al Capone liked opera, too.

Character matters to me. And the only way to judge it is to talk to the people who have seen Rudenstine with his guard down. The people who interact with him on a purely mundane level. The neighborhood types who see him every day.

With that in mind, I decided to go on a little search last week for the real Neil Rudenstine.

RUDENSTINE lives in an elegant-looking apartment building on the corner of 54th St. and Lexington Ave., just a few blocks up the street from his office at the Mellon Foundation. I say elegant-looking because I never made it inside. I was stopped by a rather imposing doorman.

"Ever see this guy?" I asked, pulling a photo of Rudenstine from my jacket pocket. I had clipped it from The New York Times earlier in the day. "His name's Rudenstine. He lives here."

"Listen you'll get nothing from me, OK? Nada." People in New York like to talk this way. It wasn't worth pressing.

I had a little more success at my next stop: Billy's Stationery, just around the corner. After a brief conversation, the proprietor, one Billy Oh, told me that sure, he recognized the man in the picture. Rudenstine, he said, bought The Times every day at around 8 in the morning.

What about the other papers? News-day? The Post? What about The Daily News? Any word on whether he bought the scab paper during the strike?

Not here, Oh told me.

Who is Harvard's new president? No one seems to know, even in his own backyard.

What about magazines? Does he buy any?

Sometimes, I was told.

Time? Newsweek? Sports Illustrated? Playboy? Omni? Any specific recollections? Oh wasn't sure.

I worked my way along the street toward Rudenstine's office at the Mellon Foundation. No luck at the butcher. Likewise at the baker. There didn't appear to be a candlestick maker in the neighborhood, but, with my luck, that wouldn't have mattered. No one seemed to recognize Rudenstine's picture. A cashier at the greengrocer on the corner of Lex and 52nd said she had seen Rudenstine's wife buy groceries once. But she couldn't remember when or what.

The Mellon Foundation is located in a neat little four-story building on 52nd St.--much smaller than you would expect for such a big-name institution. The storefront next door is split in half. The left side houses a laundry, and the right side a cleaner.

Inside the cleaner's store were two elderly men, caricatures of New York immigrant Jewish storeowners. They recognized the picture all right. They had seen it in The Times. No, they had never seen Rudenstine in person, they said. The elder of the two men scanned over The Times article, nothing that Rudenstine had declined to answer questions about his parents.

"Who knows? Maybe he's a Nazi."

"Could be," I echoed. I decided to try the laundry. Oymie Martin, 35, had her back to me as I entered. It took me a minute or two to get her attention. No, she said. She didn't think she had seen Rudenstine either.

As I walked away from the divided storefront, someone yelled after me. The cleaner and the laundress were conferring. Conversation had improved their memories. Rudenstine, Martin told me, used to bring his shirts in to be cleaned.

How did he have his shirts done? Starch? No starch?

Martin frowned. "Maybe light starch. He's a nice guy."

Anything else of interest?

"I told him not to walk under that exhaust fan," Martin told me, pointing toward an unsightly blob of metal protruding from the building next door. "I told him he might get grease on his clothes."

"He's a friendly man. He always says hello."

THE PICTURE was becoming a little clearer. Rudenstine was no longer just a faceless administrator. He was a friendly man who read The New York Times and wore lightly starched shirts. He read the occasional magazine. On at least one occasion, his wife had purchased groceries of an undetermined variety.

And yet, something--perhaps many things--were lacking from this portrait. Further inquiries were of little use. Rudenstine seemed almost entirely unknown in his home neighborhood. I drew a blank at a pizza parlor and a nearby deli. Several florists gave me puzzled looks. A man behind the meat counter of a ritzy grocery store told me he had a photographic memory. It didn't contain any shots of Rudenstine or his wife.

I flashed the picture at a garage across the street from the Mellon Foundation. "You seen this guy? Name's Rudenstine."

A look of knowing suspicion crossed the face in front of me. "You're tryin' to repossess his car," the face's owner drawled. It was clearly about time to give up the search.

Three hours after I began, I had learned no valuable lessons. I had gained precious few insights into Rudenstine's character. The essence of the new president remained a mystery to me, as it does to Harvard.

For 20 years, we have known, more or less, what to expect from the upper echelons of Massachussetts Hall. Political issues have come and gone, but the fundamental character of the University has for the most part remained the same. Some hours after, I looked back at Rudenstine's picture--the same one I had shown to some 30 or 40 shopkeepers over the course of the afternoon--with a feeling of uncertainty. And it seemed that I was staring into the face of the unknown.

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