In Search of the Real Neil

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.