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A Professional President

By Joseph R. Palmore

NEIL L. RUDENSTINE is Harvard's first professional president.

He represents a new breed of university leaders, one who climbed up through the administrative ranks rather than the scholarly ones. In the process he gained the kind of experience that has become mandatory for a modern university president. Rudenstine's background is a very telling statement on what Harvard has become.

Bok transformed Harvard's governance into an administrative machine . . .

In the past, Harvard search committees have asked for only a little, if any, administrative experience from those it appointed president. While never an easy task, running Harvard then was much simpler than it is now. Anyone with leadership ability, a respectable scholarly background, a good family and a wide array of contacts was seen as qualified to do the job.

Charles W. Eliot '53, considered by many to be Harvard's greatest president, had no administrative experience when he was named president in 1869. He was a chemistry professor at MIT and a member of Harvard's alumni-elected Board of Overseers.

A. Lawrence Lowell '77, who followed Eliot in 1909, was a Harvard government professor who had dabbled in Boston politics and the law. When James Bryant Conant '13 was tapped to lead Harvard in 1933, he was a Harvard chemistry professor.

BUT THE UNIVERSITY has now become much too complex to be run by an amateur, no matter how bright, charismatic or well-connected. This trend has played out through much of the twentieth century, although it accelerated greatly during the last two decades.

Ironically, President Derek C.Bok's administration created a Harvard so complex that a candidate with the kind of background he had when named in 1970 could not be appointed president today. Bok, then 40, had been dean of the Law School for only two years.

When Bok was chosen, his job was to conciliate, to forge peace between the University's violently opposed factions. Because Bok succeeded, Rudenstine's job is to manage, to steer what has become a sprawling, multi-billion dollar corporation.

Bok's presidency saw the creation of an entirely new graduate school--the Kennedy School of Government, the inception of a mammoth endowment management firm--Harvard Management Company, the creation of a new layer of bureacracy in the central administration and a revolution in fundraising.

Solicitation has been transformed from a piecemeal, haphazard affair into a highly centralized, professional operation confident enough to set campaign goals ($2 to $3 billion)unimaginable just 10 years ago.

Relations with the federal government now require consummate skill. Badly needed funding must be preserved, and a Harvard president has to be a master of defense to fend off probes and investigations emanating from a sometimes-hostile White House.

The last three years alone have witnessed three major federal inquiries that cut to the heart of the University. The Department of Education probed alleged discrimination against Asian-Americans in the admissions process (Harvard was vindicated). The Department of Justice is looking into alleged antitrust violations involving tuition and financial aid setting (Harvard has already given some ground on this one). And in what may prove to be the most damaging investigation of all, the General Accounting Office is investigating whether the Medical School has been bilking the federal government of hundreds of millions of dollars.

RUDENSTINE'S BACKGROUND makes him especially well suited to handle all these challenges. At age 33, when most young professors are immersed in writing their second book, Rudenstine became dean of students at Princeton. Although he was also named an English professor, he never wrote a book after his first, an expanded version of his doctoral dissertation that appeared in 1967. (He did edit an anthology published in 1972.)

In 1972, he became dean of the college at Princeton before being named provost in 1977. He stayed on in the university's number-two post for ten years, during which time, in the words of one Princeton affiliate, he was President William G. Bowen's "alter ego."

He acquired the skills of modern university administration: raising money, recruiting faculty, creating new programs, interacting with lawmakers and listening to students while rarely conceding to activists' demands.

Since 1987, Rudenstine has been biding his time as executive director of the Mellon Foundation, and in the process gaining more experience with finance and government relations.

Becoming president of a university was the natural next step for Rudenstine, who had passed his apprenticeship in dramatic fashion.

The search committee's affinity for Rudenstine's background was no fluke. The man who may very well have been its second choice fit this professional mold as well. Gerhard Casper became dean of the University of Chicago Law School in 1979 at 41 before becoming provost there.

At one time criticism of Casper pointed to the relative weakness of his scholarly record--informed sources say that it probably would not merit tenure at Harvard Law School. But in the face of Casper's administrative experience, his lack of academic weight did not stop him from reaching the search's final stages.

Two candidates who fit the mold of many past Harvard presidents, Medical School geneticist Philip Leder '56 and Harvard chemist Jeremy R. Knowles, were each knocked out for the same reason--lack of administrative experience.

THE PROFESSIONALIZATION of the Harvard presidency is full of pitfalls and possibilities. On the positive side, it means efficient governance, sound finances and a strong faculty.

But the trend brings with it dangers as well. Immersion in well-tested, routinized administrative practices can make for inertia as well as efficiency. Layers and layers of bureacracy are inserted between the University's leadership and those it should be serving--namely students and faculty.

And the replacement of individualized, informal governance by professional administration makes it easy for those in power to avoid taking personal responsibility when they mess up. This trend is already apparent.

The University, whether cutting its ties with a for-profit financial aid overlap firm run by admissions officers or ending a massive police detail protecting a Saudi prince, will only admit to the "apearance" of misdoings--never to actual impropriety or conflict of interest.

. . . None other than a professional manager could have been picked to run it.

The initial reports about Rudenstine are cause for encouragement. He has said that he will work hard to gain student and faculty input into decisions and may even teach a first-year seminar as a way of keeping in touch with undergraduate education.

Only through such a directed, conscious effort can Rudenstine keep the presidency from becoming a highly efficient, highly distant office.

Joseph R. Palmore '91 was managing editor of The Crimson last year.

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