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A Very Long, Very Secretive Search

By Philip P. Pan

It was drizzling lightly when he arrived in Cambridge on the 24th of March, but Neil L. Rudenstine was in high spirits when he was introduced to the world that day as Harvard University's next president.

"Thank you very much. I'm glad to be here," were Rudenstine's first words at the hour-long press conference that night, a memorable event that was the culmination of the largest search process in the history of the University.

Over the course of ten months, the presidential search committee sent more than a quarter million letters to students, faculty and alumni soliciting their advice. About 35,000 of them were personalized.

The committee also met with six faculty groups and nine student groups and conducted more than 350 in-depth interviews with faculty, senior administrators, alumni, presidents and faculty at other universities, foundation executives and even the chair of another school's presidential search committee.

University officials say the massive "outreach" easily topped the search that yielded the appointment of outgoing President Derek C. Bok.

Secretary to the Governing Boards Robert Shenton, who administered both searches, says that five individuals, in addition to himself and University attorney Michael Roberts, worked full-time on the project.

The committee that selected Bok needed only then-Registrar Shenton, an assistant and a few part-timers.

The hordes of letters mailed out resulted in 1536 replies. The committee even received 32 reponses to ads placed in newspapers.

But despite the efforts at inclusiveness, the presidential search committee--composed of the six Fellows plus three members of the Board of Overseers--drew strong criticism from student groups for being unnecessarily exclusive.

Members of the committee said they were sworn to secrecy and refused to speak to reporters. Committee chair Charles P. Slichter '45, the body's official spokesperson, barely said a word.

Their argument was, of course, that the identities of the candidates had to be kept secret to protect their reputations at their home institutions--from both the humiliation of rejection and the stigma of an employee seriously considering leaving.

"The purpose was not to conceal the process from the University, it was to protect the candidates. I think it was probably the right thing to do," says Overseer Peter Malkin. "It was unanimously agreed that this was understandable and appropriate."

"There was no reason to do such damage to the reputations of outstanding men and women," says John C. Whitehead, president of the Board of Overseers and a member of the committee.

After all, Whitehead says, all but one lucky candidate would be rejected.

In fact, the committee had to turn down 762 of the 763 names that were suggested. The winnowing process was a long and arduous one.

During the ten month search, the committee participated in one conference call and convened 14 times, in several different cities. Earlier meetings lasted about four hours but the later ones often stretched to six hours.

Their favorite meeting spots were the Charles Hotel in Cambridge and the offices of the McKinsey Corp. in New York City. As pressure from reporters increased near the end of the search, committee members were more creative, holding meetings at a number of opulent hotels including the Ritz Carlton in Boston, the Stanhope in New York and finally the Waldorf-Astoria.

By September, the committee had compiled a long list of more than 200 candidates. About a month later, the list was pared down to an intermediate length of approximately 40 names.

Things were proceeding on schedule and, in December, the committee was down to only 28 individuals and presented a similar list to the Board of Overseers for discussion.

But when Corporation and search committee member Colman M. Mockler Jr. '52 died in January, the group--with a list of 15 candidates--was already a few weeks behind. Mockler reportedly played a crucial role in determining the committee's vision of the next Harvard president. His untimely death, insiders say, changed the dynamics of the search process entirely.

On February 10, Slichter presented a short list of eight names to the Board of Overseers for discussion. In addition to Rudenstine, the list included University of Chicago Provost Gerhard Casper, Baker Professor of Economics Martin S. Feldstein '61, Houghton Professor of Chemistry Jeremy R. Knowles, Andrus Professor of Genetics Philip Leder '56 and Rotch Professor of Atmospheric Science Michael B. McElroy.

That same night, the committee convened at the Ritz Carlton in Boston and met with Rudenstine for more than four hours.

Committee members asked the hotel to eject journalists waiting in the hotel lobby, but reporters were able to catch a glimpse of the future University president after the meeting.

Rudenstine took the press by surprise, exiting through a door in a back alley and diving, with his face covered, into the backseat of a waiting car while hotel officials attempted to block reporters and photographers who had been waiting at the main entrance.

The circus-like event became an oft-cited symbol of a secretive search process that had started to buckle under pressure.

As the search began to wind down, The Harvard Crimson--which reported both the intermediate and the short list and printed profiles of the final eight candidates--stepped up its coverage of the committee and had reporters waiting outside the group's meetings in New York and Boston.

Whitehead says that the committee did its best to keep the names of candidates from the public and he admits, "The fact that many of those names did leak out did not do a great deal of damage."

The leaks, however, did increase the amount of politicking involved in the search process.

"There was a lot of lobbying on behalf of--or against--candidates whose names appeared in the newspaper," says Whitehead.

Although Whitehead says that the lobbying had little effect on committee members, sources say that disclosure of candidates' names actually helped some candidates and hurt others.

As the month of February passed, the committee was largely believed to be deadlocked on a few final candidates. According to sources close to the process, Casper, Feldstein, Leder and Rudenstine were the top contenders.

As the discussions continued, and the University's estimate of an announcement was pushed back again and again, national media reports focused on the possibility of the appointment of Geyser University Professor Henry Rosovsky--a member of the committee who repeatedly denied his candidacy in clear terms.

On March 13, the committee convened alone in New York, perhaps for the last time.

Soon afterwards, it quickly scheduled an emergency meeting of the Board of Overseers for Sunday, March 24 to confirm its recommendation.

On the 22nd, the last day before spring break, The Crimson reported that the search committee would present Rudenstine as the final candidate.

Two days later, after a series of meetings in New York, Rudenstine and Harvard officials returned to Cambridge for the official announcement. And the rest is history.

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