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When Neil L. Rudenstine took over the Harvard administration in 1991, he said he would stay for ten years. Somehow, no one seems to have believed him.
As Rudenstine checked off goal after goal that he had set for himself, University insiders began to predict that Rudenstine would stay on a few years into 2000 in order to enjoy his legacy.
Rudenstine was, in his own way, ambitious, aiming to redefine the nature of the job that was bestowed upon him, and along with it, the way the University functioned. And he aimed to rake in a pile of cash.
Mild-mannered Neil Leon Rudenstine--Princeton graduate, Rhodes scholar, poetry professor--got off to a rocky start with his big plans, literally collapsing in exhaustion, having to take a month off and go to the beach. But, after resolving to write fewer of his trademark handwritten thank-you notes, Rudenstine returned in time to see his labor pay extraordinary dividends.
Nonetheless, says former president of the Harvard Overseers Charlotte H. Armstrong '49, "It's an absolute backbreaker of a job," and for Rudenstine, it was simply time to leave. Through his sixties, he has worked 90-hour weeks and traveled constantly in order to leave his mark on Harvard.
That mark will be important, if not profound. Rudenstine did what needed to be done, addressing the unglamorous task of modernizing university management. But in other ways, Rudenstine's tenure has stripped Harvard of strong leadership in the presidency and equipped the University with far quieter a voice in American society than his predecessors enjoyed.
Raising Money, Changing Culture
Derek C. Bok, by then the lame-duck president of the University, had embarked on a visionary program during his time in Mass. Hall, seeking to unify the famously decentralized branches of the University and spread Harvard's operations around the globe.
All of this took money, however, and the economy was not then performing at today's breakneck pace. With Bok's departure, a new president, one who would be able to fill the University's dwindling coffers, was needed. From the ranks of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation emerged Rudenstine.
Almost immediately after his appointment, Rudenstine brought the deans of Harvard's ten schools together and quickly realized that the University would need to hit the streets to fill its pockets. Soon he had announced the first-ever University-wide fundraising campaign, aiming to raise an unprecedented $2.1 billion, more money than the total endowments of most American universities.
Some said it couldn't be done. And yet five years later, the campaign is set to meet its goal and then some, with Harvard pocketing an extra $100 million that no one had planned on. New programs flourished, renovations were planned, new buildings sprung up, financial aid grew and classes decreased in size, with the only casualty being Rudenstine's health along the way.
Harvard's endowment now stands at nearly $15 billion , a testament to Rudenstine's endless pressing the flesh.
Rudenstine also came to Harvard aiming to take on the way the schools beneath the Harvard umbrella do business. The central administration of the University, headquartered in Mass. Hall, had very little power over the branches of the school that--theoretically--answered to it.
Each dean of Harvard's ten schools, from the Medical School to the Law School to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), saw his own administration as sacrosanct. They competed against each other for alumni dollars and real estate and considered any intervention by the University as a whole unacceptable.
But Rudenstine did the unthinkable, bringing them together for the capital campaign and long-range planning. He kicked off a series of academic programs that lived in the interstices of the different schools, such as the Mind, Brain, Behavior track, which drew on faculty from not only the biology and psychology departments, but also the Medical School.
Rudenstine even moved to bring the byzantine financial mechanisms of Harvard's disparate parts together in one unified, centralized system, a program, still underway, that has proved overwhelmingly difficult.
And there was Radcliffe. For 25 years, Harvard's sister college had stood next door, occupying an incongruous and, to some, incomprehensible position as the de jure alma mater of Harvard's female undergraduates. It offered no classes and employed no faculty, but clung to its aging alumni body and charged Harvard rent on the use of Byerly Hall for its admissions office, presumably in order to pay the salaries of its burgeoning administrative ranks.
Late in his presidency, word leaked out that the president was working toward a new agreement between the schools that would resolve the relationship once and for all.
At times, negotiations between Harvard and Radcliffe were tense, so tense that they nearly fell through. But by last spring, Rudenstine could claim a victory that his predecessors could not. Radcliffe College had been dissolved, and in its place would stand an "Institute for Advanced Studies," reminiscent of Rudenstine's native Princeton.
Rudenstine has also pushed to bring the Harvard education beyond the walls of Harvard Yard and even the confines of Cambridge and Boston. He initiated new Harvard academic centers around the world--in East Asia, for example--and took steps to make classes available over the Internet in "distance learning" programs.
Rudenstine is mild-mannered to the extreme, announcing his resignation today to some of his closest University allies by e-mail. He shuns the spotlight and prefers to let others take credit for big achievements.
Though some say it has made possible the politically perilous quest of bringing power to the central administration, his understated modus operandi has undoubtedly been a detriment to the University in other ways.
Part of the reason Mass. Hall has always been weak compared to Harvard's independent divisions is that it had no money of its own. Included in the capital campaign was a $100,000 in discretionary funds for the president's office that would help alleviate the problem. But Rudenstine did not ask for money for his own office and until the last days of the campaign when other administrators took over, it lagged behind other areas dramatically.
And Harvard deans have still maintained much of their divisional autonomy. FAS Dean Jeremy R. Knowles resisted Rudenstine's calls for financial aid reform for a solid year, until the dean was finally satisfied that a change should occur.
Harvard presidents have traditionally been famous people.
Charles E. Eliot, Class of 1859, remade his alma mater as a national institution.
President James B. Conant '14, also a Crimson editor, advised U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt '04 so often that he had to invent the position of provost so someone could run Harvard in his absence. When he called the White House switchboard, he told operators, "This is the president calling for Mr. Roosevelt."
But over the Rudenstine decade, that prestige has all but evaporated.
Rudenstine has made few appearances on the national stage, choosing his causes--financial aid and affirmative action--very selectively. His is far from a household name.
Certainly it is the case that university presidents across the country have been less visible in recent years. But Rudenstine, as the leader of America's oldest institution of higher education has occupied a uniquely prominent position, even with trends away from vocal leadership.
The University has receded to the shadows of ivy tower and Ivy League obscurity, the only position, in the final analysis, that makes Rudenstine comfortable.
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