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The ancient Harvard Corporation is nothing if not secretive.
The half-dozen "fellows" of the University--captains of industry and academic dinosaurs--release no minutes from their meetings and serve until they choose to leave.
But the identity of the presidential search committee's pick to succeed Neil L. Rudenstine--the biggest secret the Corporation and its aides have had to keep in a long time--oozed out days before Sunday's official announcement, and the committee found its deliberations splashed across the pages of an eager press.
The Crimson first revealed the news on its website and as a print extra on Friday. The revelation was picked up by national outlets, first by The Associated Press a few hours after the story broke early Friday evening, and then by The New York Times and The Boston Globe.
The national papers, however, were skeptical of early reports from the student press. For a variety of reasons, another finalist was the early favorite, and major media outlets were reluctant to discount their own sense that University of Michigan President Lee C. Bollinger would get the nod.
Bollinger early caught the attention of many observers in part because of his particular position as the single head of the behemoth Michigan system and a series of policy decisions that brought him national attention.
In the weeks leading up to the announcement, the Globe, which monitored the search more closely than any other major newspaper, consistently intimated Bollinger was the frontrunner. Citing "people knowledgeable with the selection process," Globe reporter Patrick Healy wrote in a Feb. 22 article that Bollinger "has more reliable votes among the nine-member search committee."
The search, according to the Globe, was down to three men, with former Princeton Professor Amy Gutmann '71 running a distant fourth. But even among the three, Bollinger was the "safe choice," Globe sources said. Reached in his office last night, Healy declined to comment.
Following The Crimson's Friday extra, the Globe acknowledged that an announcement was expected over the weekend and reported that The Crimson had declared Summers the winner on its website. But both the Globe and the Associated Press were skeptical, with the Globe unwilling to pronounce Bollinger's candidacy dead.
Search committee member Robert G. Stone Jr. '45, intent on preserving some modicum of Corporation secrecy, fanned the flames. He told Healy that "kids can get it wrong sometimes," leaving the reporter to write in Saturday's Globe that "more than most of the finalists, Summers has made people at Harvard nervous."
(Stone today downplayed his remark to the Globe. Asked yesterday by Crimson reporters about the comment, Stone replied, "Did I say that? Did I?")
In large measure, Bollinger continued to attract attention because of the idiosyncrasies of his current job. University of Michigan regents and other officials proved far more voluble than those close to Summers and Fineberg.
"Michigan is a public university, with a board of regents who are required to be informed," explains search committee member Hanna H. Gray. As a result, news reports relied disproportionately on the opinions of Bollinger allies.
The infatuation with Bollinger reached its climax in the Harvard Independent, which had scooped the nation with the announcement of Derek C. Bok's appointment in 1971. This time the Harvard weekly proved less successful, running a full-page profile of Bollinger in its Thursday issue, accompanied by an editor's note explaining that the paper "has received information" leading it to conclude Bollinger "will likely lead this University starting in July."
The Independent says it cultivated a number of sources in the University of Michigan administration, as well as others "close to Bollinger," but had few insights into the players on Harvard's end. As a result, says Managing Editor Alexander P. Nyren '02, the weekly's reporters absorbed much of the exuberance of those who were already predisposed to root for Bollinger.
"We weren't as attuned to the reactions of people who were not directly related to Bollinger," Nyren says. "It didn't end up the way we would have liked it to have, but I think we made the right decision...We thought it was important, for our readers, to get something out there."
With the Independent not due to publish again until March 15, editors felt a need to weigh in before the official announcement was made, Nyren said.
As the head of the Michigan system, Bollinger very much stood as a wholly independent executive. Although Summers led the Treasury, much of his success was shared with his predecessor, Robert E. Rubin '60, and Fineberg's tenure as provost was similarly linked to Rudenstine's presidency.
Bollinger's supporters could point to particular achievements that were harder to match in the other two candidates, and those made him stand out in the eyes of those making public predictions.
The Detroit Free Press saw Harvard's flirtation with the University of Michigan president as a surprisingly peaceful resolution to a series of crises the school had faced in the last year. Bollinger led the school through a series of well-publicized lawsuits that challenged the University of Michigan's approach to race and affirmative action and they strengthened his position as a contender.
"The suits," the Free Press wrote, "which could have been his worst nightmare, instead may catapult Bollinger into the nation's top college job."
In the Free Press analysis, Harvard powermakers were impressed with the stand Bollinger had taken on affirmative action, reminiscent of the fights Rudenstine and Bok were both willing to take in defense of racial preferences in academic admissions. It was harder to find analagous moments in the careers of the other two finalists.
But the hype didn't last.
Slowly, the realization that the conventional wisdom was wrong reached the national and the student press.
At 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, the Associated Press declared that Harvard officials still refused to confirm reports of Summers' selection. But at 2:19 p.m. on Sunday, the wire service moved a single-sentence alert, confirming that Summers had officially been tapped. Yesterday, newspapers from the Globe to the Times to the Washington Post carried stories of their own on the Summers appointment.
The Larry Summers saga found its way into the punditocracy. MSNBC, the Hotline, and Slate.com--all media outlets that scrutinize the operations of the press--examined the evolution of mainstream's press attitude toward the The Crimson's coverage, seemingly critical of the mainstream press's reluctance to cite a student journal.
"What is most interesting about this story is the source," wrote Slate.com in reference to The Crimson's exclusive. MSNBC indicated that the Globe had finally succumbed to pressure to confirm the story it originally dismissed: "It, too, printed the rumor report on Sunday," the organization wrote on its website.
Back at Michigan, the balloon deflated gently and champagne was quietly put away--according to published media reports.
In its most recent issue, Michigan humor magazine "Everythreeweekly" carried a satirical account of a defensive and watery-eyed press conference in which Bollinger was quoted denying that he had ever wanted the Harvard position, "even if the average levels of intellectual talent and interest [at Michigan] are substantially, often depressingly lower than those of an Ivy League school like, say--I don't know--Harvard."
--Staff writer James Y. Stern can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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