They filtered into the Boston Harbor Hotel on the afternoon of Feb. 25—a roll call of Harvard’s most powerful people: the six members of the Harvard Corporation and three members of the Board of Overseers who composed the University’s presidential search committee.
Today’s was not just any meeting. This was it: The Interview. They had met 15 times before, solicited advice from 300 people and narrowed down their list from 500 to three—all the while remaining tight-lipped about the process. Nine months, hundreds of hours and thousands of frequent flyer miles had led to Lawrence H. Summers.
Now, on a sleety Sunday, the search committee ate a late lunch in the aptly named Intrigue Café. Reporters staked out the lobby, and the rumor mill was enchanted with a man named Bollinger.
Summers arrived at the hotel’s underground garage in a chauffeured sedan and was escorted through the freight elevator up to the 16th-floor presidential suite, where he rendezvoused with the committee. For more than five hours, Summers spoke with the committee, answering questions, offering opinions, and presenting his plan for Harvard University.
It was not his first time interviewing with some members of the search committee, but others were encountering his renowned intellect for the first time.
“After a long and intense search, we knew we were coming to an important moment and a great time for the future,” one member said.
At the end of the meeting, the search committee was almost certain: Summers was their man.
How and why did they come to this decision? Somewhere deep in the bowels of the Harvard Archives are 31 boxes. They are labeled with the number UAI 15.1795.7, and contain around 10 cubic feet of files from the search for Harvard’s 26th president. As is typical with many of Harvard’s “secret” files, they are sealed for 80 years—not to be read or opened until the year 2071. If precedent is any indication, the records of the search for Harvard’s 27th president won’t be unsealed until the year Summers himself would turn 126.
This secrecy is paramount, University administrators say—the pool of candidates for the presidency would be diminished immediately if contenders knew they would face public comment and scrutiny. So with the resources and money of the University at its disposal, the search committee went to great lengths to avoid the public eye. But now, in dozens of interviews with search committee members, candidates, administrators, faculty and staff over the year, a clearer picture begins to emerge of the process that led to the turning point: the Feb. 25 interview.
When University President Neil L. Rudenstine announced last May that he would resign effective June 30, 2001, it soon became clear that the search for Harvard’s 27th president would be unlike any other search before. The nine-month long search for Harvard’s 27th president would take the nine search committee members all over the country—from Stanford to Cornell to Columbia and Yale—and would require months of research and thousands of pages of secret communications. Technology would be used as never before, and for the first time, a woman would make the final round.
The search committee itself has changed little since Harvard began. It is still composed of six of the seven Corporation members, the University’s second-oldest and highest governing board. The seventh member, the outgoing University president, does not sit on the committee. For its part, the Corporation was a band of titans: captains of industry and academics of the highest caliber.
The committee was led by Robert G. Stone, Jr. ’45, Chair and Senior Fellow of the Corporation, a member of the Corporation for over a quarter-century, and a veritable treasure trove of institutional knowledge. Strong-willed, persuasive and energetic, Stone is credited by other committee members for keeping the sprawling search focused.
Likewise for Hanna H. Gray, who as president emeritus of the University of Chicago and a former interim president of Yale knows exactly what it took to manage a modern university. A decade ago, Gray—then an Overseer—sat on the committee that selected Rudenstine. Now Harvard’s search was her fourth in four years, having also sat on the executive search committees for Bryn Mawr College, the Smithsonian Institute and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Some had even taken to calling her the “Kingmaker.”
Rounding out the group were D. Ronald Daniel, former chair of McKinsey and Co., a Corporation member, University treasurer, and chair of the Board of the Harvard Management Company, which oversees Harvard’s $19 billion endowment; James R. “Jamie” Houghton ’58, chair emeritus of Corning, Inc., and a member of the Board of Directors of a half dozen companies ranging from Exxon Mobil to MetLife, who has most recently filled his time as the chair of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and the youngest member of the search committee—the only one under 60—Herbert S. “Pug” Winokur Jr. ’64-’65.
Finally, the Corporation’s newest member arrived just in time for the search. Appointed earlier in the year, lawyer Conrad K. Harper’s term on the Corporation began July 1, 2000—exactly one year before the 27th president would take office. The task was daunting for the new member.
“I always anticipated that I would be part of some kind of search, I didn’t think I’d be facing a search the moment I arrived on the Corporation,” Harper said.
Three members of the Board of Overseers joined the six members of the Corporation for its nine-month-long odyssey: Richard E. Oldenburg ’54, Thomas E. Everhart ’53 and Overseer President Sharon E. Gagnon.
And, thus, the line-up was made. Seven men, two women. Seven New Yorkers, one Alaskan (Gagnon) and one Chicagoan (Gray). All wealthy. All but one white.
Harvard’s search process is unique in many ways, not the least of which is its insular and secretive nature. Unlike schools like Princeton, no faculty or students were formally involved in the search for the 27th president. The choice was up to the nine search committee members—most of whom graduated from Harvard during the Eisenhower administzation.
But as one Corporation member put it, “If we were to include students and faculty, which students? Which Faculty?” With nine Faculties and a student body of 18,000 spread out between 12 schools, deciding who would represent those views would be a debacle, say Corporation members.
The lack of outsiders on the panel had one major advantage: it forced the search committee to spend the first months of its search interviewing dozens of faculty members here on campus and the “nation’s best minds” around the country. They met with select students from the College and other schools, and reached into many of Harvard’s nooks and crannies for ideas. Committee members interviewed the presidents and other high-level administrators of other Ivy League institutions, faculty members at other schools, researchers, government officials, other captains of industry, just about any “wise mind” the committee could find. The committee wanted to know where Harvard’s major problems lay, what the new president needed to focus on, and where higher education was heading in the coming decades.
“Our first phase wasn’t so much interviewing, as it was looking at the broader framework and collecting ideas, but not trying to judge and evaluate people,” one committee member explained. “We were just in a position of trying to explore with many of the first-rate minds in the country about issues facing education,” another commented.
Gradually, over hundreds of interviews, three interconnected issues emerged to top the list nationwide: distance learning, information technology and globalization. The Internet stood ready to revolutionize education and the world kept getting smaller. Harvard no longer was just an American university, it was a university for the world. Similarly, the disciplines of knowledge were becoming ever more closely linked: biologists now needed to work together with chemists, physicists and computer scientists. Reading, writing and arithmetic were no longer enough.
Closer to home, problems in the undergraduate experience at Harvard kept cropping up. Committee members firmly believed that the College was the “crown jewel” of the University, and thus were troubled by the issues faculty and administrators kept raising: classes were too big, there weren’t enough faculty, housing was overcrowded, and the sciences seemed to be falling by the wayside. Finally, it became clear to the committee members that Harvard had outgrown Cambridge. Over the next half-century, Harvard would need to shift across the river to land purchased in Allston, and the 27th president needed to lead the move. Harvard was looking for a 50-year plan. To top it all off, the committee decided it wanted someone who would work to foster diversity throughout the University.
Now, at least, the committee had a rough idea of what it was looking for. The next question was whom.
When it began last year, Harvard joined a crowded field of University searches. In addition to many smaller colleges, both Princeton and Brown hoped to find presidents. There are only a limited number of people in the world qualified to lead major academic institutions, and competition was hot.
From the beginning, certain names came to mind. Within the University, Provost Harvey V. Fineberg ’67, Medical School Dean Joseph B. Martin and Business School Dean Kim B. Clark ’74 were oft-mentioned. Beyond the gates, former Stanford Provost Condoleezza “Condi” Rice, the Dean of Stanford Law School Kathleen M. Sullivan, Nobel Laureate Harold E. Varmus, and a little-known—at least in the academic world—Treasury Secretary named Lawrence H. Summers were considered viable options.
As the committee toured the country asking about higher education, it also began compiling a list of names.
“We were looking for someone with a superior intellect and an understanding of the Academy, someone who would command the respect of the Faculty, and someone who had a vision for the future,” explained one committee member.
In the fall, Stone said the ideal candidate had to have “a science background or, enough of a background in science, to know how important it is to really push forward in that area.” The comment seemed to favor Fineberg, the University and science veteran. To solicit ideas and suggestions, Stone also sent a letter to 300,000 Harvard alumni, faculty, and staff. In it, Stone asked for “your thoughts on the personal and professional qualities it will be most important to seek in a new president, as well as your observations on any individuals you believe are deserving of serious consideration.” The letter elicited more than 1,000 responses—less than last time around—but still more than enough to keep the committee busy. The committee followed up the letter with personal contacts to acclaimed faculty members, administrators, famous alumni and major donors, like Katherine B. Loker and Sidney R. Knafel ’52.
The private conversations about the future of the University were usually conducted with two or three members of the committee. After each meeting the members would draw up a memo to be distributed to the absentee committee members, summarizing the discussion and highlighting names and possible candidates.
The committee also pursued candidates in more traditional ways. In late September, the search committee even placed a want ad in the New York Times: “Wanted: President, Harvard University.” In smaller letters underneath, a blurb explained the job: “Nominations and applications are invited for the presidency of Harvard University. The successful candidate is expected to be a person of high intellectual distinction and demonstrated leadership qualities. Letters and supporting material may be sent to the Harvard University Presidential Search Committee.”
To compile all of this information, the committee turned to the Corporation’s secretary, Marc L. Goodheart ’81. Committee members considered him “very able” and perhaps even more importantly, “discreet.” Goodheart was accustomed to the secrecy of the Corporation. He assembled a team of three staffers at the Corporation’s Loeb House headquarters to sort through the incoming mail and prepare binders upon binders of material to be shipped off to the search committee members. His office handled travel arrangements for search committee members and eventually for candidates as well. He was in charge of prepping for and taking minutes at Corporation meetings throughout the search.
“I’m not sure Marc stopped writing during the entire search,” one committee member laughed.
Goodheart or a member of his staff also accompanied committee members to many of their interviews across the nation, although eventually, as the process progressed, committee members conducted the interviews entirely in private. At the beginning, Goodheart was left to interview some of Harvard’s top administrators on his own, including Vice President for Administration Sally H. Zeckhauser.
“He’s very discreet, so you know when you’re working on something confidential, it’s going to be kept confidential,” Zeckhauser has said.
By the beginning of October, after more than 200 interviews, 1,000 letters, and untold hours of research and reading, the committee had assembled a list of over 400 names. In the first cut, only four were removed from consideration: two because they were over age 90, and another two because committee members discovered the suggested candidates had died.
“It seemed appropriate to withhold them from consideration,” one committee member deadpanned.
The second cut required a little more research, committee members say. Some of the names on the list were obviously ridiculous—people who lacked the skills or wherewithal needed for the job—and others simply did not live up to the claims made in letters of recommendation. The committee, assisted by Goodheart, assembled massive binders of biographical information on possible candidates. For the first time, the committee personally surfed the Internet for much of its early information gathering, tracking down biographies, vitaes, journal articles and even, in some cases, portions of books for background purposes.
The committee headed out into the field again as the list winnowed. They spoke with other faculty at institutions where possible candidates worked, and then, eventually, Goodheart’s office called directly, asking whether Mr. X or Ms. Y would be interested in discussing Harvard University and its future. Again, two or three members, and sometimes even four for the more serious candidates, would arrive at an interviewee’s office to talk about Harvard. They would ask the same questions asked at the beginning of the search: How is Harvard perceived? What does it need? Where is higher education going? Who would make a good president? Only rarely were interviewers told they were being considered for the job, but that fact was implicit in many of the interviews.
“You want to get a sense of a person, without necessarily giving the encounter the heavy freight of an interview for a position,” a committee member explained.
The committee met as a whole every other weekend, shuttling back and forth between places like Harper’s law firm and Houghton’s Corning offices in the Trump Towers in New York, and locations in Cambridge, usually Loeb House or the Inn at Harvard.
On December 10, the Corporation made its first major announcement—albeit privately to the Board of Overseers—that the slate of candidates had been narrowed to between 30 and 40. At their regularly scheduled December meeting, the Overseers gathered in the gilded ballroom of Loeb House to hear Stone read off the list. He proceeded slowly, pausing to explain the positions of non-Harvard candidates. Then-Vice President Al Gore ’69 and President Bill Clinton had all been stricken from the list, but he did read off some familiar names: Varmus, Sullivan, Fineberg, Summers, Clark, and then, surprisingly, the head of one of the largest universities in the world: Lee C. Bollinger, president of the University of Michigan.
Bollinger was an unusual candidate from the start—he had no connection to Harvard except that his daughter, Carey, had graduated from the College in 1998. But he encompassed many of the facets the committee was looking for: he was a popular and dynamic president who had reached out to undergraduates, had been a national leader in the fight for affirmative action and had helped jump start a special science initiative at Michigan. Most of all, though, he stressed that universities needed to focus on the fundamentals of academics.
Although he had been approached in the earlier fact-gathering stages of the search in September, Bollinger found himself getting a call from the committee again. He interviewed twice with them, just before and after Christmas. He told the committee that House life was crucial to Harvard, and that the University needed to “soften the edges” of its research university, opening up opportunities for undergraduates and making professors more accessible. On a more unorthodox level, the U-Michigan president told committee members that Harvard needed to engage with contemporary culture, citing the Carpenter Center and the American Repertory Theater as examples of successful cultural projects. Finally, Bollinger said it was important to bring Harvard together as a whole university, not just a collection of independent tubs.
Bollinger got to stay on the list. So did Clark, Fineberg, Summers, Sullivan. Others did not. Condi Rice was too busy getting George W. Bush elected president to deal with the Harvard presidency. Richard Klausner, director of the National Center Institute, just did not seem to have “it.” Varmus, it turned out, was not interested in the job.
Late in the year, a new name appeared on the committee’s radar screen. Amy Gutmann ’71, a respected Princeton professor, former dean of the faculty and founder of that university’s Center for Human Values was a young, incredibly accomplished woman. She struck the committee as a revolutionary choice. Her work on ethics and human values had impacted undergraduates, and she had begun a series of freshman seminars similar to the program at Harvard that the committee thought warranted expansion.
“She’s constantly thinking and looking at contemporary problems and how to bring the University to bear on those issues,” her colleague David Wilkins explained. And thus, on January 23, Gutmann arrived for a one-night stay in New York to meet with the committee.
As the search progressed, Fineberg—once seen by the committee as the early leader—began to look less and less like a shoo-in. He had arrived at Harvard in 1967 and barely left since. Fineberg possessed a master’s degree, a medical degree and a Ph.D—all from Harvard. A former dean of the school of public health and now the number two at the University, he wasn’t the “outside the box” choice the committee wanted. Plus, over the course of Fineberg’s long history at Harvard, he had attracted his share of internal enemies. The Harvard Alumni Association, for example, objected that Fineberg was a micro-manager. Nevertheless, as the strongest internal candidate, Fineberg had staying power.
Through December and January the names fell off the list one by one.
“We were moving ever more quickly to the ultimately successful person,” a committee member said.
At times though, the committee felt like it was blowing through the short list too quickly. At one point around New Year’s, the committee spent part of a meeting discussing the idea of an interim president, a “placeholder” who would hold the job until the “perfect” president came along—much like what Gray had done for Yale years ago. In the end, as the list narrowed to the final five, then four, then three, the committee became satisfied with the available pool.
On Feb. 4, the Board of Overseers convened in Lamont Library to hear a presentation on a new interdisciplinary degree program. Shortly before lunch, they filed the short distance to Loeb House for another event: an update on the presidential search. Now Stone and the rest of the committee had nine names to present. Fineberg, Bollinger, Sullivan, Summers, Gutmann, and four others. The next day, committee members crossed the river and met with Clark in his business school office, breaking the news to him that he was no longer under consideration for the top job.
The committee continued giving Fineberg the benefit of the doubt. His interviews had gone very well, and he had successfully pitched the committee on his plans to revamp the College. He had given his entire life to Harvard, teaching, administration and fund-raising. It seemed only natural progression for him to succeed to Mass. Hall. But, alas, as the ultimate insider, there was nothing Fineberg could do to create a “wow” factor for the University.
Two weeks after the Overseer meeting, Bollinger announced to University of Michigan Regents that he was flying to New York to interview with the committee on the 18th—the first time a candidate had interviewed seriously three times. With the search nearing completion, privacy became an even bigger deal. Clarice Goodall, D. Ronald Daniel’s McKinsey secretary, found an out-of-the-way hotel on the Upper East Side for the committee to hide away. Bollinger met with the committee through the morning, and then dined with them. Then he went home to Ann Arbor to await his fate. After the meeting, one committee member called him “the ultimate fit.”
The ultimate fit minus two things. The committee looked long and hard at Bollinger—his intelligence, his questioning mind, his grand plans attracted them all—but no matter his brilliant ideas and wonderful personality, he had two fatal flaws in their mind. At 54, Bollinger was just too old. The committee wanted someone who could hold the job for 15 or 20 years, like the great presidents Bok and Eliot. After all, only 26 people had served as president in Harvard’s 365 years. Secondly, Bollinger had no Harvard degree—and thus would be the first president since the 1600s to not be an alum of the University.
Then, on Feb. 25, Summers “wowed” them with his diverse knowledge of the University, as an insider and an outsider.
“He just represented an extraordinary person who had the potential to be an amazing president of Harvard. He had really a very deep passion for knowledge, a comfort with complexity, and all of the essential values of the academy,” a committee member said.
And Summers offered several promises to the committee that relaxed their final concerns. He promised not to accept the position of Chair of the Federal Reserve if that was offered to him after Alan Greenspan retired. He would be a loyal Harvard man.
That left only one issue: Summers’ temper. Rumors abounded of an explosive temper that had cowed and embarrassed underlings at the World Bank and the Treasury Department. It took a phone call from one of Harvard’s most powerful alums, Robert E. Rubin ’60—Summers’ predecessor as Treasury Secretary and now chair of Citigroup—to defuse the question. Rubin called three search committee members personally, reassuring Houghton, Daniel and Stone that the temper was now a non-issue, that Summers’ years in government had softened him.
The morning after the Boston Harbor meeting, the committee convened in its conference room at Loeb House to decide on a president. As the giant grandfather clock in the room chimed the passing hours, the committee debated the candidates and their respective merits. Who would bring what to the table? They kept coming back to Summers.
“Larry brought together a set of skills that were timely and right for Harvard for the next few years,” one committee member said.
Around noon, the committee made its final decision. Gagnon and the two other Overseers stood and left: their job was done. Gagnon headed to the Coop to buy a Harvard sweatshirt. Oldenburg and Everhart went to check out of their hotels, leaving the Corporation alone for their regularly scheduled afternoon meeting.
And, around 1 p.m., President Neil L. Rudenstine—the seventh member of the Corporation—arrived for the afternoon’s meeting, bringing along Fineberg in his role as provost. Throughout the next two hours, the Corporation functioned normally. No one mentioned to Fineberg that a decision had been made.
The committee left Stone to contact Summers early that week and extend “the committee’s desire to see him serve,” as the Senior Fellow later phrased it. Stone called Summers, and then flew to Washington to make the offer again in person. For the next week, the committee waited anxiously for Summers’ decision.
“It’s the type of decision you don’t make overnight,” explained a committee member. “It’s a life decision. We thought he would be interested, but we didn’t have 100 percent confidence.”
Summers told them he was in.
On March 6, members of the Board of Overseers received urgent FedEx packages, asking them to clear their schedules for an emergency meeting on March 11 to approve the committee’s selection.
Eighteen of the 30 Overseers arrived on the 64th floor of Rockefeller Center in Manhattan that sunny Sunday morning. Others participated by conference call. Summers and the committee were waiting for them.
Overseers present at the meeting said committee members individually explained their reasons for selecting Summers—highlighting his intelligence, vision and focus on undergraduates. Afterwards, Summers himself discussed the importance of Harvard’s mission, describing it as a catalyst for new ideas.
Overseer C. Dixon Spangler Jr., who was present at the meeting, described Summers’ presentation as “well thought-out.”
Summers and members of the Harvard Corporation then left the room, allowing the Overseers to conduct a private vote.
The vote was unanimous—18 yeas, zero nays.
“The Fellows recommended, and we discussed, considered and approved that choice,” Spangler said.
After a short celebration, elated committee members—Houghton, Gray, Gagnon, and Stone—Summers and University spokesperson Joe Wrinn piled into a convoy of chauffeured sedans and raced for Newark airport. There awaited Houghton’s private Corning jet, ready to whisk them to Cambridge and a scheduled 5:30 p.m. press conference to announce to the world that Summers would be the 27th president of Harvard University.
Two hours later, Summers stood in the ballroom of Loeb House, looked out into a sea of television cameras, and stated simply, “It’s good to be home. I accept.”
—Staff writer Garrett M. Graff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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