Passion for the Presidency

When Lawrence H. Summers stepped down as Harvard’s president last spring, it sent shock waves across the University and around the world. The debate about his resignation and brief presidency was fierce. E-mail open-lists, campus blogs, casual lunchtime conversations, and even this newspaper’s editorials were punctuated by deeply held sentiments toward our departing leader.

With a search for Harvard’s next leader ongoing, our interest in Harvard’s presidency should be more intense than ever. The vacancy in Massachusetts Hall presents us with an historic opportunity to choose a leader who will join the elite group of names who have had the opportunity to dramatically shape this University—and, if history repeats itself, all of higher education—in their vision. As members of the Harvard community, we all have an obligation to care about the presidential search.

The role of the Harvard president is tremendously important. The president appoints each faculty’s dean, serves as Harvard’s chief fundraiser, and sits on the Harvard Corporation, which governs the University and sets broad policy. The president is empowered with a deep pocket of discretionary funds, which he or she can direct toward specific programs. He or she can also push initiatives through leadership and inspiration, as President Summers did with financial aid. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the president chairs all ad hoc tenure committees, and thus holds the keys to every faculty post in the University, regardless of the school—a role that is unique among leaders of universities.

Given the tremendous power and responsibility of the president, it is regrettable that, at least according to our observations, students’ excitement about the search for Harvard’s next president seems to have subsided. Despite our best efforts to rekindle the fiery debate of last spring, our success has been limited.

As the College’s representatives on the student advisory group to the presidential search, we have held weekly dinner discussions to stir debate and solicit feedback from undergraduates regarding our standards for selecting the next president. Yet we continue to hear from only a handful of students. For instance, three weeks ago, we invited leaders from all of the major campus political groups to speak with us, yet only three officers of the Harvard Republican Club showed up. The next week, we invited leaders of campus publications to a similar forum, and only one student attended the meeting. This apathy is particularly shocking in contrast to student activism on other leadership issues, most notably the election of the Undergraduate Council President each December.

We don’t seek to criticize our fellow students. We know they are busy and are aware that the selection of a president is many months away. But the time to act is now. The nine-member search committee—made up of the six members of the Corporation and three members of the Board of Overseers—has decided to focus on gathering student input during the next month. Before choosing a discrete list of candidates, the search committee wants to know what principles should guide their selection, and student input will play a key role in formulating those principles. Should our new president be an academician or a statesman? A bold and unilateral visionary or a consensus builder? A Harvard graduate or professor or someone from the outside? Or a specific candidate that you may have in mind?

Now is the time that we as students—everyone from seasoned campus leaders to eager freshmen—can have our voices heard and have an impact on choosing our next leader. In a few months, the opportunity for student input will have passed. So speak now, or you may not be able to speak at all.

Some argue that the Harvard administration simply doesn’t care enough about our student opinion, and it is for this reason that many students are apathetic. But by failing to vocalize opinions, students create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Furthermore, having had the opportunity to regularly interact with members of the search committee, we candidly attest to the fact that student opinions are indeed valued in this process. They are even eager to receive nominations of specific candidates from students. If you have been frustrated in the past and felt that your opinion was not sufficiently valued, then there is no better time than the present to change that.

So what can you do? Join us for dinner on any Wednesday evening in one of the dining halls, fill out our survey at, or check out the University-wide event today with Interim President Derek C. Bok. And if none of this suits your tastes, then e-mail or call us directly to let us know what you think.

Different segments of the Harvard student body care about different issues—from the curricular review to the improvement of social life, from the expansion of the campus into Allston to changing the University’s calendar. The president is in a position to formulate the University’s vision on all of these issues and on many more which remain unforeseen. Because so many Harvard students will be affected by this choice—both now and years down the road—we implore you to assist us in advising the selection of the right candidate for the job.

Whitney S. F. Baxter ’07 is an economics concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Katherine A. Beck ’08 is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House. Vivek G. Ramaswamy ’07 is a biological sciences concentrator in Kirkland House. They are Harvard College’s representatives on the student advisory group to the presidential search.

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