For Critical Faculty, New Voice in Search

Wounds of Summers’ trying winters shape the hunt for Bok’s successor

Six years ago, then-Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 sent some advice to the nine people entrusted with finding Harvard’s next president.

Lewis asked the search committee to reject a trend “toward celebrity presidents, individuals who are interesting public figures.”

“A capacity to deal effectively with faculty and alumni is critical, of course, but to be a good presence on Sunday TV talk shows or Larry King Live is not,” Lewis wrote in his letter.

But the committee didn’t pay much attention. It selected Lawrence H. Summers, a Clinton treasury secretary familiar with the Sunday television circuit.

So this fall, Lewis dispatched the exact same letter, hoping that the committee now charged with replacing Summers might be more receptive to advice from professors.

He had reason to hope so. With wounds still raw from the battle that ended Summers’ presidency, the famously secretive search committee is now going out of its way to consult the faculty that won that battle.

Many members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which handed Summers a no-confidence vote in 2005, remain sharply critical of the University’s top governing board for the lack of communication they say characterized Summers’ selection.

“Frankly, a number of us have told them that they failed, they let us down, by selecting Summers and then letting him stay on,” said Everett I. Mendelsohn, a history of science professor and member of the Faculty Council.

In the face of widespread criticism of the process that chose Summers, this year’s search committee created and is now consulting with formal student and faculty advisory groups, a step unprecedented in Harvard’s recent history.

The power of picking the next president still rests squarely with the nine people on the search committee—the six fellows of the Harvard Corporation, the University’s top governing board, and three members of the less influential Board of Overseers.

But Sidney Verba ’53, who chairs the 13-member faculty advisory group, said that search committee members have been talking frequently and seriously with his group and given it an “authentic role” in the process.

“I’m hoping that the involvement in our committee and the fact that it has a voice winds up legitimizing what the Corporation is doing,” said Verba, the outgoing director of the University Library. He added that formal consultation with faculty was important to overcome a concern that the Corporation resembled “a Star Chamber—closed in, doing whatever it does.”

Members of FAS say that their input—often in the form of prioritizing qualities that professors think Summers lacked—will help the search committee avoid mistakes they say contributed to Summers’ resignation last spring.

“I think it’s important for the search committee to pay attention to the faculty advisory committee, because the troubles of the last few years showed what can happen when the legitimate concerns of faculty members receive less attention than they deserve,” James T. Kloppenberg, former chair of the History of American Civilization program, wrote in an e-mail.


The faculty advisory group, which is made up of five Faculty of Arts and Sciences members and eight professors from Harvard’s other schools, has met with members of the search committee every few weeks this fall.

Members are using their contacts at other universities to help the search committee parse hundreds of prospective candidates and create a manageable short list.

“When I took on this position, I made it clear that I was not about to waste a lot of my time on something that was a lot of window-dressing,” Verba said.

Meanwhile, Mendelsohn and Anthropology Department Chair Arthur Kleinman met with three members of the search committee over breakfast last month along with other members of the Faculty Council, the FAS governing board. They said they sensed a willingness to listen to council members’ views on the qualities the next president should and shouldn’t have.

“I found them very responsive, thinking along the lines that I want them to think,” Kleinman said of the three committee members—Corporation fellows Nannerl O. Keohane and Robert D. Reischauer ’63 and Overeers President Susan L. Graham ’64. “I was made confident while listening that they were heading in the right direction.”

History Department Chair Andrew D. Gordon ’74 said that Keohane also invited all the department heads to meet with her. “The search committee itself is seeking wide input including faculty and taking it seriously,” Gordon wrote in an e-mail.

Graham said in a brief phone interview that the committee was paying close attention to the views of the faculty advisory group but declined further comment. Other members of the committee either declined requests for comment or could not be reached.

Verba said the committee and the advisory group hoped to narrow a candidate list to 30 to 40 names by next month, when the governing boards will meet. That would put the search committee on approximately the same pace as the last one, which presented a 30-40-name list to the Corporation and the Board of Overseers when they met in December 2000.


Most FAS professors on the advisory group declined to be interviewed for this article. But other faculty members who have consulted with the search committee often define their criteria for the next president in opposition to the characteristics of the last one.

Mendelsohn said the shift in formally including faculty indicated the Corporation’s realization that “they flopped” in picking Summers in 2001. “When a governing board has to fire or insist on the resignation of its CEO, you’ve made some real mistake.”

Many professors say that the search which culminated in the selection of Summers is a study in how the process should not be conducted—with limited input from professors and excessive trust in a candidate who had no leadership experience in higher education.

“A university is different than a corporation,” Kleinman said. A viable candidate must show “evidence of academic leadership,” he went on.

Kloppenberg wrote in an e-mail that he hoped the new president “will have had considerable experience in administering a complex academic organization, probably although not necessarily a university rather than a small college, either as a Dean or as a President.”

“This is no place—and this is certainly not the time—for on-the-job training,” Kloppenberg said.

And in the wake of Summers’ controversial comments about women in science, professors have suggested that the committee must make a more serious effort to consider female candidates.

“There is sensitivity to the fact that that would be a good thing for this university,” Verba said of the possibility of selecting a woman. But “there’s no affirmative action in this,” he said.

Members of FAS who have consulted with the Corporation also emphasized that their input could ensure the next president would be able to maintain a collegial relationship with professors.

“I think that what faculty look for in the current context is someone who can provide a sense of mission for the University but who has the important quality of being able to develop consensus—working with people to come together rather than, in a sense, challenging them,” Mendelsohn said.

And in the hope of finding someone who will work well with them, members of the faculty advisory committee are querying their colleagues at other universities.

“I and say, ‘Do you have any people that would be good for the job?’” Verba said. “We are part of their family, as it were. The Corporation, they don’t have that kind of connection.”

—Staff writer Samuel P. Jacobs can be reached at —Staff writer Anton S. Troianovski can be reached at

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