Harvard, now more then ever, is in need of consensus-building—particularly in the choice of its next president. As discussion inevitably turns from lamenting or deriding our current president to thinking seriously about his successor, we hope that the make-up of the presidential search committee will reflect this need.
We are uncompromisingly dedicated to the belief that the formal body charged with finding a replacement for University President Lawrence H. Summers must include in its composition members of the University faculty and students.
In the past two presidential searches, the Harvard Corporation has done little, if anything, to involve students or faculty in any official capacity. The committee that selected Summers in 2001 was made up of only nine members, six members of the Harvard Corporation and three members of the Board of Overseers. In 1991, when University President Rudenstine took over the reigns from President Bok, the Corporation had promised that they would make time to consult the Undergraduate Council, the Law School Council, and interested student groups, but this promise never panned out in a substantive way.
In both of those searches, this page lamented the outright neglect for creating an inclusive process. We hope our call is heard this time around.
The Board of Overseers and the Harvard Corporation are certainly capable bodies, but their constituents, for the most part, are not involved in the day-to-day life of the University. Students and faculty are. No level of consultation with students or faculty could replace the impact of having representatives of these bodies invested and intimately engaged with the search process.
Shutting out students and faculty from official positions on the presidential search committee would be an ugly anachronism in the context of the practices of competing institutions. In 2000, Princeton University’s 18-person presidential search committee included three students and five faculty members, while Stanford University’s 14-person committee included two students and six faculty members. The most recent presidential searches at Columbia University and Duke University also included both students and faculty on the formal recommending body. Harvard stood as a lone holdout in its own 2000 presidential search. It’s committee: six members of the Corporation and three members of the Overseers.
Historically, Harvard’s official search committees have only turned to student and faculty bodies in perfunctory consultations. This tradition lies in stark contrast to the modern norm of comprehensive search committees, which in Harvard-lingo would include Corporation members, Overseers, faculty, staff, and students dealing with the nitty-gritty of the search process; the Corporation’s final seal of approval (as a solo act, that is) would become the perfunctory gesture, rubber stamping the collaborative process it had been forced to engage in.
No one would suggest that the Corporation or the Board of Overseers should not play a substantial role, if not with a dominant role, in the formal search committee. But in playing that role, these bodies ought to be confronted with the opinions of the students and faculty who are the lifeblood of Harvard. Moreover, these students and faculty ought to have full and equal information about the candidates for the presidency, or else they could too easily be dismissed. The only way to ensure all this is by formally placing students and faculty on the search committee.
As the Harvard community pieces itself back together in the aftermath of the Summers resignation, murmurs of too much Corporation secrecy and a fundamental disconnect between the Corporation and individual schools abound. As part of the healing process, the Corporation must send a clear message that it cares about faculty and students. Advisory committees will not suffice.
The Corporation has the power to appoint, single-handedly, to the most important position at Harvard, and for the foreseeable future, it will likely retain this power in an official sense. We hope that in practice, however, as the upcoming presidential search gets underway, it marks the beginning of an era in which the Corporation endeavors to engage students and faculty in more then a token capacity, in a way deserving of those who share the Corporation’s interest in Harvard success and who have the vantage of living the Harvard experience today.
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