Past Is Present As Old Leaders Return

Bok, 76, and Knowles, 71, confront familiar challenges in new decade

Unnamed photo
Carlton E. Forbes

Derek C. Bok

They both lived quietly in retirement, stationed in secluded offices as they transitioned from leadership back to scholarship. One has been likened to Abraham Lincoln, while the other is described as a “safe pair of hands.”

And come July 1, Derek C. Bok and Jeremy R. Knowles—the past and future leaders of the University and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences—will have an unprecedented opportunity to reassume their positions at Harvard’s helm; Bok as interim president, and Knowles as interim dean of FAS.

“They say lightning doesn’t strike twice, you can’t sell the same piece of real estate twice, and that there are no second acts,” said Peter J. Gomes, minister of the Memorial Church and a scholar of the Harvard presidency. “I think all of those are untrue now.”

Bok was the 25th president of Harvard, though several professors have compared him to the 16th president of the United States because he enjoys such wide respect (though he lacks a top-hat). On Monday, Bok—who was asked in February to return to the presidency following the resignation of Lawrence H. Summers—appointed Knowles to lead the University’s flagship school while the search for a new president moves forward.

The reinstatement of the two former administrators will be a first for Harvard, according to Gomes, and it will give both Bok and Knowles a chance to add an epilogue to their entries in Harvard’s history books. In their second coming, however, the two Harvard men will face a familiar set of issues: chief among them, a faculty riven from the scars of a crisis in governance.

Some professors see the duo’s role as a calming force, saying the pair’s exalted status will unite a divided Faculty and University around common goals.

“The most important thing they’ll do is the restoration of institutional self-confidence and a sense of a general tone,” said Gomes. “They’ll deal with obvious fires, the obvious difficulties along the way, but nothing long-term.”

Still, other professors believe the two leaders will concentrate on carrying through unrealized aspects of Summers’ vision, including curriculum reform and the continuing development of Allston property.

“I think what is important, as both of them feel, is to not be immobilized but to move forward on accepted initiatives and goals,” said Henry Rosovksy, who himself served as a dean of FAS and was summoned to return to the post on an interim basis under Bok. “I think that from having talked with President Bok quite often in recent times, he is determined for this not to be just a period of standing still.”

Rosovsky, whose office sits near Bok’s in Loeb House, predicted that the two interim leaders would enjoy a “honeymoon” with the Faculty during their interim tenure.

“You have two people who are very experienced and I think very popular in the Faculty so that in a way, I think they may have an opportunity this year to do more than otherwise,” Rosovsky said.

The two leaders will assume office as the University faces rising costs and a stalled fundraising effort. Some FAS estimates predict a budget deficit of $100 million by 2010, and the University’s planned capital campaign has been put on hold in light of Summers’ resignation.

During their first terms, both Bok and Knowles were known as adept fundraisers, and Knowles was credited with eliminating an $11.7 million FAS deficit during his tenure.

“These are the two men who have raised the most money of anyone in Harvard’s history,” said Gomes. “The donors are likely to respond to these tried and true Harvard veterans.”

Bok said on Monday that he expects to see a temporary slowdown in donations over the coming year, but added that he believes his successor will reinvigorate the push for gifts.

“I think a number of donors will probably feel that they will like to wait and see who the next president is before making commitments,” Bok said.

“I don’t think the total amount over a two, three-year period will be affected,” he added.

At ages 76 and 71, Bok and Knowles are two of the more mature leaders in recent Harvard history. Summers is 51; former President Neil L. Rudenstine was 66 when he left office; and current FAS dean William C. Kirby is 55.

Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield ’53 said that he does not believe age will hurt the ability of the two to lead effectively.

“I don’t consider them elderly,” said Mansfield, who is himself 74.

—Staff writer Javier C. Hernandez can be reached at