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Cech Bows Out of Harvard Race

Surprise move throws search timeline into question as Overseers prepare to meet

Thomas R. Cech, president of the Howard Hughes Medical Insitute, called The Crimson yesterday to say he had withdrawn his name from consideration for the Harvard presidency. "I already have a great job," Cech said.
Thomas R. Cech, president of the Howard Hughes Medical Insitute, called The Crimson yesterday to say he had withdrawn his name from consideration for the Harvard presidency. "I already have a great job," Cech said.
By Stephanie S. Garlow, Crimson Staff Writer

Thomas R. Cech, the head of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and a leading contender in Harvard’s presidential search, has bowed out of the race to be the University’s 28th chief.

"I’ve withdrawn my name from consideration for the presidency of Harvard," Cech said in a telephone interview with The Crimson yesterday morning.

"Clearly it’s one of the great positions in academic leadership in the United States. But I already have a great job," he said, noting that his current post allows him to advance science education and biomedical research.

Cech, a 1989 Nobel prize winner in Chemistry, has served as the head of Howard Hughes—the nation’s second-richest philanthropic organization—for the past seven years. He is also a longtime faculty member at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he maintains an active lab. He said that those two commitments weighed heavily in his decision to withdraw his name.

Cech declined to comment on his standing in the search, though individuals close to the search committee have said that he was one of the leading contenders. Radcliffe Institute Dean Drew Gilpin Faust is also considered a particularly strong candidate.

The Board of Overseers, whose approval is needed to select a president, convenes starting on Saturday for a regularly scheduled meeting, fueling speculation that a president could be named this weekend.

Cech notified the search committee and Secretary of the University Marc L. Goodheart ’81, who coordinates the administrative aspects of the search, of his decision yesterday morning, according to Howard Hughes spokeswoman Avice A. Meehan. He called The Crimson shortly thereafter, and informed the Howard Hughes community of his decision via e-mail.

Meehan declined to say when Cech had reached his decision. Last week, in the Denver International Airport, Cech, accompanied by his wife Carol, was noncommittal when asked by The Crimson whether he thought he would be heading north to lead Harvard. He proceeded nonchalantly to the baggage claim after joking with a reporter.

Cech’s longtime friend and professor at Northwestern, Olke C. Uhlenbeck, said he wasn’t surprised by Cech’s decision.

"He likes working in the lab," he said. "If you are the head of Harvard you are not going to get to do science."

It is not unusual for candidates to withdraw their names this late in presidential search, said Judith B. McLaughlin, a senior lecturer on education at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and an expert on presidential transitions.

"It is part of the narrowing of the field," she said, noting that such a decision often does not come as a complete surprise to the search committee.

But, she added, it may become a problem if the withdrawal happens in the very final stage. At that point, such an announcement can "upend" a search, she said.

As Harvard seeks to revitalize its science offerings with an expansion into Allston and the creation of interdisciplinary science initiatives, Cech’s science training appeared to appeal to several search committee members.

And his experience at Howard Hughes also made him an attractive candidate. As the institute’s president he has overseen the construction of a $500-million world-class center for interdisciplinary bioscience research.

Law School Dean Elena Kagan has also long been mentioned as a serious contender for the presidency. Provost Steven E. Hyman is expected to remain on the search committee’s list of candidates until the end, but sources familiar with the committee’s activities said his inclusion reflects recognition of his half-decade as the University’s number-two administrator, and does not necessarily indicate serious consideration.

With the announcement, Cech joins several other serious presidential contenders who have publicly said they are not candidates for Harvard’s top post. Both Stanford Provost John W. Etchemendy and University of Cambridge Vice-Chancellor Alison F. Richard, who were said as recently as last month to be under serious consideration by the committee, have repeatedly denied interest in the post.

University spokesman John D. Longbrake declined to comment on Cech’s withdrawal.

The search commitee is comprised of the six members of the Corporation and three members of the Board of Overseers.

—Javier C. Hernandez contributed to the reporting of this story.
—Staff writer Stephanie S. Garlow can be reached at

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