A Plan for the Provost

Garber should prioritize interdisciplinary initiatives across the University

As Provost of Stanford University, Condoleezza Rice was an intellectual figurehead for a large, research university much like ours. She balanced the budget, was a courtside staple at Cardinal basketball games, and forcefully articulated a vision for a multicultural humanities education for undergraduates. President Faust’s new provost, Alan M. Garber ’76, was a tenured professor throughout Rice’s term as provost at Stanford, and thus had a prime seat from which to watch a charismatic leader at work. This is a lucky coincidence, for given the evolution of the provost’s job over the past 19 years, Harvard is more in need of a Stanford-style provost than ever.

One of Faust’s long-term objectives is to unite Harvard’s disparate academic divisions and create stronger University-wide ties. To this end, she needs a strong provost, because diffusing the managerial responsibilities of the president and overseeing University academics was the reason the position was created. As former President Neil L. Rudenstine told The Crimson in 1991, “the main job would be to try to see how one could stitch together the pieces, how to get the whole to operate more collaboratively as a whole across schools.” The provost ensures that the University is greater than the sum of its parts.

Unfortunately, for the past two decades, the job has lacked a clear definition, and has primarily entailed being the ad hoc manager of individual academic initiatives. The first two provosts lasted for little more than two years each. The third, Harvey V. Fineberg ’67, served mainly as an informal advisor to Rudenstine, and resigned when Larry Summers was named president. Steven E. Hyman, the outgoing provost, has significantly expanded the role. He played a central role in planning the erstwhile Allston Science Complex, and nearly doubled the administrative size of the office.

Yet it seems clear that none of the previous provosts have been able to bring the job to its necessary dimensions. At a research university of Harvard’s scope, it is essential for the provost to do more than effect projects the president is too busy to deal with personally. While a close and complementary relationship with the president is necessary—and Garber’s background in the sciences and social sciences seems a good fit for Faust’s background in the humanities—the provost must be a strong presence on campus, independent of the president.

As the academic head of the University’s schools, the provost has a great opportunity to articulate an intellectual vision for the University. To this end, we hope Garber publicly declares his mission and goals early in his tenure. As hard as weaving together schools with as diverse an ethos, student body, and professional purpose as Harvard’s will be, it is essential for the provost not to shy away from generalizing the University’s academic mission to the extent necessary, in order for the term “University” to mean something more than a shared central phonebook.


When considering these goals, we hope that Garber will focus his energies on fostering an interdisciplinary atmosphere at Harvard. The University is already headed in this direction, with the rise in prominence of initiatives such as the Harvard Institute for Global Health and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. However, there is a strong need for an academic environment on this campus that better synthesizes the expertise of all academic divisions. To aid in cross-school collaboration throughout the academic hierarchy, there should, for instance, be an established protocol available for helping community members set up and undertake interdisciplinary initiatives. Garber should compel community members in various branches of the university to undertake interdisciplinary initiatives to utilize Harvard's intellectual breadth. Indeed, as the longtime director of Stanford’s Center for Health Policy, Garber has done just that, and we trust he will do the same in his role here.

As the first provost with extensive administrative experience at another university, Garber promises to set a new tone for this young office. We hope he brings from California instincts for compromise and academic conviction. Now more than ever, Harvard needs a strong provost.


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