As Harvard searches for its 29th president in the coming months, it will seek a leader who can manage a large research university and who boasts a celebrated academic background.
Mills joined the Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing body in 2014, after serving on the Board of Overseers between 1999 and 2005. Under Obama, she led the Small Business Administration from 2009 to 2013. After she left the Cabinet, she joined the teaching staff of Harvard Business School—where Nitin Nohria, who many consider a front runner in the search, is dean—as a Senior Fellow. Her connections to academia extend beyond Harvard; her husband, Barry Mills, was the president of Bowdoin College between 2001 and 2015.
Prior to her government service, she was involved in private equity, management consulting, and a number of corporate boards. She still sits as a director on a number of company boards, and is the president of MMP Group, a private equity firm based in Maine.
Lilli Gordon—Mills’s friend and the founder of First Aid Beauty, where Mills is a director and investor—said Mills’s expansive professional network will be a major asset to the search committee’s work.
“There’s probably nobody relevant to the search that she doesn’t know,” Gordon said.
Ramana Nanda, a professor at the Business School, said her network spans a variety of fields.
“She’s a person who just has a tremendous network that she can tap into in some sense having been in the private sector, in government, in academia,” Nanda said. “There’s relatively few academics who have spanned that range of constituencies or networks.”
Nanda also said Mills’s time in the business world rounds out her academic endeavors, adding her academic research has expanded her practical knowledge from business experience.
“I think that it really helps to have spent time in the University as a business person because it provides this mix of perspectives,” Nanda said. “That’s the unique element that she brings to the table — having deeply lived in multiple constituencies as a practitioner but also had the opportunity to step back as an academic and think about these things in a dispassionate way.”
Gordon said Mills will be valuable to the search because she’s willing to ask the hard questions.
“She is probably the most insightful business person I have ever met,” Gordon said. “If there’s that one questions that’s sort of lurking in the back of people’s minds but just doesn’t quite make it forward, she’s going to be the one who asks it. She definitely informs any debate or discussion to an incredible degree.”
Lena G. Goldberg, a senior lecturer at the Business School, said Mills’s own background in business and leadership will likely determine what she looks for in potential candidates.
“If one were looking at a presidential search committee, clearly someone who understands the economy, the role of business and small business in the economy would add tremendous value,” Goldberg said. “Professor Mills has also been a leader and understands what takes to be a leader.”
Gordon added that Mills isn’t one to have a narrow view of what makes a successful leader.
“Karen is smart enough and she is not dogmatic so I think she will be open to different models of leadership,” Gordon said.
—Staff writer Jamie D. Halper can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @JamieDHalper.