Theodore V. Wells, Jr. is a force in the courtroom: His sharp analytical mind and practical judgement propelled him to prominence as one of the country’s top defense attorneys, friends and colleagues say.
Now, though, Wells will turn his discerning eye toward finding a president for Harvard who will satisfy the University’s many constituencies and promote diversity, according to those who know him.
A member of the Harvard Corporation—the University’s highest governing body—since 2012, Wells is part of the 15-member committee leading the search for a replacement for University President Drew G. Faust, who will step down in June 2018.
Part of the first waves of black students to integrate both the Washington, D.C. public school system and the College of the Holy Cross, Wells is no stranger to adversity. He received a joint M.B.A./J.D. from Harvard Business School and Law School in 1976, and from there, rise through the ranks of corporate law.
Since then, he has been determined to ensure that young black people have access to the same opportunities—and ultimately, the heights of the legal world and academia. He co-chaired the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, and has mentored many black students and younger faculty at the Law School.
“He’s been a pillar for multiple generations that have come through Harvard Law School,” said Kristin A. Turner, a former president of the Black Law Students Association and one of Wells’s mentees.
Wells is a firm believer that there is “no conflict between excellence and diversity,” according to Janet D. Bell, the wife of Wells’s former Law professor Derrick Bell.
It is this belief that informs Wells’s priorities on the Corporation, Law School friend and Merck CEO Kenneth C. Frazier said. Particularly at a time when a high-profile affirmative action lawsuit is challenging Harvard’s efforts to promote diversity, Frazier said Wells is likely to look for presidential contenders who share this view.
“I know that he cares about this concept that educational excellence and educational opportunity are complementary and consistent goals for a school like Harvard,” Frazier said. “I would suspect that he would be keenly listening to whether the prospective candidates also value those two things which often in our society are treated as though they are not consistent and complementary.”
Bell said Wells is “forward-moving” and will likely consider where Harvard will be in five or 10 years when culling candidates.
Still, friends say, Wells is a pragmatist, not a firebrand. When protests over racial issues flared up at the Law School in 2016, Wells counseled students to ensure that their activism did not imperil their academic performance.
Law Professor and Winthrop House Faculty Dean Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., one of Wells’s mentees, said Wells is able to perceive and reconcile conflicting interests.
“He’s got a keen mind and is able to drill down to the nub of an issue quite quickly and recognize what values are in tension in any sort of problem he is asked to resolve,” Sullivan said.
Wells has frequently positioned himself as a conduit between students and administrators at the Law School, Frazier said—and in the presidential search, he will likely aim to strike a similar balancing act between the various priorities of different constituencies.
“That’s the value of having a person like Ted, because he’s lived on both sides of the tracks, so to speak,” Frazier said.
—Staff writer Claire E. Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ClaireParkerDC.