On June 14, 2017, University President Drew G. Faust announced she would step down at the conclusion of the 2017-2018 school year. She has led Harvard since 2007, through three U.S. presidencies, a largest-in-a-generation financial crisis, and a record-shattering capital campaign.
The Crimson reported on June 21 that the committee to choose her successor would be composed of all 12 members of the Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, in addition to three members of the Board of Overseers, the University’s second highest governing body.
Last week, the Harvard Gazette—a publication run by Harvard Public Affairs and Communications—posted an interview with William F. Lee ’72, the Corporation’s senior fellow. As the de facto head of the search committee, the only member to have participated in a previous search effort, and one of Faust’s strongest backers in 2007, he will likely be an influential voice at the table.
We take a look at what his comments presage for the year-long presidential search as well as the issues and stances the search committee may prioritize.
Here Lee highlights the next year’s—and likely the next president’s—most important agenda items: continuing to centralize Harvard’s sometimes-disparate parts, maintaining academic excellence, navigating the national political climate, improving Harvard’s diversity, and stewarding the University’s financials.
These trends have dominated Harvard’s decade under Faust. Lee describes each item in more detail below, but it’s interesting the note what the head of the Corporation wishes to highlight for potential candidates, many of whom will likely read his remarks.
Presidential searches tend to be marked either by a desire for a continuity or a hankering for change. In 2001, the leadership of mild-mannered former University President Neil L. Rudenstine spurred questions about candidates’ vision for Harvard. By 2006, a divided university sought a less combative leader who differed, at least in style, with former University President Lawrence H. Summers, who resigned after repeated clashes with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Lee’s positive words about Faust suggest the search committee will seek someone else like Faust: dynamic in thought but sometimes cautious in approach.
One of the search committee’s priorities will be vetting candidates for one of largest responsibilities of Harvard’s president: fundraising. In 2014, Faust told The Crimson that she spends nearly half of her time wooing donors and attending events. Since the campaign’s launch, she has visited more than a dozen cities around the world as part of the “Your Harvard” event series alone.
In 2007, one of the two candidates for the job withdrew after concerns that he lacked sufficient experience in fundraising.
The University’s next leader will have to contend with a post-capital campaign fundraising landscape at a time when strong returns from the endowment look less assured and federal research funding is less certain. It seems likely that the Corporation—especially given recent efforts to add members with experience in development and finance—will vet candidates with an eye to directing and expanding the budget of the world’s richest university.
In 2006, Summers resigned after a faculty no-confidence vote, driven in part by objections to his push for the centralization of authority in the University. That hasn’t changed under Faust. And if these comments from Lee are any indication, standardizing policy and centralizing power will continue to be a trend under the next president.
The most visible effects have been in fundraising. The current Harvard capital campaign is the first such University-wide effort, the culmination of centralization moves begun in the 1990s under Rudenstine. As Lee points out, Harvard famously used to put “every tub on its own bottom,” mandating that each school look after itself. By contrast, coordinated “One Harvard” messaging has been omnipresent in recent efforts from Harvard’s fundraising office.
The vision articulated by Lee and Faust, however, is much broader. Lee’s comments to the Gazette argue that changing political, cultural, and technological developments have made “One Harvard” the Corporation’s preferred organizational philosophy.
Early on, in addition to University-wide fundraising, Faust continued efforts to create a University-wide calendar and foster interdisciplinary academic collaboration. Subsequent initiatives included a single sexual assault policy (from which the Law School was subsequently exempted), and virtual education via edX.
If, as Lee said, commitment to centralization represented a litmus test for dean selection, it will certainly be so for the coming presidential search.
Presidential candidates: take note. Here, Lee sets the agenda for the next chapter of the University’s history.
He begins with the finances. The CEO of Harvard Management Company, N.P. Narvekar, will be in the midst of a years-long overhaul of Harvard’s struggling endowment when the next president takes office. Returning the endowment to the forefront of institutional investing will be an important early step for Harvard’s next leader. Poor returns in fiscal year 2016—the latest in a string of subpar returns—have squeezed Harvard’s budgets.
Research funding, threatened by lawmakers in Washington, as well as a concluding capital campaign will also make financial acumen an important quality in Harvard’s next president.
Financial concerns aside, Harvard’s role on the national stage has grown dramatically since the November election of President Donald Trump. Faust has overseen the development of a sizeable lobbying operation—scheduling two additional Washington trips herself—to advocate for Harvard’s interests on science funding, the tax status of the endowment, immigration, and a host of other issues.
She has also maintained a relatively high international profile, traveling to numerous foreign countries and meeting with heads of state including Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Whoever next takes up her Massachusetts Hall office must be prepared, more so than ever before, to lobby on Harvard’s behalf. It is unclear whether this will help or hurt candidates with political experience. Some may argue that they have the relevant experience or expertise; others may say that known partisan quantities are unlikely to be effective at reaching both sides of the aisle.
Harvard has expanded programs in continuing and executive education, developed the online learning portal edX, and sought to provide Harvard resources to Allston residents.
Nitin Nohria, Dean of Harvard Business School, oversaw the launch and growth of HBX, the online learning arm of the Business School. HBS has also under his tenure expanded facilities for executive education, a revenue stream now worth more to the University each year than undergraduate tuition.
The Medical School under newly named Dean George Q. Daley ’82 also recently launched HMX, a similar online certificate program.
“Innovation” in degree programs and learning might encompass the newly announced joint engineering and business master’s degree program or Faust’s emphasis on the arts, including the launch of the Theater, Dance, and Media concentration for undergraduates. Activists have also urged administrators to develop an ethnic studies program; the Committee on Degrees in History and Literature announced an ethnic studies subfield in April.
Such experience could prove an asset if the committee puts an emphasis on new academic programs or alternative revenue sources.
It is less clear here to what issues Lee is referring, but some guesses: interdisciplinary studies; the balance between basic and applied research; the role of start up culture at Harvard; and the University’s place in confronting challenging national and global issues including climate change, a divisive political culture, and global health.
Faust’s tenure at Harvard has seen debates over diversity and inclusion feature prominently. On campus, among other changes, House Masters have been rechristened Faculty Deans, a plaque was installed at Wadsworth House to commemorate slaves held at Harvard, and a task force was formed to study inclusivity on campus. That body—similar to a diversity initiative led by Faust before she became president—is co-led by University Professor Danielle S. Allen, a Government professor and rising star.
In the wake of the presidential election, Faust has grappled with renewed calls for ethnic studies, opposed President Trump’s immigration orders, and rejected calls for Harvard to be labeled a sanctuary campus.
Others, however, argue these measures have gone to far. A slate of Overseers candidates last year called for an end to affirmative action and Harvard currently faces a lawsuit alleging its admissions practices discriminate against Asian Americans. Others believe free speech is under attack on Harvard’s campus.
The single-gender social organization sanctions might also fall into this category.