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Harvard May Quietly Turn to Outside Firms in Presidential Search

The Harvard Corporation meets in Loeb House.
The Harvard Corporation meets in Loeb House. By Megan M. Ross
By Brandon J. Dixon and Claire E. Parker, Crimson Staff Writers

As it solicits advice from students, professors, and alumni about who should be Harvard’s next president, the committee tasked with replacing University President Drew G. Faust may also turn to a familiar set of outsiders: executive search firms.

But they may not say so.

Universities will often enlist the help of outside search firms to publicize administrative searches or scrutinize potential candidates. And while Harvard has frequently turned to the firms for positions across the University, it has historically run its presidential searches in-house, relying on an selection committee comprised of members of its two governing boards: the Corporation and the alumni-staffed Board of Overseers.

But even if Harvard decides to officially forgo a search firm this time, Jan Greenwood—president of the higher education search firm Greenwood/Asher—said it may still consult with one informally.

“Even universities that don’t appear to be using search firms are using them in a behind-the-scenes kind of way,” Greenwood said.

William F. Lee, the senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation and chair of the presidential selection committee, wrote in an email that there is “nothing new right now” on the committee’s decision on the matter.

If the University does retain a search firm formally or informally, John Assunto, managing partner of the search firm WorldBridge Partners, said it might look at a similar pool of candidates as some peer institutions, which rely on a cache of external search firms to manage their outreach. The searches can seem “incestous,” Assunto said, as Harvard reviews candidates often considered for top academic jobs.

“Academic institutions are very deep in what we refer to as leather bound thinking: ‘we’ve always been doing it this way, and because they’ve always been doing it that way, what ends up happening is they don’t want to change,’ Assunto said. “What happens is you get a lot of candidates, especially senior administration at academic institutions that are regurgitated, that just came from a similar spot.”

The search is still in its initial outreach stage. At this point, the search committee members have begun to solicit input from faculty, students, staff, and alumni across the University about the qualities and backgrounds that would make for an ideal candidate. Last month, Lee sent a message calling on Harvard affiliates to send their submissions to a designated email address.

Then, the committee will may create what Greenwood called a “position description,” which identifies core challenges and opportunities facing the institution and the skills needed to meet them. “That becomes almost like a contract for what the search committee is looking for,” Greenwood said. “So your key starting point is what the position description identifies.”

How long it takes to create this sketch can vary. Stanford University, which announced its newest president in February 2016, came up with a list of “presidential attributes” after gathering feedback through an online survey and a town hall meeting last fall. At the University of Virginia—which is in the final stages of selecting its next president—the search committee held over 50 feedback sessions during its outreach phase, according to The Daily Progress, over the course of four months before coming up with a final “position profile” in May.

Even without the help of an outside firm, this year’s committee will be larger than ever before, featuring the full Corporation—which announced that it would expand its membership in 2010—and three members of the Overseers for a total of 15 members. Search firm expert Melissa K. Trotta said the size of the body isn’t “overly large” for a presidential search, and may improve the reach of the search.

“One of the values of a group of this size is that various lines of thinking will likely be represented, and if the committee functions well, there will be some healthy debate as candidates are identified,” Trotta, associate managing principal of Washington D.C.-based AGB Search wrote.

—Staff writer Brandon J. Dixon can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @BrandonJoDixon.

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