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Former Candidate Etchemendy Offers Clues to Presidential Search

Stanford University
John Etchemendy, Provost of Stanford University and former candidate for Harvard's presidency, offered his opinion on the current search for Harvard's 29th President.

John W. Etchemendy, former Stanford University provost and a contender in Harvard’s last presidential search, knew how to ensure Stanford's presidential search committee kept the names of candidates confidential.

Etchemendy would sit down with searchers and relate the “horror story” of how, in a previous search at an unspecified university, one candidate—a sitting president at a different school—ended up losing his job after the shortlist of finalists leaked to a student newspaper.

“That person, it turned out, did not get the job and was fired from his current position, because he showed a lack of loyalty to his current position,” Etchemendy said. “So that’s the kind of horror story in the back of your mind.”

Etchemendy—who served as the vice chair of Stanford’s 1998 presidential search committee and who said he has consulted Harvard search committees—said this story helps explain Harvard’s desire to keep candidate names private in its ongoing search for the successor to University President Drew G. Faust. The University has been seeking the next president since Faust announced over the summer she plans to step down in June 2018.

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Harvard presidential searches are known for their secrecy; searchers have sometimes gone to extreme measures to keep candidate names confidential, even sneaking contenders up back-service stairways and through garages to evade reporters. This year’s iteration of the search has been no different. The committee seeking Harvard’s 29th president—comprising all twelve members of the Harvard Corporation and three members of the Board of Overseers—has repeatedly declined to comment on the search.

In an interview last week, though, Etchemendy offered some clues to how Harvard’s search is likely progressing. Drawing on his own experience leading scores of administrative searches at Stanford, Etchemendy described a monthslong, intense process involving hundreds of hours of research, interviews, and exhausting travel meant to bring searchers together.

Etchemendy also drew on more personal experience of Harvard’s search process; in the University’s last presidential search, Etchemendy made the search committee’s shortlist, The Crimson reported in Jan. 2007.

Search committee members typically spend the first two months gathering information about candidates as well as the state of the university, Etchemendy said. This timeline matches with Harvard’s current search; senior fellow of the Corporation William F. Lee ’72, who chairs the University’s search committee, has said the committee spent much of July and August doing this kind of “information-gathering.”

Etchemendy said this kind of research is necessary to find the right set of candidates—he said top contenders are almost never people who would apply for the job.

“So obviously you advertise the opening, but the applicants you get are generally not really qualified, which is kind of odd,” Etchemendy said. “So you have to actually do an active search and figure out who is out there, who we might be interested in.”

Following that research period, committee members begin travelling around to meet people—usually top administrators at universities across the country—to gather their input on the search, according to Etchemendy. He said this input-seeking phase generally lasts for another two to three months.

He added that, sometimes, higher education experts interviewed by search committees end up as candidates themselves.

“So it’s funny, you meet with a person, and ask about, ‘What is your opinion of Harvard? What should we be looking for in a president, who is out there that we should be looking at?’” Etchemendy said. “And it might well be that the person you are talking to is also someone that you are interested in.”

After wrapping up these meetings, committees work to pare to a shortlist, Etchemendy said. Committee members then bring in a select handful of finalists for day-long interviews, “maybe even day and a half” interviews.

Searchers typically prepare a list of questions for the candidate to answer, but only tell contenders some of the topics in advance. Candidate interviews take place in a variety of settings: at more formal meetings as well as over meals like lunch and dinner. Etchemendy said this is meant to test how candidates behave “socially,” as well as how they would interact with top donors in social settings.

The constant travel and the hours and hours of interviews are meant to bring searchers together, Etchemendy said. He said the search process “bonds the committee.”

“That is really important because you don’t want to get to the end of the search and have committee members either not trusting each other or really violently disagreeing about who are viable candidates,” he said. “And so there’s a kind of community building exercise that goes on.”

Another element that fosters a sense of camaraderie is the total confidentiality of the process, Etchemendy said. He noted that no candidate knows who any of the other candidates are until the very end of the search. Even searchers’ closest family members are kept in the dark.

“I tell search committee members, don’t even tell your spouse what’s going on in the search,” Etchemendy said.

Etchemendy said he is unsure who is likely on Harvard’s shortlist this time around, though he said he thinks it is an “absolute incredible privilege and honor” to hold the University’s top job. Nonetheless, he said he was never seriously interested in the position in 2007.

He said he made his lack of interest clear to the 2007 search committee “early on.” But he said he did not mind reading his name as a potential candidate in The Crimson.

“So you know, it doesn’t hurt—basically it doesn’t hurt anybody to be mentioned as a potential candidate for the presidency of Harvard,” he said.

—Staff writer Idil Tuysuzoglu can be reached at idil.tuysuzoglu@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @IdilTuysuzoglu.

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