Since the University’s founding in 1636, Harvard has seen 28 presidents. Of these, 19—more than 60 percent—held a professional role at the University before taking their seat in the president’s centuries-old Massachusetts Hall office.
Harvard’s predilection for internal presidents has only increased in the last 100 years. Since the early 1900s, all but one University president held an administrative or faculty position at the school prior to assuming the top job. The one president who did not—Nathan M. Pusey ’28—sported multiple degrees from Harvard. In the past, University presidential search committees sometimes passed over frontrunners for their lack of Harvard credentials.
Joan M. Hutchins ’61, a former president of the Board of Overseers, said she is well aware Harvard prefers its own. She gave a blunt assessment of the pattern.
“Harvard can be a little full of itself,” she said.
Now, as the University enters the final phase of its search for the 29th president, the current presidential search committee faces a choice: Stick with the status quo and choose someone from within, or break from precedent by looking outside Harvard’s gates.
The Crimson reported in Dec. 2017 that the search committee—comprising all 12 members of the Harvard Corporation as well as three Overseers—had narrowed its candidate pool to a shortlist of under 20 names. Alumni, donors, and professors say multiple individuals currently employed by Harvard are likely on this list, including Business School Dean Nitin Nohria, Government professor Danielle S. Allen, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith, and University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76.
Experts and Harvard affiliates say these internal candidates—if chosen for the job—would bring a deep knowledge of Harvard unavailable to those outside the University.
In particular, prominent alumni and analysts argue internal candidates’ familiarity with Harvard affords them two main advantages: internal candidates can transition more easily into one of the most demanding roles in higher education and, once in office, can more quickly cultivate donor relationships vital to keeping the University financially solvent.
The job of president demands a quick adjustment. University President Drew G. Faust began appointing staff months before she was officially handed Harvard's keys and charter. In one example, she named Michael D. Smith to be the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences weeks before she set foot in her office.
In a Nov. 2017 interview, Faust—who plans to step down in June 2018—said she expects her successor will begin calling the shots months before the official transition.
"Would I expect the person to start making decisions right away on July 1st? They better!" she said.
Search experts and high-level administrators—both at Harvard and at other schools—say having prior experience at a school makes the rapid-fire presidential transition smoother.
Search expert Paula B. Fazli ’85, founding partner of higher education search firm Sage Search Partners, said internal candidates have a leg up when it comes to understanding campus culture.
“They could probably transition into the presidency a little more easily because they've known the institutional culture, the way decisions are made, the institutional politics,” Fazli said. “There wouldn't be as big of a learning curve in terms of institutional culture.”
Economics professor Eric S. Maskin ’72, who has taught at the University for close to four decades, said he thinks Harvard’s culture is particularly difficult to penetrate. Long-running traditions and 12 independent schools make Harvard a “complicated place,” Maskin said.
He added he thinks an internal candidate would better understand the University’s complexity.
“It takes time to learn about those complications and someone who has already been here for a while has a head start,” Maskin said.
At a day-to-day level—whether planning long-term initiatives or simply scheduling meetings—an internal candidate would also benefit from pre-existing relationships with faculty and staff, according to former Stanford Provost John W. Etchemendy.
Etchemendy, who served as the vice chair of Stanford’s 1998 presidential committee, was a contender in Harvard’s last presidential search.
“I think an internal candidate always has the advantage of knowing the institution and knowing the players,” Etchemendy said. “That’s very important because you want to know who to listen to and who not to listen to.”
Ted Webb, leader of executive search firm Ford Webb Associates, said an internal candidate can apply their knowledge of the University to seek out and appoint more capable leadership.
“They have that history, they have those relationships and reinvent themselves in the best sense and bring leadership into an organization that they know,” Webb said.
Harvard’s next president will need to fill at least one major administrative position soon after accepting the job. Tamara E. Rogers ’74, University vice president of alumni affairs and development, who oversaw the University's record-breaking capital campaign, also announced she will leave Harvard this year.
Nohria may have an advantage over other presidential possibles in this category. He is known for his ability to identify strong candidates for high-profile administrative roles, according to longtime Business School lecturer and friend Scott A. Snook.
“One of his greatest skills is selecting talent,” Snook said. “He has this unique ability to see gifts in people and then help them and is one of the best mentors on the faculty.”
As the search committee seeks to make a final pick in coming weeks, members will likely begin interviewing front-runners in intimate settings: spending hours behind closed doors and chatting over meals, according to Etchemendy.
Etchemendy said these kinds of evaluations serve a particular purpose—a tactic meant to test how the candidate behaves “socially,” an important barometer for how a contender might interact with top donors in social situations.
One of the most important items on the University president’s fundraising agenda involves working directly with Harvard’s biggest donors to coordinate gifts that satisfy benefactors and fit specific needs across campus. Some donors and higher education search experts have said this ability to fundraise will be key over the next few years.
Harvard relies heavily on fundraising to boost its income, according to New York University Finance Professor David L. Yermack ’85. Yermack said this dependence means the next president must be “very good at working with alumni,” a task likely eased for an internal candidate.
“Whoever becomes the new president is going to spend most of their time raising money and cultivating donor relationships,” Yermack said.
Donors may be more receptive to requests for funding when the ask comes from someone familiar with Harvard—even more so when it comes from a former classmate, or a former seatmate during lecture or section.
Senior fellow of the Corporation, William F. Lee ’72, who chairs the search committee, said the next president’s ability to fundraise and support the University’s $37.1 billion endowment will be a critical consideration in the search in a June 2017 interview with the Harvard Gazette.
Over the course of her tenure, Faust spent a significant amount of time raising money for the capital campaign, meeting with alumni around the world to solicit donations. The campaign, which had raised $8 billion as of June 2017, is set to end in fewer than six months, likely leaving Harvard vulnerable to a future of poor endowment returns and increased federal taxation.
A number of alumni who said they support Nohria’s candidacy have cited his knowledge of the University and capacity to fundraise as reasons he would make a good Harvard president. Nohria helped secure John A. Paulson’s $400 million gift to the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences in 2015, marking the largest gift in University history.
—Staff writer Angela N. Fu can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @angelanfu.
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—Staff writer Jamie D. Halper can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @jamiedhalper.
—Staff writer Idil Tuysuzoglu contributed reporting.