Once every several decades, roughly 200 cardinals file silently into the Sistine Chapel to choose the next pope.
The cardinals do not emerge until they have selected their new leader, sometimes remaining inside—eating, sleeping, and voting behind closed doors—for days. Eager watchers in the Vatican City and around the globe learn the cardinals have made a decision when puffs of white smoke rise from the chapel’s chimney.
Some call the papal search the most secret search in the modern world.
Harvard’s most recent presidential search, though, may come a close second.
The University’s search process is historically renowned for its secrecy—and in Harvard’s hunt for the successor to University President Drew G. Faust, conducted over a nine-month period between June 2017 and Feb. 2018, the search committee lived up to reputation.
The searchers kept information locked within an intimate inner circle. For much of the search—especially when the committee began interviewing final candidates—committee members all but refused to discuss top contenders with anyone other than their fellow searchers, according to individuals with knowledge of the search. The Crimson granted the individuals anonymity to discuss confidential search proceedings.
One individual involved in the search said the process did “feel a little bit like [cardinals] going into the Vatican until we see the smoke come up.” Another individual with knowledge of the search compared the committee’s tight hold on the information to a “cone of silence.”
The committee’s presidential pick did not break the cone. Lawrence S. Bacow—a former searcher and member of the Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing body—was named Harvard’s 29th president on Feb. 11 around 3:00 p.m. The announcement marked the first time the vast majority of Harvard affiliates even learned Bacow was in the running.
Nonetheless, interviews with more than 200 individuals, as well as emails and documents reviewed by The Crimson, shed some light on the committee’s internal deliberations. For a long time, Dean of the Business School Nitin Nohria led the pack of candidates, according to two individuals with knowledge of the search. The Crimson reported Nohria was likely a frontrunner in Oct. 2017.
But in early December, around the time Bacow stepped off the search committee to become a contender, Nohria’s star dimmed, the two individuals said. Once Bacow—the consummate insider—became a possibility, his name swiftly rose to the top of the list, according to the two individuals.
Much like the papal selection, the committee’s final pick came from within its own ranks.
The search began with an email.
Faust sent a missive to Harvard affiliates around 1:00 p.m. June 14 announcing her plan to depart Harvard’s top position in June 2018. Roughly 10 minutes later, William F. Lee '72—the senior fellow of the Corporation—sent a follow-up email officially launching the search for Faust’s successor.
Less than a month later, Lee named the people who would lead the search: the official 2017-2018 presidential search committee comprised the 12 members of the Corporation and three members of the Board of Overseers, the University’s second-highest governing body.
The committee swung into action with more emails, launching an outreach campaign that would eventually reach hundreds of thousands of Harvard alumni and affiliates. For the next couple of months—well into November—the search remained largely quiet, stuck in “information-gathering mode,” as Corporation member Susan L. Graham '64 put it in a September interview.
Throughout this period, members focused on gathering input and refrained from seriously discussing individual candidates—even among themselves, according to Graham.
In addition to Lee's letters to Harvard affiliates soliciting nominations and thoughts on the challenges facing the University, searchers also began contacting leaders and experts in higher education, politics, and business in part to scout potential candidates.
“If I were to guess for you, we probably touched base by email, telephone, meeting with well over 400,000 people,” Lee said in an April interview.
The committee’s outreach bore fruit, drawing nearly 700 nominations for potential candidates including former United States President Barack Obama. Obama cropped up repeatedly as a nominee, according to several individuals with knowledge of the search.
In mid-August, the search committee announced the formation of two advisory committees: a faculty group and a staff group. A month later, the committee created a third advisory body, this one composed of students. Each of the three committees was tasked with canvassing their respective constituencies and reporting back to the searchers.
Like the search committee itself, the three groups remained mostly mum throughout the process. Leaders of all three groups repeatedly declined interviews during the search. Members of the student advisory committee prepared an official report outlining its findings and presented it to the searchers; the advisory group, however, did not release the report publicly.
In an emailed statement in May, Lee thanked the faculty, student, and staff advisory committees for their “energetic efforts,” which he wrote helped inform the search.
Bacow played a somewhat more visible role than did most search committee members in these early months.
On Oct. 13, he spoke to a group of Latinx alumni and student group leaders in Loeb House as part of a meeting organized by Shirley V. Cardona, president of the Harvard Business School Latino Alumni Association.
The group had prepared a list of eight potential Latinx contenders for the Harvard presidency, Cardona said—but Bacow did not discuss specific candidates with the alumni. Bacow told the group the search committee had not begun making a list of candidates. The October meeting marked one of the few interactions between searchers and alumni that made its way into the press.
“I was in full listening mode,” Bacow told a Crimson reporter as he left Loeb House the morning of the meeting. He declined to comment further on the search at the time.
In an interview after the meeting, Cardona said she and the Latino alumni association hoped to speak often with the search committee’s final pick.
“Our objective is to have an open line of communication with the president,” she said.
By late October, at least four likely presidential favorites had emerged: Harvard Business School Dean Nohria, University professor Danielle S. Allen, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith, and University Provost Alan M. Garber '76.
Michael T. Kerr ’81, one of the co-chairs of the Harvard College Fund Executive Committee who said he knows many search committee members “very well,” named these four as top candidates in Oct. 2017.
“From what I can tell those are the names that everybody thinks are on the shortlist of the internal people, and we’ll see what list comes beyond that,” Kerr said at the time.
All four repeatedly did not respond to requests for comment or declined to comment throughout the search. Smith and Garber again declined to comment for this story. Nohria did not respond to a request for comment.
Asked about her candidacy in May, Allen provided a written statement.
“The purpose of university presidential searches is to achieve a fine selection on the basis of a thorough, comprehensive, well-prepared process that equips fiduciaries with a full understanding of the needs, challenges, and possibilities of the institution,” she wrote in the statement. “Harvard has both made a fine selection and also probably still has room to grow in terms of maximizing the caliber of the search process and its value to the institution as a learning opportunity.”
More than a dozen alumni and professors speculated at the time that the Business School dean was the clear frontrunner. One individual familiar with the search confirmed that, in the early stages, Nohria far outstripped his competitors.
Nohria has built a reputation as a strong fundraiser and leader since his appointment as dean in 2010. He helped raise more than $1 billion for the Business School’s capital campaign and oversaw a drive to improve gender equity at the school. He was also instrumental in securing John A Paulson’s $400 million gift that renamed the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
Search committee members may have seen Nohria’s administrative experience, fundraising acumen, and familiarity with Harvard as advantages. The University has historically prized internal presidents, who often benefit from both institutional knowledge and greater ease with top alumni donors.
But in December, Nohria lost his lead. Two individuals with knowledge of the search said Nohria’s fall from grace came around the same time Bacow stepped off the search committee.
One individual said Nohria fell short of the presidency in part due to concerns regarding his business background, which some committee members feared might prove unpalatable to Harvard at large—and to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences especially. Another individual said Bacow proved too tantalizing an option to resist.
“As soon as the list got expanded to someone the committee knew intimately, Bacow became the favorite,” the individual said.
Corporation member and searcher Shirley M. Tilghman said in a May interview the committee considered other candidates just as seriously as it did Bacow.
“The committee spent a lot of time after he left the committee considering, I would say, a significant number of other candidates and I think we worked extremely hard and self-consciously to keep an open mind,” she said.
Asked in part about Nohria’s fall and Bacow's rise, Lee wrote in an emailed statement in May that the committee was “fortunate” to garner “extensive input” from “a great many people” throughout the search.
“We learned a great deal which educated the search process,” Lee wrote. “We are grateful to everyone who offered such helpful perspectives on Harvard’s future opportunities and challenges, as well as confidential views on a range of outstanding nominees.”
Baacow has long-standing ties to the University. He was appointed to the Corporation in May 2011; in the seven years since, he has become one of Faust’s closest advisors. Lee said at the press conference announcing Bacow’s selection that Faust often looked to Bacow when “solving hard problems.”
Bacow also boasts several Harvard degrees: an M.P.P. and Ph.D. in public policy from the Kennedy School, as well as a J.D. from the Law School. He has served in various positions at the Kennedy School, the Graduate School of Education, and the Law School. Nohria, by comparison, earned his undergraduate degree from the India Institute of Technology Bombay and his Ph.D. in management from MIT.
One individual familiar with the search said some members of the search committee particularly favored candidates with Harvard degrees.
“It wasn’t a deciding factor, but it was a tie-breaking factor,” the individual said.
As a final point in his favor, Bacow garnered the backing of some of Harvard’s faculty during the search.
In November, several members of the faculty advisory committee each sent separate emails to Lee and to the committee chair, Dean of the Arts and Humanities Robin Kelsey, suggesting Bacow as a candidate, according to a faculty committee member granted anonymity to discuss confidential proceedings. Kelsey did not respond to a request for comment.
Former Overseer Joan M. Hutchins ’61 said search committee member Scott A. Abell '72 told her that, during the search, Harvard’s faculty “kept coming back” to the search committee asking that Bacow be considered as a candidate. Abell did not respond to a request for comment.
Bacow said in an April interview he was aware of faculty support during the search.
“As the search progressed, there came a point in the search in which a number of members of the faculty advisory committee wrote to Bill Lee, I believe—the senior fellow—suggesting that they thought that I should be considered as a strong candidate,” Bacow said.
One day in late 2017, while on a car ride home from the airport, Lee decided it would be “irresponsible” not to at least pose the question to his fellow searcher.
“So I called him and said, ‘What about you?’” Lee said at the February press conference announcing Bacow’s selection. “And we had a good discussion and he decided to think about it.”
Bacow mulled it over. He checked with his wife, Adele. Then he stepped off the committee and into Harvard history.
Soon after Bacow’s emergence as a candidate, the committee—already close-mouthed—stopped talking to almost anyone outside their circle, according to two individuals with knowledge of the search.
One individual described the total silence as “going dark.” The other said the committee “tightened up” and “buttoned down.”
The faculty advisory committee—which met frequently with the search committee in the search’s earlier stages—was now kept out of the loop, cut off from search updates after their final Dec. 4 presentation to the committee, according to Law School professor and committee chair William P. Alford.
“Eventually the people charged with the real decision then had to deliberate amongst themselves, interview candidates and so forth,” Alford said.
During this stage, the group worked to slim its candidate list; The Crimson reported in late Dec. 2017 that the committee had narrowed its list of top contenders to under 20 names. Tilghman confirmed in a May interview that the committee compiled a shortlist of candidates, though she declined to specify the number.
As the year turned, the committee began interviewing the most promising presidential hopefuls.
Like most everything else in the search, these interviews were shrouded in secrecy. Committee members—sometimes in small bunches and sometimes in larger groups—gathered for hours in undisclosed locations to grill candidates in part on their visions for Harvard.
Bacow said in an April interview he was aware “other serious candidates” were being interviewed around this time.
“There were multiple rounds of interviews that were scheduled after that,” he said, referring to his December decision to step down and become a candidate. “I was told that weekends were being set aside to interview candidates and I just know from the scheduling, well, we had slots so they tended to do it on a Saturday and Sunday, one person in the morning, one person in the afternoon on each day.”
“I know that other people were meeting with the committee and I was one of those,” he added. “I was one of a number of folks.”
Lee said the length and settings of different interviews “varied quite a bit” based on a number of concerns, including “who [the candidates] were and where they were” in terms of geographic location.
At least one interview likely took place in residential Belmont, Mass. on Jan. 13, offering a window into this stage of the process. Crimson reporters stationed in the street spotted Corporation member and searcher David M. Rubenstein—conveyed inside a chauffeured black SUV—passing into the driveway of a fellow searcher’s mansion around 10:30 a.m. that morning.
The house—its driveway marked with a green mailbox bearing a “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” balloon—belonged to Overseer and search committee member Tracy P. Palandjian '93. Over the course of the next hour or so, several other vehicles—some chauffeured, some not—also pulled in and discharged passengers, some of whom The Crimson later identified as search committee members.
Directly after this first round of arrivals, a separate black SUV with tinted windows pulled up to to the driveway and remained tucked beside the house for the next two hours before departing. The car—its license plate labeled “COMM81”—arrived around 10:30 a.m. and departed around 1:30 p.m.
An hour after that, a second black SUV with tinted windows—its license plate labeled “COMM80”—pulled in and also remained by the house for roughly two hours. That SUV arrived around 2:30 p.m. and departed around 4:30 p.m. Protected by the black-tinted windows, the passengers inside both SUVs remained invisible to Crimson reporters standing in the street.
When darkness fell around 5:30 p.m., the meeting appeared to disband. At least 12 individuals—two of whom The Crimson identified as Corporation and search committee members Susan L. Carney '73 and Joseph J. O'Donnell '67—piled into personal or hired cars and left the premises. One chauffeur, who arrived driving a Tesla, told Crimson reporters he was in Belmont to pick up “Scott”—likely referring to searcher Scott Abell.
Immediately after that meeting, Lee declined to answer a question asking whether the committee interviewed candidates Jan. 13. At the time, he also did not respond to a question asking about the identity of possible interviewees.
Asked in a later April interview about the specific locations of candidate interviews throughout the process, Lee pointed to the Belmont meeting.
“That I’m not going to tell you. Then you’ll know next time. You already showed up in Belmont,” Lee said in April. “We have to keep some secrets.”
In the waning days of the search, the committee exhaustively reviewed its top candidates and measured their credentials against the task at hand.
Searcher Jessica Tuchman Mathews '67 said the committee weighed each contender’s ability to lead and oversee the University’s faculty, students, and finances. Mathews added the search committee particularly sought a president who could advocate for Harvard and for higher education on a national scale and who could expertly handle University initiatives like the new Allston campus.
“I will say this,” Lee said in the April interview. “One thing I can promise you is that the search committee felt very comfortable with the information we had on every single one of the candidates before we made a decision.”
Tilghman and Lee said the search committee landed on a final choice roughly two weeks before Feb. 11, the date of the official press conference announcing Bacow’s selection. Tilghman said the search committee picked Bacow by taking a formal vote.
“We were selecting a president,” she said. “We had to come to a decision.”
Lee, Mathews, and Tilghman all said one of Bacow’s most laudable qualities—which contributed to his selection as president—is his extensive knowledge of the challenges confronting Harvard and higher education.
“The wonderful thing about President-elect Bacow is that he understands deeply, in my view, many of the challenges that Harvard is going to face in the next, say, five to 10 years,” Tilghman said.
Corporation member and searcher Kenneth I. Chenault said in February he agrees with Tilghman, noting he thinks Bacow will be able to connect with people beyond the gates of Harvard Yard.
“He’s going to do an unbelievable job because he understands both the needs of Harvard, but also the needs of higher education,” Chenault said. “I think he will speak to the world in a very powerful way.”
The searchers presented their final pick to the Board of Overseers for approval and announced Bacow’s selection on the same day, according to Lee. That timeline matches procedures followed in the past three searches.
Unlike his presidential predecessors, though, Bacow was not forced to conceal his identity as he arrived at the Overseers’ Feb. 11 confirmation meeting, held in Harvard’s Loeb House. During the final moments before her official selection in 2007, Faust at one point ducked into a shopping complex to avoid reporters.
Bacow, by contrast, strolled calmly past Crimson reporters standing outside Loeb that rainy morning. He did not even dip his umbrella to hide his face. Asked if the search committee planned to announce the new president that day, Bacow replied, “This is a Board of Overseers meeting.”
As the clock ticked toward 3 p.m. later that day, Corporation members including Bacow made their way from Loeb to the Barker Center. In the center’s Thompson Room, Lee mounted a prepared stage, faced an audience of roughly 100 Corporation members, Overseers, former Harvard presidents, and members of the press, and revealed the identity of the University’s 29th president.
Following Lee’s introduction, Bacow stepped up to the podium, grinning and sporting a Harvard-crested tie. He thanked the search committee for entrusting him with the keys to Massachusetts Hall, the traditional office of the University president.
In a brief interview after the press conference, Bacow said he still has a lot to learn.
Recalling the words he once spoke to a group of Latinx alumni as a searcher, Bacow told reporters, “I’m in sponge mode.”
—Staff writer Caroline S. Engelmayer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cengelmayer13.
—Staff writer Kristine E. Guillaume can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @krisguillaume.
—Staff writer Jamie D. Halper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.