How Harvard Picks Its Presidents

As Harvard gears up to select its 30th president, here’s what you need to know about the search process, timing, and criteria.
By Cara J. Chang and Isabella B. Cho

Massachusetts Hall is home to the Harvard University president's office.
Massachusetts Hall is home to the Harvard University president's office. By Julian J. Giordano

In the summer of 2017, Lawrence S. Bacow was gearing up to help search for the University’s 29th president, not realizing he would later become a candidate.

Five years later, Harvard is once again embarking on a presidential search — this time for Bacow’s successor.

The announcement that Bacow will step down in June 2023 set off a global operation to find Harvard’s 30th leader. The search will likely involve Harvard faculty, students, and administrators — past and present — as well higher education experts, among others.

During his tenure, Bacow steered Harvard through the Covid-19 pandemic and braved the political headwinds of the Trump administration, at turns lobbying and suing the federal government.

“There is never a good time to leave a job like this one, but now seems right to me,” Bacow wrote in a June email to affiliates announcing his departure.

But as he exits Massachusetts Hall, some challenges remain unresolved.

Harvard awaits a decision from the Supreme Court on a high-stakes affirmative action lawsuit. The University’s development in Allston continues in the face of local resistance, and its commitment to addressing the legacy of slavery on campus is newly underway.

While Bacow’s successor will face distinct trials, past searches have often mirrored each other in timing and process. The searches that produced Neil L. Rudenstine, Lawrence H. Summers, Drew G. Faust, and Bacow himself provide hints about what the hunt for the 30th president will entail. Here’s what you need to know as the search ramps up.

Who will lead the presidential search?

A month after Bacow announced his departure, the University named the search committee charged with finding Harvard’s next leader. Comprised of 15 members, the committee pulls from the University’s top leadership bodies, with 12 members of the Harvard Corporation and three from the Board of Overseers.

As the senior fellow of the Corporation — “the first among equals” on Harvard’s most powerful governing body — Chicago billionaire Penny S. Pritzker ’81 will spearhead the presidential search. Bacow, as the outgoing president, will not join the committee seeking his successor, consistent with previous searches.

What has the search committee done so far?

Not a ton.

The initial stage of a presidential search centers around consulting alumni, students, faculty, staff, donors, and experts, according to former Harvard Provost Harvey V. Fineberg ’67, who was reportedly a presidential candidate in the searches that ultimately selected Summers and Faust.

In July, Pritzker invited Harvard affiliates to submit suggestions and nominations to the committee. Past search committees sent out hundreds of thousands of letters and emails to Harvard affiliates eliciting input and dispatched members across the country to speak to alumni.

“The search committee will formulate and refine its own set of criteria and generate a preliminary list of candidates in conjunction with getting this array of input,” Fineberg wrote in an email.

On Aug. 21, the search committee named 32 affiliates to its faculty and staff advisory committees. The advisory committees are a relatively recent addition to Harvard’s search process, having debuted during the 2006 presidential search following calls for more opportunities for student and faculty involvement.

What comes next?

In past searches, formal and informal nominations from experts and Harvard affiliates have given rise to candidate pools spanning hundreds of names: At the start of the 2006 search that put Faust into office, the committee considered approximately 750 candidates.

Shortlists of a couple dozen candidates historically emerge by winter and are then pared down through intensive interviews. The 2017 committee that would eventually choose Bacow narrowed down its list of names to fewer than 20 by December, consistent with the timelines of the 1990 and 2000 search committees.

Once a list of finalists has been assembled, the search committee members will work to differentiate the strengths of each of the qualified candidates, according to Fineberg.

“Here’s where it can get interesting within a search process because different members of a search committee might put weight on different attributes,” he wrote. “Some will gain insight by talking with those who know and have worked with the candidates or reading what the candidates have written. Others will get the most out of conversation with the candidates themselves.”

After the search committee has selected a final candidate, the 30-member Harvard Board of Overseers — the University’s second-highest governing board — must meet to approve the pick, per the school’s 1650 charter.

How long will the search take?

Despite the opacity that shrouds the presidential search, long-time observers said they believe the committee will make its final recommendation to the Board of Overseers in January or February of 2023 to ensure a smooth transition at the end of the academic year.

Bacow and Faust were named University president on Feb. 11 of 2018 and 2007, respectively. Summers was confirmed on March 11, 2001, and Rudenstine was selected March 24, 1991.

“I think they’ll want to appoint the new president with a few months before President Bacow steps down, so that there’ll be some overlap,” Harvard donor and former Board of Overseers President Paul A. Buttenwieser ’60 said.

“Also, they may want somebody who has to quit another job to take this position,” he added. “So they can’t wait until May to tell somebody that he or she’s got to quit what is probably a pretty important job.”

What qualities have past presidents shared?

Past search committees have never been explicit about what members were looking for in presidential candidates — likely because searchers do not set out with a clear vision of Harvard’s next leader, according to higher education expert Thomas D. Parker ’64.

While there is no shortage of qualified candidates for the job, Parker said, the difficult task ahead for the committee is “to narrow the criteria about what they’re looking for.”

Still, all of the past four presidents have shared some key characteristics.

Every president in the past 30 years has had a Harvard degree — though none graduated from the College. Before ascending to the presidency, Rudenstine, Summers, Faust, and Bacow all also held other positions at Harvard: Rudenstine and Summers were professors, Faust served as dean of the Radcliffe Institute, and Bacow sat on the Corporation.

The top presidential candidates tend to have an understanding of the University and higher education at large, some track record as an executive or administrator, and academic credentials equivalent to a tenured professor’s, said Harvard professor and education governance expert Richard Chait.

Chait said he believes the ability to qualify for tenure at Harvard is the criterion which “has the greatest effect,” even if it is a restriction “the public at large doesn’t quite appreciate.”

The selection of Harvard’s president requires “a judgment on the part of the search committee that this individual knows enough firsthand about scholarship, research, and teaching to be president of an institution who’s in the business of scholarship, research, and teaching,” Chait said.

How prominently will diversity feature in the search?

Harvard has never been led by a person of color and only one president, Faust, has been a woman. Many alumni say it’s time for that to change.

“I would love to see the University consider diverse voices in picking its new president,” said Coalition for a Diverse Harvard member Joseph J. Barretto ’97, adding that the diversity of alumni has increased in recent years.

Coalition for a Diverse Harvard member Lisa M. Brown ’88 said she hopes the committee takes the interests of a diversifying alumni into consideration when selecting Bacow’s successor.

“As the alumni base shifts, they just have to appeal to at least somewhat different values,” Brown said, in reference to the growing numbers of first generation graduates and graduates of color. “I don’t expect this to happen overnight, but I think it’s at least worth pouting out there now.”

Former Harvard administrators and higher education experts expect a consideration of candidate diversity to feature in the search, but not as a determinative factor.

Fineberg wrote that he anticipates the search committee “will likely be attentive” to candidates from underrepresented backgrounds.

Still, “the committee will not be making any ‘symbolic social statement’ with its decision: it will seek the best candidate for the job, and that person’s sex, race or ethnicity will be whatever it is,” Fineberg wrote.

“The kind of person I want is not the kind of person who wants to lead Harvard,” said Brown, who added that she believes most top candidates intend to preserve the institutional status quo by “following” instead of truly “leading.”

What other criteria might the search committee consider?

One potential job for the 30th president that looms over the search process: running a massive capital campaign.

Since fundraising is a key part of the Harvard presidency, Chait expects the search committee will consider “proven ability” or at least “demonstrable potential to raise money and attract philanthropy.”

“One of the things that a new president always gives you is a new face, and people like that,” he said. “All the major institutions now have to have capital campaigns really at least once every 10 years — and probably more often than that.”

Faust — who launched the University’s last capital campaign in 2013 — helped Harvard raise $9.6 billion, smashing records and surpassing the school’s original goal by more than $3 billion.

Given how the next president will be a personal colleague, the search committee will also consider how well they themselves would work with each of the candidates, according to Fineberg.

Besides searching for a leader with “unquestioned personal integrity, a calm and confident temperament, a capacity to communicate and ability to listen,” the search committee will likely seek out candidates who can serve at least a decade in Massachusetts Hall, Fineberg said.

“Other things equal, it’s an advantage to have that degree of continuity in leadership,” he wrote.

Why is the search so secretive?

Harvard’s presidential search process is famously opaque. The search committee itself discloses little publicly about its process, an intentional move by the committee that is said to protect the privacy of the process for candidates.

“I don’t think transparency is the highest value for a presidential search,” said Harry R. Lewis ’68, a former dean of Harvard College. “I don’t think you can argue that a transparent process produces better results than a less transparent process.”

Lewis said full disclosure of the search process to the faculty and staff advisory groups would increase the risk of a candidate’s name leaking.

“The problem is that it’s very hard to share much about the list of finalists with a group that large, because it will certainly leak,” he said. “I can’t imagine they’re actually planning to run the list of finalists by those groups and ask for their reaction.”

After he was revealed by The Crimson to be a frontrunner in the 2006 presidential search, former Howard Hughes Medical Institute President Thomas R. Cech bowed out of the race. Cech cited his presidency at the institute and his professorship at the University of Colorado at Boulder as factors in this decision.

“I already have a great job,” Cech said in a phone call to The Crimson confirming his withdrawal.

Full transparency would likely jeopardize the candidacy of high-profile contenders, Lewis added.

“A fully-transparent process, where everybody knows who all the candidates are, will have very quickly a very small pool,” said Lewis, adding that “some of the people you most want to consider will refuse to be considered because they don’t want to deal with the problems that would result at their home institution or the institution that they’re now leading.”

Will the next president maintain the status quo, or break from convention?

Though outgoing University presidents have traditionally avoided formally participating in the search committee, they have indirectly shaped the criteria for potential candidates.

Former Harvard administrators and higher education experts said search committees seem to keep in mind the legacies of outgoing presidents when selecting the new chief. Both Bacow and Faust, who both avoided high-profile personal controversies during their time in Massachusetts Hall, were likely reactions to the tumultuous tenure of Summers, Parker said.

Entrenched in multiple scandals throughout his term, Summers resigned from his post in February 2006 following a vote of no confidence from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and strained relations with the Harvard Corporation.

“They knew getting into it that Summers could be a difficult personality, but they also knew he had tremendous ability and credentials,” Parker said. “And they said, ‘Okay, let’s go for it. We know there’s a risk here, but let’s do it.’ And that risk didn’t quite work out so well.”

But the caution spurred by Summers’ tenure may have since worn off, Parker said.

“That made them more risk-averse in their next couple of searches,” he said. “That may be over now. They may be willing to think outside the box a little bit more by now.”

Buttenwieser said reservations about a candidate’s political divisiveness may also play less of a role in this search than in previous iterations.

“I suspect that they didn’t want to have somebody who was going to be like a finger in the eye of the right wing,” he said of Bacow’s selection in 2018.

Harvard donor and Blackstone Group Vice Chairman Byron R. Wien ’54 said the committee may have to adopt a “more open-minded” stance and more of “a risk-taking mode” than in previous searches.

“The next president may be somebody from far afield,” he said. “Somebody who has been a president or provost at a university on the West Coast, for example, rather than the East Coast. Somebody they’ve had no contact with previous to the search.”

But Chait said that Harvard tends to maintain a steady course, regardless of who is in Massachusetts Hall.

“If you look at Harvard and its peers, probably what's remarkable is this general degree of consistency in the culture and priorities and character of the University,” he said. “What’s less critical has been the personalities and even styles of the leader.”

“Presidents do move the institution, but they don’t move the institution 180 degrees,” Chait added. “There is a stability and continuity that’s very, very valuable to have.”

—Staff writer Cara J. Chang can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CaraChang20.

—Staff writer Isabella B. Cho can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @izbcho.

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