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Harvard President Bacow Says He Has No Power in Dean Searches, Deferring to President-Elect Gay

University President Lawrence S. Bacow, pictured in November 2022, said in an interview Tuesday he would have no say in four ongoing searches for Harvard deans.
University President Lawrence S. Bacow, pictured in November 2022, said in an interview Tuesday he would have no say in four ongoing searches for Harvard deans. By Addison Y. Liu
By Miles J. Herszenhorn and Claire Yuan, Crimson Staff Writers

As Harvard President-elect Claudine Gay prepares to take office, sitting University President Lawrence S. Bacow said he will have no power over the searches for successors to four outgoing Harvard deans.

In an interview Tuesday, Bacow suggested that Gay is already wielding authority over the University’s most important hiring decisions. While Gay does not officially take office until July 1, she will be empowered to select the four new deans, including her own successor as dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

“They’re going to be her deans, and she needs to make those choices,” Bacow said. “It worked exactly the same way when I became president.”

Bacow’s decision to relinquish control offers insight into the delicate transition period in which one University president seals a legacy while his successor prepares to chart a new — and potentially divergent — course.

The four dean selections will likely provide a window into Gay’s initial priorities and test her abilities to make personnel decisions at the University’s highest levels.

In addition to the four dean departures, Harvard University Vice President for Finance and Chief Financial Officer Thomas J. Hollister announced last November that he will retire at the end of the current academic year. The University has not yet announced Hollister’s successor.

The searches for the next dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and for Gay’s successor as FAS dean launched earlier this month. University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 is helping Gay lead the FAS dean search.

Bacow said that filling key positions in the University is one of the president’s most important jobs, but added that selecting a great dean is “not rocket science.”

Any FAS dean must be “deeply respected by the faculty” and have the “capacity to recruit the right people, to make judgments about who is worthy of promotion,” Bacow said.

Bacow repeatedly declined to answer specific questions about the timeline of the FAS dean search and the academic background of candidates — including whether the school should favor a scholar from the sciences and whether it should privilege someone from within its own ranks.

Bacow repeatedly directed queries about the FAS dean selection process to Gay, who has refused to meet for regularly scheduled interviews with The Crimson this semester — the first time in a decade that a sitting FAS dean has declined to regularly meet with reporters.

As Gay transitions into Massachusetts Hall, she and Bacow speak regularly and have a weekly standing meeting, according to Bacow.

But Bacow insisted that Gay has not assumed any official presidential duties.

“The University can only have one president at a time,” he said. “She’s got enough to do right now without trying to be the president in some dimensions.”

In Gay’s last months as FAS dean, she will continue leading a cluster hire of faculty in climate studies and working with Brenda D. Tindal, the newly-appointed FAS campus curator, on updating the school’s visual presence. Gay will also hand off a large part of a three-year FAS strategic planning process set to recommend reforms for the school’s long-term success.

In addition, Bacow said Gay is doing what “every new president does,” meeting with and building a network of administrators and faculty across the University.

Among Gay’s most important presidential duties will be launching a University-wide capital campaign. Harvard’s most recent campaign, which concluded in 2018, was helmed by former University President Drew G. Faust and closed out at $9.6 billion.

Though Bacow did not lead a capital campaign during his time in office, he said Gay will “pretty definitely” not begin the fundraising initiative during her first year as president. Still, Bacow said he is confident in her ability to fundraise for the University, pointing to Gay’s experience as dean of the FAS.

“I think Claudine did very, very, very well as a fundraiser,” he said. “You cannot be successful as a dean — probably any dean of a school, but especially one the size and complexity of FAS — without having the capacity to help raise resources to support the enterprise.”

The Crimson interviews University President Lawrence S. Bacow three times per semester during the academic year. Click here to submit a question for consideration in our next interview.

—Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MHerszenhorn.

—Staff writer Claire Yuan can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @claireyuan33.

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