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Interim Harvard President Garber to Remain on Pharma Company Board

Interim Harvard President Alan Garber will remain on the board of one pharmaceutical company but step down from the board of a different company.
Interim Harvard President Alan Garber will remain on the board of one pharmaceutical company but step down from the board of a different company. By Catherine H. Feng
By Emma H. Haidar and Cam E. Kettles, Crimson Staff Writers

Interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber ’76 will remain on the board of one pharmaceutical company while leading the University, a decision that complicates his relationship with the Harvard Management Company and raises questions about potential conflicts of interests.

Garber will remain on the board of Vertex, but he will step down later this spring from his position with Exelixis, a biotech company whose board he first joined in 2005, while still a professor at Stanford.

Garber, who served as provost for 12 years before becoming interim president, joined Vertex in 2017. He made at least $6.6 million dollars from his tenure on both boards since starting at Harvard, according to the Boston Globe.

Senior Harvard administrators like Garber are required to routinely file their ties to outside organizations which might conflict with their responsibilities at Harvard. Although former Harvard President Claudine Gay remained on the board of Phillips Exeter Academy during her presidency, serving on corporate boards is much more unusual among top university administrators.

According to Exelixis’ public shareholder form, Garber informed the company that he would not seek re-election on Jan. 2, the same day he took office as interim Harvard president. Garber’s term on the board expires later this spring, when he will officially step down.

A Jan. 7 press release from Exelixis cited Garber’s “expanded responsibilities at Harvard University” as the reason for his decision to step down. He will not, however, leave his position at Vertex.

“Interim President Garber will remain on the Vertex board,” Harvard spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain wrote in a statement. “He annually files conflict of interest forms with the Office of the General Counsel that acknowledge his outside board service.”

Swain declined to comment on why Garber stepped down from Exelixis but not Vertex.

Harvard Management Company — which is in charge of Harvard’s endowment — does not have direct holdings in Vertex or Exelixis, HMC spokesperson Patrick McKiernan wrote in a Monday email.

Garber was added to the board of directors on the HMC’s website following an inquiry by The Crimson on Monday.

After an upcoming vote by the Corporation, Garber will officially join the HMC board as an ex officio member, according to Swain.

Lisa Bero, chief scientist at University of Colorado Anschutz Center for Bioethics and Humanities, said that financial involvement isn’t the only consideration when defining conflicts of interest.

“A conflict of interest isn’t just about money. Money is a big part of it, but it's also about power and decision-making capability,” Bero said.

“So even if someone’s on a board that they’re not paid for, sometimes people think that’s okay, but they’re still in a position of power,” Bero added. “They can make decisions that would affect them or interests close to them just by serving on the board.”

Matthew McCoy, an expert on medical ethics and conflicts of interest in health policy, said hospital administrators in particular have come under fire for serving on the boards of pharmaceutical companies while having fiduciary obligations to their hospital.

“There’s concern about those two sets of duties coming into conflict with each other,” McCoy said. Critics fear “the leader basically making decisions with respect to hospital administration or patient care or development of IP that are inflected by the interests of the pharmaceutical company rather than focused solely on what’s in the best interests of the hospital.”

While McCoy said university administrators are more removed than hospital administrators, he said Garber’s decision to step down from Exelixis was the right decision given both potential conflicts of interest and conflicts of commitment that arise with the time necessary to both serve on a corporate board and also run a university.

“I think the fact that he’s stepping down from one of these board positions is the right approach,” McCoy said. “I think he should probably step down from both of them for those reasons.”

—Staff writer Emma H. Haidar can be reached at Follow her on X @HaidarEmma.

—Staff writer Cam E. Kettles can be reached at Follow her on X @cam_kettles or on Threads @camkettles.

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