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Former University President Drew G. Faust famously couldn’t even wait a week after exiting Harvard’s presidency to accept a post on the board of Goldman Sachs.
It seems Harvard’s newest president, Alan M. Garber ’76, has surpassed Faust’s zeal for corporate service — he has been serving on two pharmaceutical boards before he even accepted the interim job as president.
Now, despite electing to leave a position at the biotech firm Exelixis, Garber has revealed he intends to remain on the board of Vertex, a Boston-based pharmaceutical company.
Staying on the board of Vertex does Harvard no favors, but it certainly offers some pot-sweetener for Garber, who has made millions from serving on the boards of Vertex and Exelexis on top of his University paycheck.
Garber shouldn’t fret over losing his nest-egg should he resign from Vertex. The prestige and pay of the Harvard presidency — reportedly in the ballpark of one million dollars for Garber’s past two predecessors — ought to be more than enough.
By remaining on the board of Vertex, Garber risks entangling — accidentally or otherwise — the priorities of a private pharmaceutical company and those of a vast research university equipped with a significant bioengineering department and a multi-billion dollar endowment that has held major investments in rival pharmaceutical firms.
The connection between Vertex’s work, Harvard’s current initiatives, and Cambridge’s activity is unmistakable: Harvard collaborates extensively with many research hospitals, Vertex runs various clinical trials, and Cambridge has become a major biotech hub.
More importantly, potential conflicts of interest raised by Garber’s dual stake in the University and a pharmaceutical company only make Harvard more vulnerable to criticism and ridicule.
The current moment requires perfection. Pundits are looking for any reason to lampoon Harvard’s president, even if they are only serving in an interim capacity, and especially if they have not ruled out the possibility of accepting the position long-term. The University needs a leader who is unimpeachable — someone completely devoid of potential scandals or a sullied record.
No matter how assiduously Garber divorces his private interests from his University responsibilities, the optics of a conflict of interest will remain, harming Harvard’s reputation even more than it has been.
Beyond general concerns of corporate self-dealing, connections with pharmaceutical companies in particular attract political controversy and pose serious reputational liabilities for Harvard. Associating with the pharmaceutical industry — one of America’s most hated sectors — is a bizarre choice for Harvard’s president at a moment of profound apprehension about higher education writ large.
Given the potential conflicts of interest and the obvious appearance of impropriety, we believe Garber would be wise to resign from his role at Vertex — especially since he is now juggling his many responsibilities as the current provost, interim president, and Vertex board member. Future Harvard presidents should also not serve on corporate boards, and we discourage such conflicts of interest for administrators more broadly.
Former University President Claudine Gay was torn apart for plagiarism; a similar backlash could easily target Garber for perceived unscrupulousness if he does not resign from his corporate role.
Neither Garber nor the University should let another leadership scandal play out. Harvard’s critics won’t wait another second – neither should Garber.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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