Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor Talks Justice, Civic Engagement at Radcliffe Day


Church Says It Did Not Authorize ‘People’s Commencement’ Protest After Harvard Graduation Walkout


‘Welcome to the Battlefield’: Maria Ressa Talks Tech, Fascism in Harvard Commencement Address


In Photos: Harvard’s 373rd Commencement Exercises


Rabbi Zarchi Confronted Maria Ressa, Walked Off Stage Over Her Harvard Commencement Speech

Op Eds

Sam Lessin: Pritzker’s Presidential Mulligan and How to Secure Harvard’s Future

The Harvard Corporation meets in Loeb House.
The Harvard Corporation meets in Loeb House. By Julian J. Giordano
By Sam Lessin, Contributing Opinion Writer
Samuel W. Lessin ’05 lived in Kirkland House.

After the shortest presidential search in at least 70 years, the Harvard Corporation, led by Senior Fellow Penny S. Pritzker, selected Claudine Gay to be Harvard’s next president. Somewhat poetically, this short search led to the shortest tenure of any Harvard president in the 400-year history of the University.

In a bid to help the University do better, I ran a last-minute campaign to try to get on the ballot for the Harvard Board of Overseers, the only body with real power to check the Corporation.

While I received just shy of one percent of all alums to write me in for the ballot — more than any other write-in candidate this year — it wasn’t quite enough to get on the ballot after the University substantially raised the signature threshold in 2016

However, my campaign brought me in personal contact with hundreds of alums who care deeply about the university and are worried. Indeed, 20,000 people now receive our weekly newsletter from the 1636 Forum, an organization I created to inform and organize alumni around helping the University refocus on academics over politics and improve its governance.

Having run to become an Overseer and, now, having spent months engaging with alumni on the issues facing Harvard, I’ve learned much about how Harvard should proceed.

As the academic year comes to a close, the Corporation turns to perhaps its highest-stakes presidential search in modern times.

Given the Corporation’s insular and secretive nature, it is hard to say exactly what went wrong with the last presidential search process. As a general rule, the Corporation reaches decisions by consensus and almost never issues statements, leaving most external analysis to guesswork and hearsay. Even as it has erred seriously and repeatedly over the past year, the governing body has been unwilling to publicly explain its errors or offer any sort of apology or contrition.

Still, what we know about the failed process that picked Claudine Gay raises serious concerns about the one that will pick her successor.

First, we know that the process was rushed. The Corporation claimed to review 600 nominations fully in just five months — a seemingly impossible task — and if they did, they did it alone: Unlike most other universities, the Corporation does not formally use outside executive firms for their presidential searches, instead keeping the work ‘in the family.’

We know that the highlight of Pritzker’s career thus far has been her role as United States Secretary of Commerce in the Obama administration. I have spoken with many influential Harvard alums who believe she was motivated in her presidential choice primarily by a desire to use her position leading Harvard to create a second ‘Obama’ moment. Rather than focusing on choosing someone who exemplifies excellence with a remarkable ability to lead, many believe, she decided to make history by handpicking the University’s first Black president.

Finally, we know now that, with the sheen stripped off the job and a host of obvious challenges ahead for the next president, it is unclear which serious, qualified academics will even want to take on the position.

Here is what needs to happen to make this presidential search successful, and help the University forward.

First, the Corporation needs to publicly and fully recommit itself and the University to putting academic excellence above all else — and find a president who will doggedly drive the University towards that goal.

Harvard has been a durable and important institution for hundreds of years by focusing on academics, but in recent times, it has started to prioritize other ideals. In admissions and hiring, for example, it has treated representation of different communities as an end in itself rather than simply looking for excellence wherever it might be found.

This ‘multi-bottom-line’ approach is simply unsustainable.

Among many other problems, it places far too much power in the hands of a few leaders and at the whims of individual administrators and governors to trade goals based on their personal politics.

Second, the Corporation needs to change its communications approach and bring stakeholders along rather than operating in secrecy, including by finding a president adept in modern communications.

You simply cannot lead a modern complex organization in secrecy. With so many stakeholders and so much pressure, the only way to lead is with openness and transparency.

When you make a mistake, you own it. You explain what went wrong and how to do better. When you have to make an unpopular or challenging decision, you communicate broadly and honestly the sides of the argument and why you are choosing, on balance, the course of action you are. When you err, you are willing to say “I am sorry’” and “I made a mistake.”

Third, the Corporation needs to revise the criteria for selecting new members of their body and the Overseers to guarantee that the incentives of those in charge are aligned with success for the University and support for the right president now and in the future.

In many cases, the real way you become a member of the Harvard Corporation is that you donate a lot of money — Pritzker has given nine figures — and schmooze the existing Corporation members.

The way you become an Overseer is to be extremely involved as a booster of the school and administration via the Harvard Alumni Association and then campaign hard with the approximately 10 percent of alums that vote in the election.

When the governors are selected this way, you frequently get people who are interested in the trappings of Harvard, and perhaps leveraging the brand for their own political and social ambitions — not those seriously committed to improving the school. You don’t get people willing to make unpopular calls or invest the time and effort to enact challenging reforms.

None of these reforms will be easy, because the entire structure of Harvard’s governance is designed to reject outside feedback, and self-reform is perhaps the hardest reform of all.

But for the sake of Harvard, we have to hope the Corporation will do just that. Selecting the right president is the first step; fixing Harvard’s broken governance is the next.

Samuel W. Lessin ’05 lived in Kirkland House.

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.

Op Eds