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For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow

What's Next?

The Scripture tells us, “Surely the Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan,” and if we can expect that from the Almighty Himself, it does not seem too totally crazy to ask that of the Harvard Corporation.

I speak, of course, of the surprising recent announcement of Lawrence S. Bacow to be the 29th president of Harvard University.

Bacow is not a surprising pick because of his qualifications—he served as president of Tufts for a decade and as chancellor of MIT. Bacow is not a surprising pick because of his priorities—he seems like a safe choice intent on steering Harvard through choppy political and economic waters. Bacow is a surprising pick because he was supposed to be doing the picking.

The way Harvard Corporation Senior Fellow William F. Lee ’72 tells it, he was navigating the streets of the Boston metropolitan area—homeward bound from Logan International Airport—when he figured he might as well ask Larry if he wanted the top job at America’s oldest and wealthiest university.

Of course, it wasn’t quite that spontaneous. In the press conference, Lee admits that the presidential search committee had thought about Bacow as a candidate for some time before he was formally considered. Robin E. Kelsey, the chair of the faculty advisory committee to the presidential search, told The Crimson that Lee had explicitly inquired whether faculty believed there was a candidate hidden among the searchers.

Harvard says Bacow formally became a candidate in December, and Lee told the media that Bacow then underwent the “same processes as our other candidates.” But when Bacow woke up one morning and found himself changed into a presidential candidate, surely that marked the effective end of the search.

It’s hard to imagine that, having surveyed the landscape and considered over 700 individuals, the committee would have asked Bacow to become a candidate if more credible choices had abounded. By his own account, when he talked to Harvard affiliates, “Some of them said, ‘What about you, Larry?’ And I said, ‘No, thank you.’ I was there to get their ideas about others to lead Harvard.”

At the very least, the extraordinary act of asking him to step off the search committee was a signal of enormous support and confidence by the other searchers, in part because the decision was so exceptional. And once actually a candidate, he would have had an enormous leg up, having been privy to all the priorities, internal deliberations, and consultations of the first half year of the search.

It seems reasonable, then, to suggest that the act of turning him from searcher to candidate was the momentous one—that it was then that they had found their man.

It’s interesting to consider when they would have formally vetted Bacow. If the process was not complete before Lee’s call-from-the-car, the committee must have been prepared to make one of their own a candidate and then decline to offer him the job. Would they then have put him back onto the search committee? How would they have explained his ultimate absence from the ranks of the searchers?

If instead he was being vetted while still formally a search committee member, he must have known he was under informal consideration. (It would also imply that the committee had ruled out most of its other options prior to December.) Was there a special secret sub-committee that convened Bacow-free conference calls? Did they hang around at some meeting after he left to decide his fate?

Perhaps—and this remains entirely supposition—the choice to consider considering him was truly the pivotal moment. But in either event, it leaves open the possibility that for the last two (or more) months of the search, the committee was effectively going through the motions of a traditional search, complete with interviews, meetings, and consultations.

If indeed this was the case, it calls into question the role of the advisory committees and non-Bacow candidates in the search. The other candidates now know that they were not serious choices since late November or early December, as presumably the committee only decided to elevate Bacow after it had come to the conclusion that it didn’t have many better options.

Perhaps more interestingly, this timeline complicates the role of the rest of Harvard in the search. To their credit, the search committee convened advisory committees of students, faculty, and staff which were billed as one of the primary means through which Harvard affiliates could provide input on the search. Instead, the search committee had decided relatively early on that few, if any, of the 700-plus suggested candidates were viable.

Of the three, the faculty committee seems to have had the most impact. Kelsey, the head of that group, told The Crimson that they had suggested Bacow be considered, and he said the faculty committee’s work was mostly complete by the time Bacow stepped off the search committee. But if the student and staff groups were providing their findings along roughly the same timetable, concluding in December, the search committee may had already decided that most of the proposed candidates—save Bacow—were unsuitable.

For at least two months—as nearly 20 names were under consideration, as The Crimson reported on potential external candidates, and as the search committee continued to conduct candidate interviews—Harvard’s presidential search committee may have sat knowing that its decision had largely already been made. By then, they had already crossed the Rubicon.

Derek K. Choi ’18, a former president of The Crimson, is a Government concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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