Give Harvard Some Ideas

We asked some observers of the higher ed scene for out-of-the-box suggestions about the next president -- and invite your thoughts too.
February 23, 2006

With the Summers presidency deathwatch now over, it's time to think about the next Harvard University leader. To date, no members of the Harvard Corporation have leaked their plans to us. So we'll leave to others (for now) the analysis of the pros and cons of various candidates with the traditional requirements: a Harvard degree (or three), demonstrated intellectual accomplishment, a certain amount of gravitas, and so forth.

We thought we'd help -- and perhaps stimulate some fresh thinking -- by asking our readers for ideas about candidates who might be worthy of consideration, even if they lack the typical résumé of a Harvard president. To get the ball rolling, we asked a few observers of the scene to offer their ideas -- traditional, out of the box or off the wall -- and we hope you'll join them.

Mary McKinney is a clinical psychologist and career coach whose practice focuses on academics, and who might have been of help to the Harvard Corporation a year ago. But for now, she thinks it's obvious that the only way for Harvard to move past Summers is to hire a woman scientist with children. Shirley M. Tilghman appears to be busy at Princeton, so McKinney suggests Mary-Claire King, a professor of medicine and genome sciences at the University of Washington. McKinney notes that King bought a breast pump for new mothers in her lab and that her area of research is breast cancer. Throw in a compelling personal story, and you may have the candidate to end all memory of Summers talking about his children's toys and gender roles.

Many of Summers's pals from the Clinton administration are spending their time out of office at the Center for American Progress, which recently started Campus Progress to focus on college students. David Halperin, who is leading that effort, suggests that Harvard might look to a woman outside of academe: Oprah Winfrey. Halperin notes that Oprah "knows how to bring people together and how to run an enterprise. She also loves books, fiction and nonfiction, and Harvard has lots of books." Can't argue with that logic.

Taking a more serious note, Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, says that the problem with Summers may have been precisely that he was too out of the box, with his managerial experience outside of academe. The Summers appointment, she says, showed "the folly of putting a novice administrator at the helm." That just doesn't work, she says, when "the megaphone is always on."

Schneider urges the search committee to spend a lot of time with Derek C. Bok, the former Harvard president who will be serving as interim, and who Schneider says understood the role well. But that doesn't mean the search committee should stick with traditional candidates. She suggests that there are "unexpected places to look" if the search panel will go beyond Harvard and other research universities. She says there are good candidates leading liberal arts oriented universities, colleges that place high value on both teaching and scholarship, and at centers linking scholarship and the public.

Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College of Columbia University, has a variety of ideas: Bill Clinton, Tom Friedman and Robert Rubin could all be "serious" candidates, he says. Ditto on Richard Chait, a professor of higher education at Harvard whose areas of research expertise include the professoriate.

One lesson of the Summers era is that the Harvard presidency is a stage. With that in mind, Levine offers up Harrison Ford, noting "I have seen him play a tenured professor, a negotiator, a U.S. president, and a commando, which would all seem useful skills at Harvard." Or Levine says Harvard might go with Francis McDormand since "she actually played a college president in one movie and did a decent job." Of course if a Harvard president took McDormand's character's actions in Wonder Boys as a model, nobody would be talking about Larry Summers.

Margaret Soltan, whose University Diaries blog surveys academe, says that Harvard's main problem now is that "it is too rich" and she hopes the university's next leader will be "a serious moralist committed above all to the enlightened use of institutional funds and institutional power." Along those lines, she suggests a look at David Swenson, chief investment officer at Yale University, where he has been doing wonders with the endowment and has suggested that Harvard overpays those who manage its mammoth investment portfolio.

Several public intellectuals also appeal to Soltan: Anthony Appiah for his thinking about "our human and global responsibilities to one another;" Thomas Pogge, a philosopher at Columbia who studied under John Rawls; Stephen Macedo, a political philosopher at Princeton; or, if Harvard wants another economist (and needs to free up space for the new Summers office), there's Amartya Sen, whom Soltan says is "among the world's strongest and most influential normative thinkers on human development."

As far as people who have held various public offices, Soltan suggest s Kofi Annan. Annan's name was also suggested by Sheldon E. Steinbach, vice president and general counsel of the American Council on Education. Clearly many people think Harvard needs a peace maker. But Steinbach is clearly also aware that many people believe that the most lasting impact of the Summers presidency may be his policy of expanding Harvard's campus outside of Cambridge. Perhaps with that in mind, Steinbach suggested Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Likud leader who knows something about holding on to territory (and who was educated in Cambridge, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology).

With those names and ideas for starters, join the fray.


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