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Don’t Rush, Get It Right

Published On 2/2/2007 1:46:17 AM

Rumor has it that soon Harvard will have a new president, and if so, the
announcement will take place just shy of a year to the day when the resignation of
Lawrence H. Summers was announced. His was the shortest tenure in the presidential
office since that of Cornelius Conway Felton, Class of 1827, who, in addition to
being deaf as a post, died in office in 1862 after serving just two years. Summers
remained in office, a conspicuously lame duck, until June 30 when he was succeeded
by one of his predecessors, Derek C. Bok, who had served as president from 1971 to

As soon as Summers was out, speculation about his likely successor began. The
conventional wisdom in the election of a Harvard president is that the Corporation
nearly always elects someone who is the polar opposite of the most recent occupant
of the office. In 1701, in seeking to find a successor to the aggressively pious
Increase Mather, Class of 1656, the Corporation finally ended up in 1708 with John
Leverett, Class of 1680, Harvard’s first lay president and its first lawyer.
Cotton Mather, Class of 1678, who had hoped to succeed his father, was so furious
at this rejection that he combined with like-minded dissidents to found a college
in the Connecticut colony which would eventually settle at New Haven. The last
clerical president, the Reverend Thomas Hill, Class of 1847, who resigned in 1868
to accept a better-paying job as minister of the First Parish Church in Portland,
Maine, was eventually succeeded by the secular and scientific Charles William
Eliot, Class of 1853, who served for forty years.

Of course, one need not go back that far to see the mind of the Corporation at
work. The Renaissance scholar and humane listener Neil L. Rudenstine, who, as one
critic put it, “acted like a dean,” and whose capacity for deference made him seem
a pushover to many (he wasn’t), was succeeded by the tough talking and tough
acting Lawrence H. Summers, whose advent was described as “a new sheriff in town.”
If the Corporation behaves true to form, it will be looking for the not Larry

This has led to the speculation that a consensus-building female scientist is the
ideal candidate for the job, although no one resembling that description has yet
surfaced on the many circulating lists of possible candidates. In fact, old
conventional wisdom has it that if your name appears on a list it is almost
certain that you will not get the job. In fact, it has been suggested that “the
list” merely indicates that a constituency has been heard from, not that the
person is a viable candidate. In this election cycle, the news has been of those
who have removed themselves from consideration, intensifying discussion of those
names that remain.

For nearly a century and a half, another aspect of presidential speculation has
been between insiders and outsiders. Eliot, when elected, was an outsider. A.
Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877, was very much an insider, and for ten years before
his election Eliot’s resident iterant in the faculty. James B. Conant ’13 was also
an insider and performed the same role in the last decade of the Lowell
presidency. Nathan M. Pusey ’28, although the last graduate of Harvard College to
hold the presidency, was an outsider, and when his name was announced at his 25th
reunion in 1953, the general reaction was “Pusey? Who’s he?” Bok was an insider,
having been before his election in 1971 the very successful dean of the Law
School. Rudenstine and Summers were both outsiders, although each had Harvard
doctorates and had at some point taught in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The
odds would suggest that now is the time for an insider, someone who knows the
place and the players, and has a chance at winning hearts and minds as the
University seeks to put distance between itself and the more unpleasant aspects of
its recent past.

And yet the insiders who remain on the list each present some interesting
problems. The Provost may suffer from too close an association with the most
recent administration, although there are many who regard his as the humane face
of that administration, and he is an accomplished scientist who has a reputation
for getting things done without scaring the horses. The history of provostial
appointments to the presidency, however, is not encouraging. The dean of Harvard
Law School is much beloved in that faculty which has a reputation for insisting on
its own priorities. It refused to consider a move to Allston in the face of strong
presidential pressure to make the move. The dean of the Radcliffe Institute
presides over one of the great institutional mysteries, and is rumored to
contemplate as her first administrative move renaming the whole place Radclfife.

When future historians write of this presidential search, they will be obliged to
note that the widest of consultations have taken place, that very few have felt
excluded from the process. They will also note that with the notable exception of
the press, there seems not to be an overwhelming interest in the process or the
persons. To some, it could appear that the president nowadays is fundamentally
irrelevant to the ongoing life and work of most people at Harvard, although the
passions aroused by President Summers might suggest otherwise. There are others
who have suggested that the Harvard presidency, in light of the institution’s
notorious decentralization and suspicion of authority together with the all-too-
public defenestration of the last president, makes the office both impossible and

Nevertheless, in an institution famously averse to strong leadership, there

continue to be heard calls for a strong and heroic leader, and in certain
quarters, a leader who can regain control and put the faculties in their place. In
an age where corporate dictators are out of fashion, and many are out of work or
in jail, there are some, even here, who long for a charismatic figure on a white
horse who can get things done. Josiah Quincy, Class of 1790, president from 1829
to 1845, was just such a person. He was not an academic, but a lawyer, and more
importantly, Mayor of Boston, famous for clearing out the brothels on Beacon Hill
and renewing the city’s commercial center with what we now know as Quincy Market.
Quincy succeeded the beloved but increasingly inept John Thornton Kirkland, Class
of 1789, and Samuel Eliot Morison, Class of 1908, notes of the transition that
“Tiberius succeeded Augustus.” Quincy got things done, but he was not loved, and
one of the few artifacts of his presidency that remains is his stout walking stick
with which he was known to thrash errant undergraduates.

From time to time, people ask, “Is Harvard ungovernable?’ William F. Buckley, no
friend of Harvard, once suggested that he would rather be ruled by a random list
of names from the telephone directory than by the Harvard faculty. When Neil
Rudenstine took an unprecedented medical leave early on in his presidency,
editorialists opinioned on the impossibility of one man holding the reins of so
fractious an entity as the modern university. And as early as 1769, Edward
Holyoke, Class of 1705, Harvard’s 11th President, and who next to Eliot served in
the office longest, famously remarked on his deathbed, “If any man wishes to be
humbled and mortified, let him become president of Harvard College.” And even
Larry Summers has said on more than one occasion that Harvard was not ready for
his kind of leadership. President Pusey was once asked, “Who runs Harvard?” to
which he replied in essence, “Nobody: she allows us to try to keep up with her.”

Most people would agree that Harvard cannot be run in typical top-down fashion. In
a community of know-it-alls, most of whom have tenure, that kind of governance is
impossible. Presidents come and go, and even those who stay a long time, like
Holyoke, Eliot, and Lowell, find that in the end they are obliged to play a
waiting game with a faculty that can always outlast them. Eliot’s second 20 years
were nowhere near as productive as his first twenty years. Eventually, faculties
develop an immunity to even the most compelling and creative of leaders.

And so, what should the Fellows of Harvard College be looking for? Archangels and
saints being in short supply, perhaps they should look among the ranks of small,
liberal arts college presidents, people perhaps a little short on high-level
experience, but who have imagination, courage, and, above all else, the capacity
to inspire and persuade. Leadership, at least in the academy, is not the ability
to command. It is the capacity to inspire and invigorate, and by the persistent
power of persuasion, get people both to get along and to go along. President
Lowell once observed that you can get anything done as long as you don’t insist
upon credit for the accomplishment. There is wisdom here and not the kind usually
found in those books on business leadership that proliferate in airport
bookstalls. A wimp or a wuss will not do, and mere popularity and likeability are
thin gruel for an effective presidency. Intellectual passion moral vision, and the
ability to recognize and support excellence in other are among the qualities to be
most desired in a president of Harvard. A becoming modesty and a sense of humor,
if not irony, also will not go amiss. Mere charm we can do without, but humanity
and civility are essential. These are the collaborative qualities without which no
institution of higher learning, no matter how rich or famous, can flourish. We
assume fundamental administrative competence, honesty in matters great and small,
and a rightly regulated ambition as essential to the job, but beyond these, we
crave a president whom we can both trust and admire and to whose leadership among
us we willingly consent.

The Governing Boards may think they know these things, but it will do them no harm
to hear them again. Our future is in the hands of six electors whose choice must
be confirmed by the Board of Overseers. If we are to have confidence in a choice
in which we have no vote, we must depend upon the Governing Boards to get it
right. This means most especially that the Overseers must do more than apply their
customary rubber stamp. They above all must remember that they have a moral duty
to assay the intangible qualities essential to an effective presidency. Pro forma
consent contributes to the problem and not the solution.

The temptation will be great to hurry up and get this appointment settled. This is
a temptation stoutly to be resisted: festine lente, or, as the ancients said, make
haste slowly. We have the benefit of the elegant and able leadership of Derek Bok.
Take good advantage of this time, don’t rush, and get it right. When all is said
and done, we can only hope (and pray!) that the powers-that-be do their duty, and
thereby the right thing. If they don’t, the future is too terrible to contemplate.
If they do, our best years are ahead of us.

Rev. Peter J. Gomes is Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in
the Memorial Church, posts he has held since 1974, four years after he came to
Harvard. He teaches Religion 1513 “The History of Harvard and Its Presidents.”

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