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As it Happened: Harvard Commencement 2023
The committee tasked with selecting Harvard’s next president will begin “phase two” of the search—winnowing a list of nearly 700 unique nominations—by the end of December, according to William F. Lee '72, the Harvard Corporation's senior fellow.
In an interview Thursday, Lee said the search committee—which he chairs—is currently rounding out its “information-gathering phase.” During this phase, members of the Corporation and the three Overseers on the committee have joined the faculty, student, and staff advisory committees to solicit input from Harvard affiliates.
"It’s really unbelievable how many people we’ve touched,” Lee said. “Almost anybody who’s asked to meet with either someone on one of those committees or one of us, we’ve taken the time to sit down and talk with them."
The input will provide the search committee with a more holistic view of what those with ties to the University would like to see in a candidate, Lee said, adding that members of the committees have met with over 200 people for one-on-one conversations.
While Lee declined to discuss specific candidates, several prominent donors and professors at Harvard told The Crimson last month that there are four likely contenders from within the University: Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria, Government professor Danielle S. Allen, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith, and University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76. The Crimson also reported last month time that the search committee had started narrowing its list.
Lee spoke to the general values the committee is looking for. The traditional credentials—“qualifications, experience, [and] expertise”—are not foremost on his mind, he said.
"I’ve actually come to conclude that that’s the wrong way to think about it, because there’s no one person in the world that could have all the experience and expertise you’d like in a Harvard president,” Lee said. “And so it’s more a question of character—integrity, the ability to be trusted, the ability to communicate, emotional intelligence, the ability to grow, and of course intellectual curiosity."
Aside from raw skills and charisma, some have argued that a presidential candidate ought to come from a background in higher education, or, at the very least, hold a doctoral degree. Past contenders—including Supreme Court Justice and former Law School dean Elena Kagan—have seen their presidential hopes dashed due to the lack of a Ph.D.
Lee said there isn’t a cut-and-dry rule on the matter.
“I don’t think that it’s a binary yes-or-no, but it needs to be someone who understands and really believes with all of their heart in the benefit of higher education, and the power of higher education to be the great equalizer in our society,” he said.
Looking forward, the University will also need to grapple with changes in Washington and the Trump-era White House.
According to Lee, the ability to “articulate the case for higher education” on a national level remains a priority. Since the 2016 election, Faust has made several trips to Washington, D.C. to meet with lawmakers for that purpose; last month, she lobbied members of Congress to safeguard universities against cuts to federal research funding.
Instability in Washington isn’t the only challenge the next president will face. In planning for the long term, Lee and his committee are also planning for the unexpected, noting that Harvard will be “wholly different than it is today” in ten years time.
“It's impossible to predict just how, but it’ll be different,” Lee said. “And coming up with a person who can lead us when it’s that different is critically important too.”
—Staff writer Brandon J. Dixon contributed reporting.
—Staff writer Leah S. Yared can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @LeahYared.
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