Katie Lapp is no stranger to managerial challenges.
When she was named chief executive of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Lapp had to overcome a series of administrative and budgetary issues even as she was running a sprawling system that includes New York City Transit, the Long Island Railroad, and the area’s bridges and tunnels at a time of heightened security concerns.
So Lapp did what she always does, associates said. She sought out people with the right expertise to help her solve the problem she was facing.
In this case, she found attorney Ira Millstein, a recognized authority on corporate governance, and recruited him to her cause. With Millstein’s help, Lapp persuaded the MTA board to voluntarily submit to the stringent Sarbanes-Oxley regulations Congress had passed to tighten oversight of corporations.
“The beauty of what she was doing was that she didn’t presume to know it all,’’ Millstein recalled. “She knew when to reach out for help. She is a woman who has been working under diverse pressures for a long, long time, and she has always found the way to do the right thing.’’
Now Lapp is preparing for the diverse pressures of Harvard. Citing Lapp’s “extraordinary management experience,’’ President Drew Faust named her executive vice president last month, a role in which Lapp will oversee the financial, administrative, human resources, and capital planning functions of the University’s central administration.
Lapp, who has been the University of California (UC) system’s executive vice president for business operations since 2007, says that her background in public service prepared her well for her transition to campus administration.
“I was the head of institutions that had very specific missions, and in this case the mission is education,’’ she said. “You always have to keep that in the front of your mind: It’s not about efficiency for efficiency’s sake. The question is, How can the administration make sure the deans, the faculty, the researchers, and the students have what they need to succeed? They rely on an effective administrative system to make their jobs easier.’’
Lapp’s approach to her responsibilities has served her well, whether she was persuading the New York Legislature to approve a $21 billion capital budget, guiding the University of California system through an $800 million cut in state funding, or helping former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani turn back a wave of crime.
She was a holdover from the Democratic administration of David Dinkins when Giuliani, a Republican, won New York’s City Hall in 1997. But on the recommendation of his colleagues in law enforcement, Giuliani made Lapp his criminal justice coordinator at a time when the city was reeling from a skyrocketing murder rate.
Lapp helped Giuliani merge two police departments into the NYPD and coordinate resources among the
region’s district attorneys as they stepped up prosecutions, Giuliani recalled. Working closely with the police commissioner, William Bratton, Giuliani was credited with dramatically reducing the murder rate and restoring a sense of safety to the streets of New York.
“She was one of the key players in what I and Bill Bratton were able to accomplish,’’ Giuliani said. “She’s a star.’’
A graduate of Fairfield University and Hofstra University School of Law, Lapp is a newcomer to Harvard, but she said she has long admired the University as a place that nurtured great thinkers and groundbreaking research. “At the University of California, when we look to see how we are doing, Harvard is the place we compare ourselves to,’’ she said.
Harvard announced an unprecedented drop in its endowment as the global financial crisis unfolded last year, and administrators were compelled to cut costs and look for opportunities to coordinate functions across a famously decentralized campus. Pressures on budgets across the University are expected to persist into the new fiscal year.
At UC, Lapp spearheaded projects to help make the central administration operate more efficiently, and she worked with the system’s 10 separate campuses to identify shared opportunities. One example: She led an initiative to create a centralized data center, allowing campuses to reduce operating costs, increase computer security, and open valuable physical space on their campuses.
“There are all these redundant administrative systems taking up crucial space,’’ she said. “Those systems can be migrated to a central data center, which creates efficiencies and frees up critical space on the campus for other important uses.’’
Mark Yudof, president of the UC system, said that Lapp’s collaborative style helped him work through bureaucratic knots in a tough financial climate. “She has in-depth knowledge of how budgets work, and how operations work. We had human resources report to her, the budget people reported to her,’’ he said. “I really felt like losing Katie was like losing one of my arms.’’