Campus & Community

‘I’ve had an amazing experience’

long read

Corporation member Keohane, stepping down after 12 years, reflects on Harvard and higher ed

Nannerl Keohane, former president of Duke University and Wellesley College, steps down this month from the Harvard Corporation after 12 years on the University’s executive governing board.

Keohane served with three Harvard presidents — Lawrence Summers, Derek Bok, and Drew Faust — during her time on the Corporation, and saw significant governance changes. The seven-member board expanded to 13, terms were instituted for the first time, and a new committee structure was adopted.

Keohane, a political theorist and leadership expert who is now a senior scholar at Princeton University, sat down with the Gazette to offer thoughts on her board tenure and on what’s ahead, both at Harvard and for higher education broadly.

GAZETTE: As you reflect on your 12 years on the Corporation, how has it changed?

KEOHANE: When I joined 12 years ago, in many ways it was very different from the Corporation that we know today. But on the other hand, there are continuities with the past. This Corporation goes back a long time.

I had always seen the bound volumes of the minutes of the past governing board meetings in Loeb House, but I’d never realized they went back to 1643. Someone recently showed me the entry for the day they were choosing the Harvard seal, and there was a little drawing of it. This is an amazing place, with a continuity of history like nowhere else.

When I joined in the fall of 2005, I was introduced to this seven-person Corporation, which is what it was at that point. Loeb House was being renovated, so we met at the Inn at Harvard, where it was very casual. The next fall, when we moved into Loeb House, I remember going into the new boardroom and being told that we sat in order of seniority. Nobody today would tell anybody where to sit. We have become larger, and we have more capacity. We have the same warm comradeship but much less sense of formality.

A number of the ways in which we have changed, I think, are very healthy. We now have terms, which is why it’s my time to step down. I regard that as a very appropriate step, so that we each have an expectation of how long we will serve, and we can make room for others.

Second is the establishment of committees. One of the things that surprised me most when I joined the Corporation was that we did everything around a table of seven. We would move from the most minor, but statutorily important, stewardship issue to something profoundly important for Harvard, like constructing a new building, with no committee work behind us. I love building buildings — it’s one of the things I most enjoyed at Wellesley and Duke — and being on the Facilities Committee, first as a member and then as chair, I had a chance to be part of it at Harvard. When we bring a building proposal to the Corporation, whether it’s a new one or a renovation, there’s been a lot of advance work and thought.

One other thing that changed that I think is really crucial is our relationship with the Overseers. When I joined the Corporation, we only met together once a year in a very formal way, and there was little communication between the two boards. Now we meet together — many of us on the Corporation go to their plenaries every time they’re on campus, by their invitation — and we learn together about major issues of the University. We also have dinners that are joint between members of the Overseers’ executive committee and members of the Corporation. In just so many ways, we have now become two governing boards that really see our mission in parallel for the University. I think that’s a very helpful development.

I have had an amazing experience. I have learned a great deal and been able to be part of aspects of Harvard that I would otherwise never have had a chance to learn about. It’s been a full and busy 12 years.

GAZETTE: Would you say that, overall, Harvard’s governance is stronger now? 

KEOHANE: Absolutely, on all counts. The Corporation is stronger and more effective, and our relationship with the Overseers is a big plus.

One of the things that people worried about when the Corporation expanded was that we’d lose our sense of comradeship, the way in which the seven of us felt bonded by our duties. In fact, that has not happened, which is a great blessing. One of the reasons that’s true is that we expanded over time. We didn’t grow from seven to 13, we grew from seven to nine, and then to 11, and then to 13. In each case, we were able to bring in the new members and have them become part of the culture, be oriented toward our habits, and get to know us as a group. It’s true, of course, that 13 is bigger than seven in many ways that matter, but the comradeship among the Corporation members remains.

GAZETTE: One of President Faust’s efforts has been to get the University to work as one institution. Has there been progress toward that goal, and do you see continued challenges?

KEOHANE: Both are true. There’s been a lot of progress, and there are many challenges. I think the vision of One Harvard which she enunciated has now become much more broadly accepted within the University.

In the past, there were often people saying we really ought to find ways to work together because we’re so decentralized. That was a general aspiration, but when Drew made it a high priority — and the phrase One Harvard became the way we all talked about it — I think it caught fire. It took on a more practical form at Harvard, and people really felt there were ways in which we could collaborate. People became aware that there were ways in which Harvard as a whole could have an impact, could have a reach around the world and a sense of possibility inside the University that we had not had before.

One Harvard has been realized in places like the i-lab or the Art Museums, places that have specific roles within a part of the University, but nevertheless feel like they are of the whole. When we think about One Harvard, we think about not only collaboration among the Schools but also opportunities for people to flow back and forth among them — not only students but also faculty members. And there are still obstacles to that.

We made progress toward getting people to take courses in other Schools by having a common calendar. That was an important accomplishment. There has been a substantial rise in cross-enrollments, but we still have work to do. I don’t think it’s just a matter of getting used to the idea. I think there are structural obstacles, but I don’t think they’re insuperable at all. 

GAZETTE: Leadership is your area of expertise, both in practice and in the classroom. Is leadership the kind of thing that can be taught, or is it inborn?

KEOHANE: Leadership is a complicated aspect of human social behavior. There are some people who are, by their talents, by their native gifts, perhaps by their early upbringing, more likely to become successful leaders than others. But they’re not the only ones. There are also ways in which you can learn how to lead. I taught a course in leadership for 12 years, so I have to believe it was doing something. And I think the students did learn. But you don’t just learn to be a leader in the classroom, you learn by experience, by reading works by people who have been leaders, by reflecting on cases of leadership, by discussing them, by learning from them.

Good judgment is one of the most important qualities of leaders. And that’s partly innate and partly learned. You may have the ability to discern, that makes you more likely to have good judgment, but you have to do it. Judges in Olympic swimming trials learn by looking at a lot of different divers. It’s the same with leaders.

The last thing we shouldn’t leave out is Machiavelli’s fortuna: luck. Sometimes you’re in the right place at the right time. But luck is like a Ferris wheel. It goes up, and it can also swoop you down.

GAZETTE: Has the work of institutions like Harvard, that presume to teach leadership, made a difference in the world? Is leadership getting better?

KEOHANE: Well, it’s a multilayered question. The students I’ve taught, at least, have gone on to do really interesting things. They get back in touch and say, “I really learned this in your course, and it’s just been important to me in this particular challenge that I faced.”

Courses in leadership, whether it’s the Business School or the Kennedy School, the School of Education, the Divinity School, do indeed give people opportunities to reflect on leadership, to think about whether they really want to give the time and energy to being leaders, because it’s not something you do with your left hand on odd Tuesdays. It also helps them recognize that there are many different types of leadership. That may become more evident if you’re in a course than if you just observe it in life, because you’re given examples of types of leadership, from very small-scale situations to enormously challenging ones like the Cuban Missile Crisis.

So you don’t think of leaders only as people standing on a podium bossing other people around, you recognize that leadership happens in much more subtle ways, lots of different ways, and good courses on leadership teach that.

GAZETTE: Let’s talk about universities in the — if it is indeed — “post-truth era.” Do universities have a particular obligation or face special challenges in this time when facts seem to be devalued?

KEOHANE: Last fall at Princeton, I was asked to give a talk at the induction ceremony for the junior Phi Beta Kappas, to honor their work as intellectually accomplished and dedicated young people at Princeton. I said that you have now become exemplary members of an institution which is founded on truth and evidence. You don’t have to believe that there’s some Holy Grail of truth out there that if you work hard enough, you’ll find. You don’t have to believe that truth is an objective outcome that everybody would find and regard in exactly the same way. But you do have to believe — maybe with John Stuart Mill — that you can get closer or further away from truth, that you can make progress toward understanding more and toward a clearer glimpse of the truth of something. And, also with John Stuart Mill, you can realize that you’re more likely to do it through discourse and through testing your ideas against people who have different views and through coming together with them.

I didn’t say this that night, but if you believe that this is the way that truth works, if you believe that universities are places fundamentally dedicated to making this happen, and to giving the students and faculty members the spaces, tools, opportunities, resources, instruments, books, whatever it takes to do this better, and if you believe that that’s what we’re all about, and everything else — however wonderful it is — clusters around that goal, then the notion that there’s no such thing as truth, that we’re in an anti-truth era — post-truth — is just noxious to everything we’re all about.

GAZETTE: When we think about women in higher education, it seems there’s been progress. What’s your sense of the work that’s been done in moving toward equality, and what challenges remain?

KEOHANE: You can see this as a glass that’s either half empty or half full. Women, in many ways, are doing very well in higher education. Some would say, at least at the undergraduate level, we have a “men problem” because many institutions have more women than men in their baccalaureate programs. And the women often do better and have more job opportunities when they leave than some of the men. So, at the undergraduate level, women are enrolling, women are doing well.

At the graduate and professional level, you see women enrolling in significant numbers so that in many fields now it’s 50-50 or better. And that’s true in fields where it didn’t used to be true. There are still a few that are hanging back, but not many. People sometimes use the image of the leaky pipeline to describe what happens next. I don’t think that’s quite the way it works. In some ways, I think we’ve got more like a cliff where women are moving along and then fall off. And that cliff is the first job.

There are fewer women than men being hired as assistant professors in many fields, at almost every university, and it is not simply the case that hiring committees are prejudiced against women. It may be true in some fields, in some universities, but it’s surely not true everywhere.

At least in some areas, there are fewer women who apply for those jobs. And when you start out with fewer assistant professors who are women, it’s harder to get associate professors and senior professors. They may take adjunct lectureships so they can teach courses but not have other responsibilities. Or they might take a part-time position, but part-time is a really difficult way to get into higher education, because people are expected to publish, people are expected to be members of their communities.

Work-life balance is a real problem. An increasing number of men are worried about that, but for many women it really hits you where you live. Because if women want to get married and have children — as not all but many do — then the tenure clock and your biological clock are ticking at the same pace. And it presents very difficult choices.

If you’re really lucky, you have a job and partner where it is possible to share the work. My husband and I were lucky enough to have jobs in the same city and live close to an excellent day care center and close to our offices. We were lucky enough to have children who were healthy and relatively independent, and to have my mother-in-law living in the area and willing to come in emergencies.

I realize that many faculty members commute to a distant city to teach and then return home to their families as often as they can. Finding better jobs for both partners, and making excellent day care available through the institution, would go a long way in helping all of us who try to walk this path. Making a dual-career marriage work well is undoubtedly challenging. But it is surely worth it.