Campus & Community

Looking for a person, and perspective

long read

Senior Fellow Bill Lee discusses the ongoing search for Harvard’s next president

Four months after Harvard President Drew Faust announced she would step down at the end of the academic year, the search for Harvard’s next president is well underway.  

Harvard Corporation Senior Fellow Bill Lee, chair of the 15-member search committee, says the search process is broadly consultative and serves twin purposes: to identify candidates to become Harvard’s 29th president and to gather information about the challenges facing Harvard and the rest of higher education. That information, Lee said, can benefit the new leader as he or she works with others to set an agenda for Harvard’s future.

Lee sat down with the Gazette to talk about the search process, to reflect on the distinctive nature of the Harvard presidency, and to share his thoughts about how well the University is positioned for the years to come.

GAZETTE: You were an Overseer and a member of the search committee when President Faust was selected; how does this process compare to that one?

LEE: This is Harvard’s fifth presidential search in the last 50 years. Each process is different, and there’s no template for a process that gets to the right result.

This process resembles the one that led to the selection of President Faust, in that we’re reaching out very broadly to the community. We’re receiving a great deal of helpful input. But this search is also different, because the landscape for higher education has changed so much in the last 11 years. Whether you look at economics or politics or international affairs or technology, it’s a very different world. And it’s not just the external world that’s different. New fields of research have emerged. Teaching methods are changing. The ways we organize ourselves and work with each other inside the University and the ways we relate to people and issues outside the University have changed.

So, I’d say it’s not so much that the search process is different. The context is different.

GAZETTE: What makes a search like this different from searches for leaders in other kinds of organizations?

LEE: The search is in some sense both the same and different. The search is the same in that it is a process that allows you to evaluate where the institution is and where the institution hopes to go in the future. A search for any leader of any institution should do that. It is the same in the sense that we’re looking for a person who has the characteristics and abilities to lead the institution forward and help it become even stronger and better.

It is different because this institution is different. It has more constituencies with different views and imperatives and expectations than almost any institution I can imagine. It is all those different perspectives and opinions that make it a robust intellectual community. It also makes it a more diverse and interesting community. Leading a university, and leading this University in particular, requires a rare combination of abilities and qualities, including the ability to communicate with so many different constituencies.

GAZETTE: Three advisory committees — of faculty, staff, and students — have been created to inform the presidential search process. How does that advisory part of the process work?

LEE: Maybe I can answer the question a bit more broadly and describe to you what we’ve done since the search began. Shortly after we started the process, we sent about 375,000 emails — to faculty, students, staff, alumni, leaders in higher education — to solicit their views on where Harvard stands today, what the challenges are for Harvard tomorrow, what qualities seem most important in our next president, and to solicit nominees.

We’ve gotten around 1,500 responses to that email. In addition, the 12 Corporation members other than President Faust, plus the three Overseers who’ve joined us on the search committee, have spent the last four to five months meeting with and speaking with approximately 200 people individually, and meeting with a few hundred additional people who’ve taken part in group discussions. Many of them are people associated with Harvard, but we’ve also spoken with many people associated with other institutions. We’ve asked them the same questions that I’ve described to you: What are the challenges and opportunities confronting Harvard; what are the characteristics and traits of the person who’d be best suited to lead Harvard; and do you have anybody to suggest specifically?

All of that has happened as the three advisory committees have come together and pursued their work. We created a faculty advisory committee, a student advisory committee, and a staff advisory committee because these are three critical constituencies of the Harvard community. We have not had a staff advisory committee before, but we thought it was a very important thing to do. We’ve also done extensive outreach to alumni.

Each of the committees has been very active since the academic year began. All of them have been at work both giving us the benefit of their own views and helping us to make sure that other people are taking the opportunity to share their views. We’re learning a lot from them, both when we hear new ideas and suggestions and when we hear some of the same themes again and again.

GAZETTE: There’s clearly a lot of time and effort being invested in outreach, both by the search committee and the advisory committees. Why is it important that the search committee solicit advice so broadly?

LEE: There are really three reasons that you need to reach out so broadly. One is, as I said, that the Harvard community has many members, and they have different perspectives and different views. It is really important to hear from all of them as best we can. We want to understand people’s aspirations, and also their concerns.

The second is that it is important to reach out beyond the Harvard community. We can have a view of ourselves that may or may not be correct. It’s important to learn what others think about where we are and where we need to go.

The third is that, at the end of the day, all that we’re learning will inform two crucially important decisions: the decision of who will be our next president and, equally important, how the new president and the rest of us should think about Harvard’s future. All of this information will help educate that process.

As a personal matter, having been involved with the Harvard community now for close to 50 years, every time I sit down at one of these meetings or I have one of these calls, I learn something new. I think that’s true for all of us on the search committee.

GAZETTE: There are so many different elements to the president’s job, and so many expectations about what the ideal profile might be. How do you deal with the reality that no one person is likely to score high on every dimension that many people might consider important?

LEE: I’ve said to some of the groups we’ve met with, “Once we’ve met someone who’s won Nobel prizes in chemistry, literature, and economics, who’s a brilliant visionary and educator and negotiator and diplomat and urban planner and fundraiser, who can lead and manage a multibillion-dollar enterprise with activities that reach around the world and touch on almost every field, and who is a wonderful communicator and listener, we’ll have found the right person.”

The true answer is that, if you consider all of the things that every member of the Harvard community would like to see in the president, there is no one person who can satisfy all of those desires. So, what we’re looking for are two things. We’re looking for a person who has the fundamental human characteristics — the integrity, the ability to be trusted, the ability to communicate, the emotional intelligence, the intellectual curiosity, the ability to grow — that will allow the person to address all the many responsibilities of the position.

The second thing that is quite clear is that today the president can’t do everything that he or she is asked to do. Ultimately, it will be done by a team led by the president. The team will include the provost, the deans, and others. And the team, with the president’s leadership, can together bring the experience and expertise that everyone would like to see in this idealized person.

GAZETTE: President Faust will be on hand to see the conclusion of The Harvard Campaign that she has led. How important for her successor is having the campaign close successfully from the standpoint of positioning the University for the future?

LEE: It’s critically important for the University as an institution for the campaign to close successfully, and for it to close successfully for each of the Schools. It will provide a platform for the next president and for the University to move forward. I think much of what President Faust has helped Harvard accomplish will provide a platform for the next president. Closing the capital campaign successfully, which we will do, is just one important element of that platform. 

GAZETTE: In your letter to the community after President Faust announced she would be stepping down, you expressed thanks to her for leading Harvard — in the words of “Fair Harvard” — through change and through storm. President Faust experienced her share of both change and storms. Which do you think will greet the new president?

LEE: I’m not sure we’re in a time of storm, but it is a time of challenge. People are questioning, broadly within the country, the value of higher education. People are questioning the importance of intellectual inquiry and intellectual discourse. The financial model for any higher education institution is under stress.

Dealing with these larger challenges will be crucial to our ability to remain the pre-eminent academic institution in the country and the world. And whatever storms may or may not come, certainly any president of a university like ours needs a capacity not just to weather change but to lead change.

GAZETTE: How does what you’re learning through the search make you feel about Harvard’s future?

LEE: I’m fundamentally an optimist, and I think it’s easy to be optimistic about Harvard’s future.

It’s also easy to see all the things we could do better. Given the extraordinary collection of talent that comes together here, I think we are in a wonderful place to move forward, but it’s not a place without challenges, and we need to be clear-eyed in recognizing what those challenges are.

We need a president who can help us identify them and plan to address them. And we need a president, a leadership team, and a community that’s prepared to collectively address them in the best manner possible.

There’s a quality of restlessness and ambition about this place that is fundamental to almost everything we can accomplish. The challenges change over time. But I hope that quality, of questioning how we do things and pushing ourselves to be better, will always be part of this place.

GAZETTE: What are the University’s strengths, and how do they position it to take advantage of opportunities that may lie ahead?

LEE: At bottom, our greatest strength is we have extraordinary faculty, extraordinary students, and extraordinary staff. That is the core. That is the source for our intellectual vitality, and it will be the foundation for our success going forward.

We need to take the steps that are required to ensure that we will, over the next 25 to 50 years, continue to attract the best faculty, the best students, the best staff. And we need to provide them with the financial support, the structure, and the cultural environment to allow them to thrive, not just as individuals but as a community.

GAZETTE: Though the presidential search is at the top of the Corporation’s agenda for this year, can you say anything about some of the other major issues you’ve been engaging with recently?

LEE: Our two most important tasks for the year are the presidential search, of course, but also doing what we can to help President Faust advance her priorities in the final year of what’s been an extraordinary presidency.

With her leadership, there’s been a focus on breaking down structural and cultural barriers to One Harvard; a focus on ensuring that the research enterprise for all of Harvard — for the sciences and beyond — is robust; a focus on making the case for liberal arts education and avoiding too narrow a view of what higher education is; a focus on new approaches to teaching and learning; a focus on ensuring that there’s a sound financial basis for Harvard moving forward; a focus on ensuring that the diverse students and faculty and staff whom we’re recruiting feel included and welcome; a focus on Harvard’s engagement with the wider world, nationally and internationally; and a recognition that the Allston campus provides probably one of the greatest opportunities for any institution in the country to develop something innovative and different.

Those are at least some of the priorities that the Corporation has developed and pursued with President Faust. Judging from the conversations we’ve been having in the context of the search, I expect that all those priorities are going to require our continued attention not just for the rest of this year but well beyond. And we will have a new president, with new perspectives and new priorities, to guide us forward and, I hope, to strike the right balance between continuity and change.

So, the regular work of the Corporation is going on in addition to and in parallel with the search. There’s plenty that needs to get done, and we’ll get it done.