With Harvard President Larry Bacow having announced in June that he will step down at the end of the 2022-23 academic year, the work of the 15-member search committee looking for his successor is well underway. Harvard Corporation Senior Fellow Penny Pritzker, who chairs the committee, sat down with the Gazette to talk about the status of the search and to share thoughts on what the committee is learning in the process, the institutional strengths the next president will inherit, and where the search process stands. This interview was edited for clarity and length.
GAZETTE: Harvard’s last presidential search took place five years ago. Much has changed since then — at Harvard, in higher education, and in the world. How do those contexts shape the process of choosing a new president?
PRITZKER: This is only the 30th time that the University has searched for a president in 386 years. Each search is different in some way from the prior one, because the world around us changes — we make advances in teaching and learning; new fields of research are born; and economic and societal contexts shift. As circumstances change, so does Harvard — just look at how life has transformed since the beginning of President Bacow’s term in 2018, not to mention the beginning of President Faust’s in 2007.
But even in the context of those changes, the things that inform our search for a new president remain largely the same. We’re focused on finding a person of high integrity and intellect to lead Harvard into the future, someone who will guide us through challenges, yes, but also lead us in pursuing new opportunities and solving important problems, new ways to advance our teaching and research mission, and new ways to create knowledge that will make a positive impact in the world.
GAZETTE: The committee kicked off its work in July, shortly after President Bacow announced he would be stepping down. What has the search process looked like in the four months since then and where does that process stand now?
PRITZKER: The process begins with consultation, carefully listening to many constituencies. We started by reaching out to literally hundreds of thousands of people — our faculty, students, staff, postdocs, our alumni all over the world, and others — to ask them to share what they want to see in the next president and where they see the future of the institution. Since then, we’ve received hundreds of responses via email, letters, and a website we created for the search. We’ve also spoken individually with over 150 people and talked with hundreds more in various groups. Our advisory committees have also been engaging broadly with the community beyond what those of us on the search committee have been doing directly.
In terms of where the process stands now, the wide range of input we’ve received from across the community has helped us consider both the big opportunities and challenges Harvard is facing in the years ahead and the qualities that will be important in the next president. I won’t get ahead of the search committee’s considerations and deliberations in trying to predict the timing or outcome of a decision, but I do feel we’re making good progress.
GAZETTE: As you mentioned, in addition to the search committee itself, there are three advisory committees that are a part of the search process. What role does their input play?
PRITZKER: We wanted to cast the net widely and get input from many directions. We have three advisory committees, one each for faculty, staff, and students, three critical constituencies within the Harvard community. Each group has been very busy throughout the fall, not only sharing their own views on the search with us, but also soliciting the thoughts of others. Their advice is a real asset to this process. We’re hearing new ideas. We’re hearing recurring themes. We’re hearing what people value about Harvard and also what disappoints them. And we’re learning a lot about how people see Harvard from different angles and how they might like to see it change.
We have also spent substantial time speaking to alumni and leaders in higher education. As in any institution, we at Harvard can benefit greatly from hearing perspectives from beyond our campus. We’re interested in knowing what people who don’t live and breathe Harvard every day think.
GAZETTE: What do you see as the opportunities and challenges that come with the search for Harvard’s next leader?
PRITZKER: This search process affords us an unusual opportunity to get a really textured sense of where we stand as an institution. The search committee is learning directly both what excites our faculty, students, staff, alumni, and others and what concerns them. Harvard has always been driven by high aspirations and a commitment to excellence, and this process is a way of hearing more specifically about opportunities and challenges, how we might achieve the expressed aspirations, and what can get in the way. Our broad outreach has been quite informative, allowing the committee to hear about hopes for the future of Harvard as well as desirable traits in our next leader, different approaches to how the University should be navigating the future and doing its collective best to be a force for good in the world.
The challenge, as in any organization as large and complex as Harvard, comes with the diversity of views that make up our community. The voices are anything but monolithic, but there is a shared belief in Harvard and its potential. Personally, I am enjoying learning from the students, staff, faculty, postdocs, alumni, and others. Hearing so many different perspectives is hugely valuable, not just in considering who should be president, but in thinking about what should be high among the institution’s priorities as we look ahead, and what challenges and concerns we’ll need to address to live up to our aspirations and ideals.
GAZETTE: How do you and the committee weigh those myriad views, knowing that no one person will be able to exceed expectations on every dimension?
PRITZKER: We are blessed with a search committee and advisory committees that also have diverse backgrounds, points of view, and experience sets. What we share is a commitment to Harvard. The diversity of the groups helps us sort through and debate different ideas and inputs. But we have to keep in mind that even though our search is broad and we’re taking into account many ideas and factors, there is no one person who will have expertise in every area. So we are looking for a person who is a strong and effective leader, whose high integrity and honesty are undeniable, who has the capacity for growth and continued learning, who has achieved intellectual distinction, is broadly curious, has a strong moral compass, and is likable. I believe those are some of the qualities that will guide a successful candidate in this role.
I would also note that they will be at the helm of a capable leadership team, all of whom bring expertise to support the incoming president. Larry Bacow likes to say that leadership is a team sport. And he is right.
GAZETTE: What do you see as the strengths that the next president will inherit when they begin their term?
PRITZKER: There are many strengths with regard to where Harvard is today. A few points that are front of mind for me are, first, Harvard’s people. I witnessed it firsthand as a student, going back to when I was an undergraduate here, and in the years since, as I have remained involved in many aspects of the University, including as an Overseer and now as a member of the Corporation. The students, faculty, and staff are devoted to pursuing the teaching and learning mission of the institution at the highest level of quality; they desire to help face up to the biggest challenges in the world at a particularly difficult moment — it’s all truly awe-inspiring. And our alumni are extraordinary in their support of the institution. Our biggest asset is our people.
The second is the position that the University finds itself in because of President Bacow’s leadership. Though he’d be the last to claim credit, Larry’s stewardship of Harvard through arguably one of the most turbulent periods of our history has been nothing short of remarkable. Through the pandemic, he operated with an unflinching commitment to the health and safety of the community while also ensuring that our faculty, students, and researchers could continue to make progress and excel with their work — which they have done, in a remarkably impressive way. The resilience of the community at Harvard is extraordinary.
While navigating the pandemic, Larry has also helped launch some once-in-a-generation initiatives that the next president will benefit from, as will learners for decades to come. He has worked to establish both the Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability and the Kempner Institute for Natural and Artificial Intelligence, two ventures that will elevate the learning and work being done here at Harvard to have a transformational impact on our world. He has stood up for the flow of ideas and people across international borders and for the essential importance of free inquiry and expression. He has guided our physical expansion in Allston and elsewhere, including a new home for the Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and a planned new home for the American Repertory Theater, while ensuring we stay on a firm financial footing. He has summoned Harvard to embrace our collective diversity and address troubling parts of our past. I could go on. Larry’s service to Harvard is a testament to his strong leadership and steadfast moral compass, and he has made Harvard a better place, something the next president will surely inherit and build upon.
Additionally, I would point to the University’s ongoing commitment in expanding opportunity. This includes creating greater access through admissions and financial aid, as well as innovations in virtual learning and partnerships with other academic institutions. But it also includes taking the work, learning, and research being done here at Harvard into communities across our country and around the world. Whether it’s breakthroughs in medicine and public health, or strategies for creating resiliency in our communities while also curbing the impacts of climate change, or innovations in teaching to overcome inequities in our K-12 classrooms, our faculty, researchers, students, and staff are leaders in putting solutions to the test in countless ways to address challenges and inequities and expand opportunity. There is so much for the next president to build upon.
GAZETTE: While the presidential search is surely top-of-mind for the Corporation this year, can you share anything about other topics that you are focused on?
PRITZKER: The Corporation, at any given moment, is focused on an array of priorities for the University. How do we assure Harvard’s financial health and its capacity to bring the best faculty and students here to do their best work, from the arts and humanities to the sciences and across the professions? How do we help guide the development and renewal of the campus? How do we think about opportunities in online learning, at the same time we reinforce the distinctive value of residential education? How might we better collaborate with other institutions in ways that will not just strengthen Harvard but serve the world? How can we accelerate momentum on One Harvard? How do we keep working to make this a community where everyone here can thrive? These, and many other questions, are some of the things we talk about and focus on. These topics will no doubt also claim the attention of our next president.
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