Harvard’s Board of Overseers has a particular focus on promoting and maintaining academic excellence at Harvard, a quality key in helping the University address a suite of complex global challenges, from climate change to inequality to fighting disease and beyond. For the past year, Paul Choi, a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, has served as president of the 30-member board, which, established in 1642, is the older of Harvard’s two governing boards. With the end of the academic year looming, Choi will turn over leadership after Commencement Day to Meredith (Max) Hodges, executive director of Boston Ballet and alumna of both Harvard College and Harvard Business School. The Gazette spoke with Choi and Hodges about their experience on the board and their views of the challenges and opportunities facing the University.
Paul Choi and Meredith Hodges
GAZETTE: Paul, you’re ending a six-year term on the board, do you have a most striking memory or something that you especially valued about your time there?
CHOI: I had the privilege during my term as president to serve on the Presidential Search Committee that recommended Claudine Gay to succeed Larry Bacow. From June through December of last year, the search committee was pretty intensely engaged. We met nearly every week, by Zoom or in person. And in the course of that work, we had one-on-one consultations with literally hundreds of people: leaders in higher education — both inside and outside Harvard — and with faculty, with students, and alumni groups. We spoke with the alumni group from every one of the Schools, as well as the Harvard Alumni Association. It was an incredible privilege to be able to serve in that way. Even though I’ve been deeply involved with Harvard for decades, during that search process I learned so much about the University, our strengths, our challenges, and the opportunities ahead. I’ll also remember how passionate all these constituencies are about Harvard: faculty, students, staff, and alumni. They care very deeply about Harvard, and they care very deeply about where we’re headed.
GAZETTE: The Board of Overseers seems to draw people from a lot of walks of life. How important is diversity of experience on the board?
HODGES: Diversity of thought and diversity of experience are both highly valued. Certainly, subject matter expertise is valued — there are folks on the board with extraordinary, specialized expertise and they are tapped for relevant topics. Breadth is helpful too. The fact that the board members are mapped across so many different, vital professions and so many different geographies means that there’s greater insight and greater pattern recognition. And one of the most wonderful things about this board is that differing opinions are welcomed. When I joined the board, I was in awe of my fellow board members. And now, five years in, I continue to be in awe of my fellow board members. The first time I spoke up in a board conversation with a contrary opinion, I was nervous. But I was supported and encouraged. It’s a place where thoughtful and committed people can share ideas and disparate opinions in service of making Harvard a better place.
GAZETTE: The University itself is striving for diversity and working to put people from diverse backgrounds on equal footing and sometimes those conversations can be difficult. Is that something that you see as a point of emphasis for the board going forward as well?
HODGES: There’s no question that Harvard views inclusion, belonging, and diversity as a foundation for its excellence. And, when we talk about challenges in the future, Harvard is anticipating the outcome of a Supreme Court case challenging affirmative action. We’ll see how the Court rules, but I know my colleagues on the board care deeply about a climate on campus that’s inclusive and that makes it possible for people from different backgrounds to have difficult conversations in respectful ways.
GAZETTE: We often think about what members bring to the board and can give to the University, but rarely the reverse. Has serving on the Board of Overseers provided lessons that perhaps have impacted your lives outside Harvard?
CHOI: The Presidential Search Committee was made up of people with very diverse backgrounds and skills. The Board of Overseers is also incredibly diverse in terms of background and talent. My role in both of these groups has been a wonderful reminder of how diversity enriches the quality of organizations’ discussion and decision making. Another great benefit I’ve enjoyed is the pleasure of working with people like Max and my other fellow board members who bring such dedication and skill to this enterprise of trying to make the University better. So many of them have also become great friends of mine. Finally, my time on the board has made me a student again, learning about what’s going on at Harvard, learning about groundbreaking research by the faculty, and learning from my colleagues.
HODGES: Harvard is led by extraordinary people, and serving alongside Larry Bacow during his presidency has been amazing. Each conversation with Larry is like a mini-leadership seminar. He is such a gifted and committed leader and he engages with the board with great candor and a sense of intimacy. He shares University challenges and successes in equal weight. But it’s not just his communication style, it’s his insight into running a large, complex, mission-driven organization pursuing inclusive excellence. In my day job, I’m the executive director of Boston Ballet — certainly not the same scale as Harvard, but still a complex, mission-driven organization pursuing inclusive excellence. What I have learned from watching Harvard’s leadership informs my own leadership style at the ballet.
GAZETTE: Both of you have committed a great deal of time — to the board and to Harvard — when you could be doing a lot of other things. What made you decide to do that?
HODGES: My parents are both public school teachers, and I was always raised to believe that education is the No. 1 source of opportunity and advancement. My Harvard education changed my life and gave me opportunities that I couldn’t have accessed otherwise, so the opportunity to give back in any small way is thrilling. Of course, it’s also an extraordinary pleasure to serve on this board. The members of the Board of Overseers are thoughtful and gifted colleagues, serious-minded, but also full of warmth and joy, friendly and engaging. I’ve learned so much from these colleagues.
CHOI: I’m very grateful to Harvard. My time as a student in the College and in the Law School opened a lot of doors for me. Harvard changed the trajectory of my professional career. and it’s been a source of lifelong friends. As I’ve gotten more involved with Harvard, I’ve learned so much more about the University, its breadth of excellence and the exciting work that is being done every day. I’m deeply impressed by our outstanding students and world-class faculty, and all of that motivates me to want to contribute my time and effort. Sometimes the advisees and mentees in my law firm will ask me, “How should I contribute my volunteer time?” I say to them that they should find something that they genuinely enjoy doing. The example that I give is my volunteer work with Harvard. I enjoy it because I like the people that I meet, I’m inspired by the mission of the University, and I deeply respect the excellence that it tries to achieve. So, while it’s been a lot of time, it’s also something I find really rewarding and fun.
GAZETTE: Could you talk about the visiting committee process and the Overseers’ broader mission?
CHOI: The Overseers provide oversight over the academic quality of the institution. That covers each of the Schools, each of the FAS departments, and some of the other units. That is done primarily through more than 50 visiting committees, which vary in size from about five to 15 people. A typical committee includes one or more Overseers along with nationally recognized — and sometimes internationally recognized — experts in the field or School that is being visited. They’ll take two days on campus, meet with the faculty, the dean or department chair, senior administrators, and students. They’ll review the faculty, the direction of that School or department, and make observations that assess the strengths and weaknesses of that department or School and make recommendations for how it can remain a leader in its field or become one. Beyond the visitation process, the Overseers provide advice and counsel to the University and its leadership. We do this in committees, in our plenary sessions, and in informal gatherings. By the way, in those plenary sessions, we’re joined by most of the members of the Corporation, which provides a wonderful opportunity for both governing boards to work together and discuss important University initiatives. We take up major opportunities and challenges facing the University, often ones that cut across different Schools and departments. And we have an open forum and discussion with University leadership on recent developments of interest. Finally, there are some items where the Overseers have the power of consent. Some are ceremonial — for instance, all degrees from Harvard are technically conferred with the consent of the Overseers. That’s why at Commencement, you see each of the deans come up and greet both the president of the University and the president of the Overseers when they present their students for degrees. Some of the board’s consent powers are more substantive. A good example is the board’s consent when there’s an election of a new president of the University, or other members of the Corporation.
GAZETTE: Can you tell me about some of the visits that you’ve done?
HODGES: My specialty is the Division of Arts and Humanities, and the visits are fascinating. One I completed recently was the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations [NELC]. What a pleasure it was to get to know the faculty and students of NELC. The idea is that the Overseers need not have deep expertise in a specific academic department because there are other members of the visiting committee who are experts in the field. The Overseer role is a pan-University one: We try to bring a broader perspective on the shared challenges, the shared opportunities, and how each department or School can help advance the University’s priorities. The academic experts and the Overseers complement each other and can be a powerful mix. But I did ask for a few reading recommendations, and I’ve been reading up on the Bronze Age history since.
GAZETTE: What do you see as challenges for the University in the years ahead?
CHOI: I think the challenges for Harvard reflect many of the challenges facing higher education today. There are many, but three come to mind: First, the climate of political polarization, which affects our campus as well as the nation. Related to that is how we preserve and promote open and civil discourse as well as academic freedom. A third challenge is the growing skepticism in the public about the value of higher education and some loss of public trust in higher education. How do we let people know about the important work that research institutions like Harvard perform in the world and how Harvard advances important societal goals?
HODGES: I do think that the challenges are growing. The board has been hearing from faculty and students about a kind of self-censorship happening in the classroom, more so than in the past. Harvard is taking this very seriously, because of its belief that knowledge is produced through free exchange of competing ideas. It’s central to Harvard’s educational mission. As a board, we’ve been hearing testimony directly from faculty and directly from students — having this access allows the board to see the challenges in the most clear-eyed way.
GAZETTE: What do you see as opportunities in the months and years ahead?
CHOI: One thing that came through loud and clear from the consultations as part of the presidential search is that Harvard occupies a special place in higher education because of its breadth of expertise. We’re in a particularly strong position to help address some of the problems that are perceived to be the gravest to our society. These would include opportunities in life sciences, addressing climate change, responding to dangerous threats to democracy, the issues around inequality, and the implications of advances in technology like AI and quantum. These are all areas that we are uniquely positioned to tackle. And they’re all areas where we can make a really distinctive contribution by combining the strengths that exist across the different departments and Schools.
HODGES: I would add to that the advances and investments that Harvard has made in financial aid, particularly the commitment to offering a growing number of students an essentially cost-free education. That widens that path of access in a way that I think is crucial. As an alum and as a member of the board, it is so motivating to see Harvard leading the way there. I also think there’s a sense of excitement and possibility with Claudine Gay’s coming inauguration as president. I think Claudine is dazzling. From my view, she’s a change-maker, but one who uses the faculty’s expertise and capabilities in pursuit of solving the University’s most challenging problems. We’ve seen that in her deanship of the FAS so there’s every reason to expect that she will harness that same power in her presidency.
GAZETTE: Are there specific things on which you’re looking forward to working with her?
HODGES: I know I speak for all of us on the board when I say that we’re excited to get to know Claudine better in her first year in the presidency, because we’ll be working with her more closely than before. As for her priorities, those are something that she needs to have time to develop on her own, and in consultation with the faculty and others. So, in our role to make Harvard as successful as it can be, we’re excited to help support Claudine’s success.
CHOI: I’ve known Claudine from her many interactions with the Board of Overseers and with the alumni over the years, but of course I got to know her much more deeply during the presidential search process. What impresses me about her is a truly outstanding quality of mind and an outstanding quality of leadership and experience. When you spend any time talking with Claudine, you get a sense of her infectious energy and passion for Harvard. She has a commitment not just to academic excellence but to how Harvard can make a powerful and positive difference in the world. When I talked to alumni around the country after the announcement, I heard uniformly a sense of excitement about Claudine and the potential that her presidency could bring. As we look forward to Harvard’s 400th anniversary in the not-too-distant future, I think she’s a wonderful choice to help lead us into the start of the next century of the University’s history.
Eligible Harvard degree holders may vote in this year’s elections for members of the University’s Board of Overseers and the Harvard Alumni Association Elected Directors through 5 p.m. (EDT) on May 16. More information on the elections and candidates can be found here.