Alan Garber.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Speaking his mind

long read

Interim President Alan Garber on leadership transition, promoting dialogue, hopes for year ahead

Provost Alan M. Garber was appointed interim president on Jan. 2 after the resignation of President Claudine Gay. Garber ’76, Harvard’s chief academic officer for almost 13 years, recently spoke with the Gazette about campus tensions following the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by the terrorist group Hamas, the intense public attention the community has faced in recent weeks, and his transition to the new role. He also provided an update on progress in several key academic and research areas. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

As we head into the new semester, the Harvard community has been experiencing a lot of change, including a leadership transition, and has been the subject of intense public attention. What are your reflections on what’s happened since Oct. 7?

The Hamas terrorist attack had far-reaching repercussions at Harvard and in the world at large. Long-standing concerns about antisemitism on campus, speech practices, viewpoint diversity, the application of student discipline, and the broad direction of the University came to the surface. Central to these concerns is the question of how we can communicate with each other more openly and constructively. There are policies and programs to facilitate dialogue, and we need to be sure they are effective, but true success will require culture change. That can’t be accomplished overnight or by policies alone, but I am confident that the goodwill of the Harvard community will help us get there before long.

As our community returns to campus and classes resume in the coming weeks, how do you envision engaging in the work to bring people together?

My plans are a work in progress, but many of the needs that must be addressed are clear. The community is suffering in many ways. Many of its members have faced personal disruption and the loss of family and friends in Israel and Gaza. Rebuilding and establishing comity must be a priority. In the coming weeks, we will be announcing important, substantive steps we are taking to address these issues, including measures to tackle antisemitism, Islamophobia and anti-Arab hate, and other forms of bias, and to encourage and enable civil and respectful discourse and debate across our community. I also hope to advance a deeper understanding of what’s right about Harvard, drawing more attention to the truly inspiring work that we do here every day, in research, in teaching, and in service to the world. Expect to hear more in the coming months.

The leadership transition is still being processed across the community. How do you feel about Claudine Gay stepping down as president?

I’ve worked closely with Claudine for more than eight years. She is a thoughtful leader who believes deeply in Harvard and in the potential of our faculty and students. I expected her to have a notably successful presidency. Many of the plans we are pursuing are consistent with what Claudine was hoping to do over the coming months.

It’s important to remember that our current crisis began early in the fourth month of her presidency. It would have tested the abilities of even the most experienced president. Many members of our community grieve the loss of the promise and potential she brought to the presidency.

In your message to the community on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, you discussed the importance of inclusion and diversity of ideas, particularly creating a space where we bring together people with diverse backgrounds. Could you talk about the University’s continued work in that direction?

To pursue truth, veritas, we must seek diverse expertise, perspectives, and experiences. That will position us well to come up with truly novel ways to understand the world and pursue research questions and to enable Harvard to address the world’s most pressing challenges. It’s also fundamental to how we nurture future leaders.

Over the last several years, we have sought to embrace diversity in every dimension. As part of that effort, we have worked to create a welcoming environment, ensuring that every student, employee, faculty member, and visitor knows they belong here. We have more to do. Our commitment to inclusion and belonging has not changed.

Harvard is currently the subject of intense public interest, which is taking various forms, from a high level of media coverage and social media conversation to investigations by the House of Representatives. What can you tell us about how the University is handling the attention?

The daily life I see at Harvard is very different from many of the narratives that have circulated in the last few months. For most of our faculty, staff, and students, the work continues. The discoveries keep coming. Innovations in education move forward. That’s not to downplay the real issues that we need to, and will, address.

Four years ago, at the end of the semester, my students asked what I thought was the most important problem facing the University for the coming years. My immediate response was that students in their generation would find it increasingly difficult to speak openly with one another about controversial issues. This problem is neither new nor unique to Harvard. But it is far more salient for our current students than previous generations. We need to double down on the efforts to promote dialogue, which have been in place in the Schools, and to explore new approaches. And we need to let the world know that we are committed to work with others to promote dialogue.

“Harvard is a very strong institution, but our strength doesn’t derive from our physical resources, or from our financial resources. It comes from our people.”

The Harvard community has known you as provost for more than a decade. As you step into your new role, can you talk about your broader Harvard journey?

It all started when I arrived 50 years ago as an undergraduate from Rock Island, Illinois, a small city on the Mississippi River, 1,000 miles and worlds away from Harvard. From that first day, my experience was one of constant discovery. If you believe, as I do, the adage that you should choose to spend your time with the people who bring out the best in you, there was no better place for me. My roommates and friends were brilliant and ambitious. Almost everyone I met was talented in some way that I wasn’t, and the opportunities to grow both inside and outside the classroom seemed limitless. It was a time and a place of intellectual ferment, debate, and discussion.

Because I intended to graduate in three years, I needed to declare my concentration around the time of my first midterms. In my second year, when I entered Dunster House, Jerome Culp, the resident tutor in economics, convinced me that I should switch from biochemistry to economics because I had enjoyed EC 10 so much. He said that I should start taking graduate courses in economics and become a research assistant. With his help, I ended up working for Dick Freeman, the Herbert Ascherman Professor of Economics.

That conversation with Jerome changed my life. Although I stuck to my plan to graduate a year early, everything else changed. With encouragement from Dick and other economics faculty, I ended up pursuing a Ph.D. in economics, in addition to the M.D. that my parents hoped I would pursue. In the decades since, my view of the world has been shaped and sharpened by the education I received here. I doubt that I could have had this experience elsewhere. People were very generous to me — faculty mentors, graduate students, classmates, and other friends opened my eyes to what is possible. Lifelong friendships and many connections that I formed after I graduated can be traced to my Harvard experience.

When you had the opportunity to return to Harvard as provost, what motivated you to take on the job?

I met Drew Faust through my service on the visiting committee to the medical and dental schools. She met with me near the Stanford campus, where I was a professor, after Steve Hyman announced that he was retiring as provost. We had a far-ranging conversation. I came to appreciate what a terrific leader and wonderful human being she was. Our conversation reinforced my impression that Harvard arguably had the greatest assembly of academic talent anywhere in the world but would accomplish even more if the different parts of Harvard could find a way to work more closely together toward common goals. That wasn’t a major concern at Stanford, a more centralized institution that was largely located on one main campus.

Although I’d never been interested in a major academic leadership position, Drew helped me see the position of provost as an opportunity to begin to repay my debt to Harvard. I also realized that it was the right time in my career. It turned out to be more gratifying than I could have imagined.

As provost, two areas of significant attention have been the establishment of the Salata Institute on Climate and Sustainability and the Kempner Institute on Natural and Artificial Intelligence. It seems like both of those institutes gained momentum instantly. Did that surprise you?

We knew there was great interest in these topics but underestimated just how deep and wide the interest was. For both institutes, we benefited from deeply committed donors, strong leadership, extensive support and interest across the Schools, and synergies with other programs and academic activities. Interest in the work of the Salata Institute extends across the sciences, engineering, and the social sciences. It is also strong in the humanities. With the growth of machine learning and generative AI, it’s no surprise that the work of the Kempner Institute should be so broadly attractive. The Kempner has also created a model for graduate education that lowers barriers to collaboration across fields and facilitates the diffusion of new techniques and research directions throughout the University. The Kempner model is paving the way toward an approach to graduate education that prepares our students to adapt to rapidly changing research approaches and needs that they’ll face in their careers.

The arts is another area where you’ve been instrumental in the investments Harvard has made in recent years. From the A.R.T. to other initiatives, the arts are thriving at Harvard.

Harvard has had a vibrant artistic community for a very long time. Undergraduate interest in the performing arts and studio art has been widespread. In the past, most such activities were extracurricular — optional and with limited institutional support. Those extracurricular activities continue to thrive, but with the creation of the Theater, Dance, & Media concentration, our students have access to a wider array of curricular options as well. The creation of the ArtLab in Allston has expanded the array of creative artistic spaces available to our community. In filmmaking, studio art, and other areas of art, Harvard has made great strides.

The A.R.T., which has long been committed to pushing the boundaries of what one can do in live theater and which had to cope with the many challenges of operating a theater during the pandemic, is entering an exciting new chapter. The A.R.T. has had considerable success despite the constraints imposed by the physical space it has occupied. With the construction of the David E. and Stacey L. Goel Center for Creativity & Performance, it will practice and perform in a tremendous new space that will give its productions the environment they deserve. The presence of the A.R.T. in Allston will help to bring in other kinds of organizations, businesses, and academic activities that contribute to a vibrant environment in that area.

You and your office have had a significant role in the implementation around the Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery recommendations, and that work has been ongoing for about 18 months. How do you feel about the progress that’s been made?

We have seen strong progress implementing the recommendations from the Presidential Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery, and for me the most exciting aspect is the partnerships we are continuing to enable. This is work that is intended to continue for generations, and not just by Harvard, but rather along with partners in the community, in descendant communities, and other institutions, who can guide and help meaningfully address systemic inequities as well as create and strengthen opportunities.

Certainly, we’re seeing this with the recently launched Reparative Partnership Grant Program, which will fund initiatives that enable and advance work between Harvard partners — faculty, staff and students — with community partners looking to address disadvantages affecting descendant communities. It’s also reflected in the partnership between Harvard Library and the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Library Alliance — called the HBCU Digital Library Trust — to accelerate the digitization of library holdings, creating free access for scholars, students, and the public to records and educational materials.

I anticipate more to come as several of Harvard’s Schools are moving initiatives forward. The work around memorializing those enslaved individuals whose work contributed to the success and growth of Harvard accelerates, and our work to identify and engage with descendants of individuals who were enslaved by Harvard leaders, faculty and staff continues. Most important to understand is that Harvard remains serious and sincere about our efforts to address the University’s legacy of slavery.

Are there other initiatives or efforts that you’re excited about as you look to this semester and the months ahead?

One of my proudest accomplishments as provost was the creation of the Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning. Among other responsibilities, the office supports our efforts in online learning, including our role in edX, which was our partnership with MIT to create a resource for online courses to be available throughout the world. As the enrollment in online courses exploded during the pandemic, edX benefited financially and was responsible for the education of many more students throughout the world.

However, it became apparent that it would need substantial additional investments to take advantage of the increased interest in its courses. We and MIT sold edX to 2U, a prominent ed tech firm, using the proceeds to create a new nonprofit called Axim Collaborative, which is dedicated to improving learning and addressing inequities in educational access. Axim is off to an excellent start, building partnerships to meet the educational needs of underserved communities.

As you’ve been very involved in the life sciences throughout your career, could you reflect on the possibilities for life sciences in the region?

Harvard has long been a powerhouse in the life sciences. Our affiliated hospitals are among the most renowned academic medical centers in the world, and the quality and scope of our research community is unparalleled. We also benefit from being part of a community that includes other universities with strengths in the life sciences, such as MIT, Tufts, BU, Brandeis, and the University of Massachusetts, and a thriving biotech industry. Eastern Massachusetts is the epicenter of life sciences in the world.

But the continued pre-eminence of our region cannot be taken for granted. Working with state, local, and other leaders, we created the Massachusetts Life Sciences Strategy Group, which is charged with identifying and implementing strategies to ensure the region’s continued pre-eminence as a center of the life sciences. The work of this group led to the creation of Landmark Bio, a facility designed to enable early stage manufacturing of cell and gene therapies and mRNA-based therapies. We’re very excited to see it become fully operational. We’re now turning to a focus on further development of the life sciences workforce in the region, making sure that the economic benefits of the success of the life sciences reach many more area residents.

As you think about the months ahead, what can members of the community do to help in the work that you’re moving forward?

Let’s find ways to strengthen our community, communicate more openly and constructively, support one another, and undertake all we do with an unyielding commitment to the pursuit and dissemination of truth. Harvard is a very strong institution, but our strength doesn’t derive from our physical resources, or from our financial resources. It comes from our people. If we work together effectively, there’s no limit to what we can achieve as an institution.