The Short List
On picking a president
WANTED: New President for major Ivy League university. Must be able to raise billions of dollars every year, root convincingly for athletic teams regardless of won-loss record, and agree to wear a geeky crimson scarf. Must be able to write an article on the future of higher education for the New York Times op-ed page. Ability to enjoy wine, cheese, and sherry a plus. No smokers, please.
When Neil L. Rudenstine announced that he would be stepping down from his post next June, Harvard faced the daunting task of choosing a new president for the twenty-first century. The University, appropriately enough, decided to choose its new leader in a typically twenty-first-century way: on the Internet. By setting up the website nuharvardprez.org, Harvard established an on-line balloting process closely modeled on the voting system that Major League Baseball uses to select players for its annual All-Star Game.
Much to the surprise of University officials, the voters' overwhelming choice to be the new Harvard president was Boston Red Sox slugger Carl Everett. Although Everett had no experience running a major university, the Harvard Corporation felt the fact that Everett was already in the Boston area, and therefore would not need a costly relocation allowance, weighed in his favor. A deal between Harvard and the Red Sox quickly came to fruition, with the baseball team agreeing to trade Everett for Jeremy Knowles and two deans to be named later. But the deal fell apart when Everett responded to Harvard's offer with a terse and seemingly irreversible, "No way, man. Get out of my face." It was back to the drawing board.
A search committee was quickly installed and drew up a list of names to be considered for this critical post. We have obtained a copy of this short list, reprinted below. Although some of the names on the list may be surprising, anyone who cares about the future of Harvard will be heartened to see that the committee is thinking "outside the box."
President Bill Clinton: President Clinton is leaving office on January 20, and after a few months of rest and recuperation should be ready to slip into the role of Harvard president. Although some committee members claim to believe that being president of Harvard would be a step down from being president of the United States, by most conventional measures--average SAT scores, Nobel Prize winners on staff--it is a step up.
Pros: President Clinton has proved himself an indefatigable fundraiser, and would no doubt bring innovative fundraising methods and mysterious new donors to Harvard's next capital campaign.
Cons: Current projections indicate that the Office of the Independent Counsel intends to continue to investigate Clinton at least until the year 2025. The prospect of having a legal shadow over the president of Harvard for the next quarter of a century struck some members of the committee as "problematic."
Regis Philbin: There are whispers in Hollywood that the host of America's top game show--Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?--may be tiring of his current job and seeking the sort of recognition and prestige that only the presidency of a major university can bestow. The Harvard job may be just the "lifeline" Philbin has been looking for.
Pros: Philbin would bring much-needed Nielsen muscle to Harvard. With his strong TV presence, Philbin could transform Harvard's development office into a state-of-the-art televised Pledge Week that could rake in billions of dollars a night. And who better to lead Harvard into a brave new era of "distance learning" than a man who has educated an entire country from a remote Manhattan TV studio?
Cons: Philbin's interview was, to put it bluntly, ugly. Instead of responding to the committee's queries, he became a self-appointed inquisitor, peppering the committee with irritating multiple-choice trivia questions. In addition, several members found Philbin's monochromatic suit "creepy."
Britney Spears: The teenybopper superstar would bring youth and energy to the job of Harvard president, and could reach out to the desirable younger demographic groups of teens and "tweens."
Pros: Spears, while a long shot for the job, continues to confound her critics. While some say that she should not be president of Harvard because she has not yet attended college, her defenders would argue that she has sold millions of records without yet learning to sing.
Cons: Spears underwhelmed the committee with her proposed acceptance speech, which featured no fewer than 500 instances of the phrase "like, you know." Further damaging her credibility was the revelation that the oration had been adapted from an acceptance speech she gave last year at the MTV Music Awards.
Neil Rudenstine: Having already served successfully as president of Harvard, Rudenstine is uniquely qualified to serve as president of Harvard.
Pros: While Rudenstine has said he wants to step down, he may not really mean it. Think of how many other superstars--The Who, David Bowie, Sinatra--said they were retiring, only to stage triumphal "comebacks" in a matter of a year or two. Several members of the committee believe that Rudenstine will follow in those venerable footsteps.
Cons: He may really mean it.
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