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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Alumni

A Clear Vision

September-October 2006

As the new president of the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA), Paul J. Finnegan ’75, M.B.A. ’82, says the organization must be “a steady voice” that informs alumni “that a tremendous amount is going on at the University despite distractions at the upper level.” “The vision that Larry Summers articulated is still very much alive,” Finnegan explains, “and over the next 12 months we need to convey that fact. That vision is much more than one person—it involves the whole institution—and people I’ve talked to at the University are still very much excited about it. In the meantime, we’re lucky to have the guiding hand of Derek Bok, an experienced president.” (Bok, who headed the University from 1971 to 1991, is now interim president.)

Paul J. Finnegan
Photograph by Stu Rosner

Finnegan, a co-founding partner of the private-equity firm Madison Dearborn Partners in Chicago, cites five main areas of University focus: shoring up undergraduate education, strengthening collaboration among schools and departments, promoting international studies, enhancing financial-aid initiatives, and expanding research programs. As a member of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Council, Finnegan himself has encouraged changes in the College advising system. “There is a realization that we have to improve the quality of the undergraduate experience—that some other institutions are doing a better job—and I’m pleased with what has been happening,” he explains, citing as examples the reexamination of the College curriculum, the introduction of new courses (such as in the life sciences), and the upgrading of daily life for undergraduates.

In addition to his work on the council, Finnegan, who has endowed the directorship of Harvard’s Center for Brain Science, is active in University fundraising. He has been cochair of his class’s fundraising since 1990, cochair of the Chicago Major Gifts Committee, and a member of the executive committee of the Committee on University Resources for more than 10 years. (He volunteers as well for Teach for America—to which nearly 10 percent of Harvard seniors apply each year—by serving as chairman of its Chicago branch.) He and his wife, Mary, live in Evanston, Illinois, with their two high-school-age boys, Paul and Alex; their daughter, Katherine, is a sophomore at Bowdoin College.

The HAA, Finnegan says, will also continue to bolster communication with and outreach to its 330,000 alumni worldwide this year, and to “engage the unengaged” among them, an HAA theme for the last few years. Practically, that mission includes supporting the system of Harvard clubs, which number 185 across the globe; improving the on-line Post.Harvard communication systems; and continuing the HAA Global Series with a new alumni conference planned for Toronto for March 2007. (The HAA has previously run gatherings in London, Mexico City, and New Delhi.) The three regular HAA directors’ meetings at Harvard will focus on mind and body health (in October); the art of teaching (in February); and the future of education at Harvard (in May).

Finnegan, originally from Scituate, Massachusetts, has a long-range perspective on Harvard’s undergraduate education: his father, J. Paul Finnegan, is class of 1946. From his own College years, Finnegan says he learned most about friendship, and treasures his ties to former roommates and to teammates on the Nordic cross-country ski team, which he captained in his last two years in school.

On graduation day, the father of his roommate Hugh Hyde offered Finnegan a sales job at a publishing company, Johnston International. “You come out of Harvard feeling pretty good about yourself and the first territory I was given was a difficult one,” he recalls. “I ran into a lot of clients who really had no interest in my products. It was very humbling, but in the long term it was the best thing for me. It forced me to do a better job convincing people that what I was proposing was in their interest. Coming out of Harvard you really don’t expect to hear ‘No.’”

In 1977, he was transferred to the Hong Kong office and traveled throughout Southeast Asia, which was “exhilarating for a 25-year-old.” The decision to return to the United States was difficult, but worthwhile. “I felt comfortable with international business, marketing, and sales, but I really didn’t have any financial expertise; it was a glaring weakness,” Finnegan reports. “At the Business School I was in the classroom with people who were financially astute. That was a real wake-up call and turned out to be the experience that allowed me to get into the world of private equity.”

As a private-equity investor, Finnegan relies on skills of prediction, analysis, and measurement, which makes him sanguine about Harvard prospects. “Many alumni are waiting to see what comes of this transition at the University. [They] want to know ‘Who is going to be our new leader? Are we going to continue with the same vision for the school?’” he reports. “Given the people involved in the search and the extraordinary opportunity for new leadership, I think we’re going to be impressed with what comes of it.”