Activist Administrator

Katie  Lapp

The executive vice president’s website defines the post, neutrally, as the University’s “principal ranking officer…on business and organizational matters.” But Katie Lapp’s self-definition continues in a more action-oriented tone, describing her responsibilities for revising Harvard’s budget and planning processes, restructuring capital planning and project management, implementing a new capital-planning process, updating human-resources policies, leading the evaluation of options for Allston development, and more.

During a late-July conversation, 10 months into her tenure, Lapp (who came to Cambridge from a similar position at the University of California) reeled off examples of work on most of those priorities. She began by underscoring her enthusiasm about the “strong talent here, working very hard,” with a shared commitment to improving operations in Harvard’s schools and administration. Having met administration colleagues, deans, their senior administrators, and others—and established regular get-togethers to share information and set priorities—Lapp has hired several senior staff members: the previously reported appointment of Lisa Hogarty as vice president for campus services, in April; Anne H. Margulies as chief information officer in early July—significantly, combining information technology for both the central administration and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, to harvest future synergies and efficiencies; and Lisa M. Coleman as chief diversity officer (last December).


Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard News Office

Anne H. Margulies

These appointments, advised in part by a “diagnostic” of the central administration assisted by the Monitor Group, have resulted in some job realignments. For instance, because Hogarty manages real-estate, dining, and facilities services and comes from a purchasing background (most recently at Columbia’s medical center), she has assumed responsibility for purchasing, where there are opportunities for savings on travel, office supplies, scientific equipment, and so on. (Oversight had previously been with the finance staff, whose central mission is budgeting, auditing and compliance, risk management, and treasury services.) Human-resources functions from diverse administration units have been centralized, and Lapp expects to consolidate communications as well.

More generally, Lapp, the finance staff, and the deans are working on a multiyear financial plan, something she calls a “very important discipline to have.” Her seat on the Harvard Management Company board provides insight on the endowment, and she and HMC president Jane Mendillo both serve on the financial management committee—all steps toward coordinating investment strategy, budgeting, cash management, and capital plans and financing.

Of wider public interest will be the remaking of campus physical planning, building plans, and management of construction projects, all under the umbrella of a new University capital planning and project management organization; Lapp is conducting a national search for a new vice president now. She aims to have a five-year capital plan—“something that most major enterprises do”—so the Corporation can have a clear view of individual school and overall objectives and investments, within the context of a coherent financial plan and budget.


Much attention has focused on Harvard’s ambitions in Allston, and the decision last December to halt construction on its $1.4-billion science complex, the first major project there (see “Arrested Development,” March-April, page 47). In a tangible sign of the changed circumstances, Christopher M. Gordon, chief operating officer of the Allston Development Group, relinquished his position during the summer. “The work I came here to do will be happening at a slower pace and intensity,” he said in a statement in early June, “and that reality led to today’s announcement.” Gordon, who came to Harvard in 2005, had also been responsible of late for overseeing the Fogg Art Museum renovation, now under way (see “Deconstructionism,”), and for planning the renovation of the undergraduate Houses, as yet unscheduled—a role Lapp’s new vice president will assume.

She intends, more broadly, for all capital programs—in Allston, Cambridge, and the Longwood Medical Area—to be part of a “cohesive,” integrated plan. “I feel pretty strongly that as we look at the future in Allston,” Lapp said, “that it not just be a geographic district,” but rather a part of the University’s priorities as a whole. In her experience, she said, given clear procedures for proposals, standards for review and approval, and responsibilities for decisionmaking, even difficult decisions such as those on real-estate projects can be made, and made better. Lapp’s own role at the center of financial and capital planning puts her in a position to facilitate the conversations.

She is also in the center of some of Harvard’s liveliest intramural politicking. Under the rubric of a “new funding model,” Lapp and her team are charged with changing the way the core administrative functions—finance, legal, human resources, communications, information technology, the offices of the president and provost, and so on—are paid for. The annual sum, now about $165 million, has been raised by, among other means, assessing the schools’ endowment distributions and interest earned on University cash accounts above the rate credited to the schools. Because the distributions are declining, and because the cash accounts had also been endowed, in effect (and therefore depreciated sharply in fiscal year 2009), this model is under strain (see “Two Radically Different Worlds,” January-February, page 46).

As Lapp acknowledged, no one wants to assume more expenses. Beyond trimming those central costs—by $5 million in the past fiscal year and again this year—she found in her conversations with deans “a need for the central administration to be more clear about what is in the administration, how we’re structured, what are our processes, and so on,” as a first step to building consensus on how to proceed in fiscal year 2012. That would seem a fair example of her open, communicative approach to wrestling with the administrative challenges of a highly decentralized Harvard in an era of financial restraint and greater appreciation for efficiencies.

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