Back to the Lab Bench

Steven E.  Hyman

Steven E. Hyman, M.D. ’80, a neurobiologist who has served as University provost since 2001, announced in December that he would relinquish the post at the end of the academic year. The office was created in its modern Harvard form under President Neil L. Rudenstine in 1992; Hyman’s decade of service makes him the longevity champion, and gave him the opportunity to define the position, now at the center of the University’s efforts to facilitate collaborative, interdisciplinary research and teaching. Hyman plans to take a sabbatical year at the Broad Institute, the Harvard-MIT genomics center--he is a member of the Harvard Medical School (HMS) faculty--to explore returning to active science, and to create a course for undergraduates on neuroscience, ethics, policy, and law. The search for a new provost began in January (see page 40).

“I have deeply valued my partnership with Steve,” said President Drew Faust in a statement as part of the news release about Hyman’s decision. “He has spurred fresh thinking and important initiatives in areas ranging from the sciences to the humanities, from the museums to the libraries.…In all of these areas and more, he has approached his role with intelligence, passion, and wit, and with a devotion to the highest academic standards.”

Early in his career, Hyman was a professor of psychiatry at HMS and served as the first faculty director of the University’s Mind, Brain, and Behavior Initiative. He was subsequently appointed director of the National Institute of Mental Health (1996-2001); during that initial period of administrative service, he maintained a laboratory and continued to publish scientific papers (activities he has had to put aside during his decade as provost). The interfaculty initiative served as a useful introduction to Harvard’s interdisciplinary, multischool programs and projects--a principal focus for his work as provost. Of late, he has been associated with such University-wide initiatives as the effort to rethink the libraries’ operations and administrative organization (for budgetary reasons and to adapt to digital technologies); in early December, he was named to chair the new board of directors for the Harvard library system. (For more on the libraries, see “Harvard Library’s First Director,”  page 41.)


In a conversation in his Massachusetts Hall office on December 14, Hyman described his decision to step down as he entered “the tenth year of a five-year commitment” in personal terms. He indicated to Faust last July, he said, that he thought this should be his last year as provost. During his service, he said, “I have mostly stayed out of searches for other positions outside of Harvard,” and had arrived at the decision that he did not want another administrative position, at least for the near term. “I fell down the administrative well rather early, in mid career” as a scientist, he said. During his sabbatical year at the Broad, he said, he hoped to “see what I can do effectively in the sciences” after a long layoff from the laboratory bench; he conceded, smiling, “I may not be rehabilitatable.”

The time also seemed suitable, he continued, because “You shouldn’t walk away from something in bad times,” and the University has emerged from its recent financial challenges with “a very effective president who is in command and a very strong staff--including the vice presidents and certainly with the addition of [executive vice president] Katie Lapp. And we have a remarkably strong cadre of deans.” Later he noted that with a large University capital campaign in the offing, “President Faust deserves in whoever will be provost someone who will serve for the duration, in mint condition.”

When he became provost, Hyman recalled, the office was new at Harvard and consisted of a “collection of projects,” not yet resembling the post of chief academic officer that the title signals at other research universities. Today, he said, it is “well on its way to becoming a modern research university provost’s office, but with a Harvard flavor.” That Crimson coloring strongly reflects the traditional decentralization of the University’s schools. They retain their autonomy, and the provost’s office has strong, direct interactions with each, Hyman said, but “the most important thing we do is to work tirelessly across schools and across disciplines.”

There is a “lot of life left in the disciplines, and lots of rigor,” he added--but it would be curious if inquiry today aligned entirely with departmental and professional-school boundaries established a century ago. Thus the provost’s office supports the departments and schools (for instance, through University-wide efforts to encourage faculty diversity, to support international research and learning, and to oversee research--all of these now directed by vice provosts), but seeks “not to allow them to become limiting intellectual silos. It falls to the provost’s office to facilitate bottom-up efforts at boundary crossing.” Some 30 interdisciplinary efforts now receive funding.

In his letter to the community announcing his decision, Hyman wrote, “The world well recognizes Harvard’s overall academic strength, but less well understood is the collaborative spirit of our faculty members and students and their desire to pursue important intellectual and practical problems wherever they lead--often across the boundaries of disciplines or of individual schools.”

As examples, he cited the first interschool department (Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology, under the Harvard Stem Cell Institute); the interdisciplinary Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering (linking HMS, affiliated hospitals, the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and Faculty of Arts and Sciences departments such as chemistry and physics); and an increasingly University-wide Humanities Center, building on humanities efforts in each school. (Hyman’s own career is an archetype of boundary-crossing. A 1974 Yale graduate in philosophy and the humanities, he then journeyed to the University of Cambridge as a Mellon Fellow in the philosophy of science, earning B.A. and M.A. degrees, before turning to medicine.) These collaborations, he said, are “what I am proudest of.”

Hyman also oversees affiliated cultural institutions, ranging from the museums to the American Repertory Theater (ART)--a responsibility not common to provosts elsewhere. He cited with enthusiasm the reconstruction of the Fogg Art Museum, now under way, to “create a true teaching museum,” and the activities of the ART; both institutions’ directors were appointed through searches under Hyman.

Finally, he said, “The greatest privilege for me is chairing committees related to faculty promotion.” Although decisions on tenure ultimately rest with the president, the provost now runs “somewhat more than half” of the review committees, he said--in the heady days before the recent economic difficulties, one per week, across all the faculties. He marveled at “what you can learn” as provost from engaging with the faculty members through those reviews.


looking ahead, Hyman said his most important piece of unfinished business is ensuring that the restructuring of the library system proceeds and gains momentum. The new University library board has been appointed, an executive director named, and work will continue to implement the recommendations arrived at during the past year of reviews of the library system’s operations and collecting needs and practices.

What was most fun about the position? First, Hyman said, “working with some remarkably talented and dedicated colleagues who care about institution-building” and about securing the future of the University. Second, he said, defying external views of Harvard as “terminally siloed and tied down like Gulliver,” when instead the University is creating new interdisciplinary units--“that feels really, really good.” And third, he said, is an opportunity not formally part of the job: teaching “breathtaking” undergraduates. He cited his freshman seminars, a neurobiology lecture course, and, more recently, a neurobiology junior tutorial. Those experiences underlie his plan to develop a new neurobiology course for the College’s General Education curriculum.

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