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John Harvard's Journal

The New Provost

July-August 2011

Alan M. Garber

Alan M. Garber

Photograph by Justin Ide/Harvard News Office

Alan M. Garber ’77, Ph.D. ’82 (M.D. Stanford ’83), now Kaiser professor and professor of medicine and economics at Stanford, will become Harvard’s provost on September 1, President Drew Faust announced on April 15. Garber succeeds Steven E. Hyman, M.D. ’80, who has been provost since 2001; he announced last December that he would step down at the end of this academic year, in June.

“I am humbled but extremely excited at taking this important position at Harvard,” Garber said during an interview at Massachusetts Hall (where he appeared wearing a vintage Harvard necktie). “I would be much less excited,” he said later, “if this was the Harvard I knew when I was a student.” The University of the 1970s, he explained, was extraordinary, “but the progress it has made since then has been nothing short of spectacular,” both in the caliber of the individual faculties and in the ways the parts of the institution work together; he gave particular credit to Hyman in effecting the latter gains.

In a statement accompanying the announcement, Faust cited her new colleague’s “talent, range, and versatility” and said, “Alan is a distinguished academic leader who brings to Harvard an extraordinary breadth of experience in research across disciplines. He has an incisive intellect, a deep appreciation for the challenges facing research universities, and a loyalty and commitment to Harvard, where he has maintained strong ties since his years as an undergraduate.”

The disciplinary breadth is evident. At Stanford, Garber is professor (by courtesy) of economics, health research and policy, and of economics in the Graduate School of Business. He is also a senior fellow in the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies and in the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. He has directed both Stanford’s Center for Health Policy and the Center for Primary Care and Outcomes Research at the School of Medicine since their founding and is a staff physician at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System, associate director of the VA Center for Health Care Evaluation, and research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), in Cambridge, where he founded and, for 19 years, directed the healthcare program (responsibilities that brought him back to Massachusetts four times yearly, he reported).

Garber thus straddles two very large academic fields within Harvard—medical research and practice, and the social sciences—a particularly useful qualification for a senior administrator whose responsibilities have come to focus on interdisciplinary collaboration and on University-wide issues such as the operation of the library system. (His predecessor, Hyman, studied philosophy and the humanities at Yale, became a Harvard Medical School professor of psychiatry, served as founding faculty director of the interdisciplinary mind/brain/behavior program, and in 1996 was named head of the National Institute of Mental Health. On the day Garber’s appointment was announced, Hyman joked about another similarity: their common “rabbinical look”—although being bearded is not thought to be a formal qualification for the job.)

In an interview, Faust said that as she thought about those qualifications, a commitment to the University’s mission and values was central, as was personal compatibility. Beyond that, she sought someone with “a really wide range” of interests and curiosity about the broad spectrum of the University’s activities. It was “a high priority for me to find the right person with the first set of qualifications,” she continued, “and, if possible, in a different area from my own, with science as an example,” complementing her work as an historian.

In considering Garber’s administrative experience, she said, her conversations with him and those who know him brought out the clear judgment that “he’s a leader” who enjoys colleagues’ respect—as reflected in his service on the Stanford committee that oversees tenured appointments (see below). As he returns to an institution where he was an undergraduate, a graduate student, a professor acquainted with many faculty members, and a Medical School visiting committee member, Faust said, Garber “knows the geography, literally and figuratively.”

Garber is now a Harvard parent as well; he and his wife, Ann Yahanda (a nonpracticing oncologist), have four children, including son Daniel, a sophomore at the College this past academic year.

 

Garber’s dual interests in economics and medicine emerged early. He recalled in his class’s twenty-fifth anniversary report (a member of the class of 1977, he earned his A.B. in 1976, and an A.M. in his fourth year), “As a freshman, I was a reluctant and ambivalent pre-med. After Ec 10 exposed the latent economist in me, I switched my concentration from biochem to economics. That decision led to a Ph.D. in economics at Harvard and a simultaneous M.D. at Stanford, and eventually to a career that combined the two interests.” His dissertation was titled “Costs and Control of Antibiotic Resistance.”

His research has focused on improving healthcare delivery and financing, especially for the elderly. According to his Stanford biography, Garber has “developed methods for determining the cost-effectiveness of health interventions” and studied “ways to structure financial and organizational incentives to ensure that cost-effective care is delivered. In addition, his research explores how clinical practice patterns and healthcare market characteristics influence technology adoption, health expenditures, and health outcomes in the United States and in other countries.”

In deciding now to turn from research and—at least initially—teaching, Garber said that he had probed the challenges facing Harvard’s faculty and students, and higher education, “But overwhelmingly, my impression has been that this is an amazing institution that is well positioned” to maintain and sustain its preeminence [in the future]. He is looking forward, he said, to “assisting Drew in easing that path to the future.”

One of the things that made him excited about taking the post, he said, was “the people I’ll be working with,” particularly a team of deans whom he described as effective collaborators and visionary leaders of their individual schools. In the provost’s office, he said, he would be making the transition from a professor, with all the academic autonomy that implies, to a “role of service to the University.” The change, he said, is “dramatic,” but “the mission is compelling.”

At Stanford, Garber was elected to, and chaired, a committee “with no Harvard analog,” the University Advisory Board, which makes the final decision on all faculty and tenure appointments. That experience, he said, exposed him to “the work of tremendously talented people” who do “extraordinary work” in fields ranging from studio art to engineering to English to physics. That appreciation for how faculty members in different fields view their work should serve Garber well in one of the Harvard provost’s key responsibilities: leading the ad hoc committees that make the final decisions on appointments to tenured professorships—a role the president has now in part devolved.

As for moving from the relatively centralized Stanford to Harvard’s legendary decentralization, with each school proceeding “on its own bottom,” Garber said, “The reality is that neither institution is at the extreme that’s sometimes portrayed.” Within research universities, he noted, organization charts aside, “in fact, leadership occurs by a process of persuasion and consensus.” Of late, he added, Harvard had shown “a much greater ability to work together” across the boundaries of schools and units. “It’s not so much about centralization as about what you can accomplish” academically, he pointed out, citing collaborations such as the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and the associated department of stem cell and regenerative biology.

Garber said he hoped to build on such collaborations, enlarging their scale and pursuing them wherever appropriate. The task force report on the arts, for example—released as financial crises arose in late 2008—is full of “compelling” ideas, he noted; a high priority is to “make the arts more central to the University’s life.”

Turning to the environment for higher education, Garber acknowledged “threats to our traditional sources of funds,” particularly federal grants for research from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. He also cited the growing breadth and excellence of universities in other countries, and the general economic “uncertainty.” In light of the latter, he said, “Every major university has to be prepared for all kinds of eventualities,” putting a premium on flexibility and nimbleness.

Fundraising will be a priority, too. Garber’s involvement in Stanford’s capital campaign (now drawing to a close) was limited to that of a faculty member who spoke at events; he said he did not have an administrative role. Where he was involved, he found meeting alumni “enormously rewarding,” and he “very, very much look[s] forward to my interactions” with fellow Harvard alumni.

 

Ramsey professor of political economy Richard Zeckhauser, who was one of Garber’s dissertation advisers (the others were Baker professor of economics Martin Feldstein and the late Warburg professor of economics Zvi Griliches), remembers his former student as “a very bright doctoral student” and a “successful academic entrepreneur” who has run a “quite successful” research operation at Stanford melding physicians and economists, and also—not a given—“a nice person, easy to get along with.”

Garber’s appearance on campus on April 15 immediately preceded the annual running of the Boston Marathon, an event in which he has previously competed. Citing the new provost’s roles as marathon runner, physician, and microeconomist, Zeckhauser said that Garber combines “the energy of the first, the bedside manner of the best of the second, and the understanding of resources of the third”—a broad and eminently useful set of characteristics for the challenges he now faces.

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