The Senior Fellow Takes Stock

From the capital campaign to strategic priorities: a Harvard Corporation perspective on the institution at year-end

William F. Lee, senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation

William F. Lee ’72, senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation since last summer, is  continuing the custom recently established by his predecessor, Robert D. Reischauer ’63, offering his perspectives on the University, its senior governing board, and the institution’s priorities at the end of the calendar year. The conversation, held in the Corporation’s meeting room at Loeb House, was the first since the departing and arriving senior fellows conducted a joint briefing last May. Because the reforms that enlarged the Corporation and established a new committee structure have now been in place since the beginning of the decade, Lee focused more on substantive matters than on procedural ones, touching on:

  • major achievements of the capital campaign;
  • the role of the liberal arts and humanities;
  • his role, as a locally based Corporation member, in engaging directly with the Harvard community, from listening to faculty members and working on issues like divestment from fossil fuel companies, to teaching courses; and
  • the long-term, strategic University issues that are receiving attention from the Corporation.

He began by saying, “The Corporation and I, as senior fellow, feel pretty good about the first six months” of his tenure.

The Campaign

One reason is surely the progress of The Harvard Campaign, which has, as of the end of September, raised $4.8 billion toward its $6.5-billion goal. (The last official figure was $4.3 billion raised, as of the end of the fiscal year in June, but that excluded significant gifts announced thereafter.) The optimism reflects not merely the quantitative achievement ($4.8 billion is a lot of money), Lee emphasized, but qualitative factors: where the funds are being raised, and for what purposes. Thus, the gift from Steve Ballmer ’77 to expand the computer-science faculty by 50 percent is “enormously important” in terms of what it means for the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS)—in laying “the foundation for the long-term future of the school”—and for its burgeoning student enrollments. The landmark gift of $350 million in unrestricted endowment funds for the Harvard School of Public Health (in which Lee was involved, through long-time personal and professional associations with the donors, the Chan family) was remarkable support for “a discipline and a school that don’t always attract the biggest philanthropy.” The income from the gift doubles the dean’s unrestricted funds, enabling future investments in frontier research, teaching, and student and faculty support to address critical challenges such as pandemics, failing health systems, and public-health priorities such as obesity—“a great sign,” Lee said.

The Liberal Arts and Humanities

“At a time when some people question” the value of “liberal-arts education and the humanities,” Lee continued, Harvard has taken steps to reaffirm their importance. The reopening of the Harvard Art Museums matters not just as a museum or collections event, he said, but because the facility is an “educational cauldron for students.” The Corporation, he said, “is completely in lockstep with President Faust on the importance of humanities for liberal-arts education,” citing her recent address on the importance of such education for the development of critical thinking. The themes the president aired, Lee said, fit well with Harvard College dean Rakesh Khurana’s talk to the newly arrived freshmen about the importance of pursuing an education that is “transformational” in its purposes, and not merely “transactional.”

In an era when the federal government is pursuing measurement of college education by students’ short-term economic success (“not the way we think it should be”), he said, it is important for Harvard to make the broader case for liberal-arts education and the humanities—arguments he expects Faust to repeat. (Given the recent news that undergraduate engineering and applied sciences concentrators now outnumber those in arts and humanities, and widespread concern about the problems in arts and humanities education, not a few members of the community would probably welcome hearing more about these themes from Faust and Lee, particularly as the campaign fuels the momentum in SEAS and sciences generally.)

Engaging in the Campus Community

One virtue of having Boston-based members of the Corporation is that they can readily be present on, and engaged in, the campus. Lee, as senior fellow, has pursued this opportunity privately and in a newly public way. During the summer, he said, he met with each dean and with a broad array of faculty members “to listen,” seeking their views on issues ranging from those near at hand (divestment, sexual-assault policies and procedures) to longer-term concerns and opportunities.

Having had past associations in the medical community, Lee said, he has at the president’s request been working alongside Alan Garber, the provost, and Harvard Medical School (HMS) dean Jeffrey Flier, on ways to better coordinate the relationship between HMS and its affiliated hospitals, “so we get even more bang for our buck” in research.

Lee has also continued to teach occasional classes at the Law and Business Schools, and intellectual-property units (his legal specialty) in an undergraduate science course.

He became directly involved in communicating with faculty proponents of divestment, writing in response to communications from them, and, with President Faust, meeting with a group of the faculty members. Although the Corporation is primarily a fiduciary board, Lee noted, it has senior management (the president) as a member, and so is “in some ways a strange organization.” Where President Faust thinks it helpful, as in the divestment matter, he said, it made sense for him to become directly involved in the discussions as senior fellow; moreover, divestment proponents had asked for such involvement in a direct conversation. Similarly, based on his professional expertise and his contacts among law-school faculty members, he became engaged in the discussion of sexual-assault policy (more than two dozen law-faculty members wrote an open letter in The Boston Globe objecting to Harvard’s new policies for investigating and ruling on assault cases).

Lee clearly likes these involvements—but he reiterated that the Corporation’s and senior fellow’s most important responsibilities are as fiduciaries.

Strategic Planning

As fiduciaries, the newly constituted Corporation was meant to be better positioned to devote itself to strategic thinking about the institution’s future. Lee was asked about how that intended change was working, and what subjects the Corporation had chosen to address.

He noted that a long block of time at the Corporation’s summer retreat had been devoted to a “strategic-planning session,” with help from Lawrence University Professor Michael E. Porter (who also helped advise on these issues during a Corporation retreat at the outset of Faust’s presidency). Those conversations identified several issues of institutional concern, many of them parallel to the themes Faust outlined in her September 2013 campaign address, Lee said:

  • how to attract the best faculty members and students;
  • how to address education in the digital era;
  • how to pursue innovation in pedagogy and learning;
  • how Harvard should participate in global education; and
  • how the institution can fund and support the best research.

The capital campaign, he said, was meant to address Harvard’s physical and financial capital. But its intellectual and reputational capital are of greater long-term significance, and the strategic-planning work aimed to focus on those fundamental assets for the future.

In September, the Corporation focused on the research mission and how to sustain it for the next quarter-century. Richard McCullough, vice provost for research, joined that discussion, Lee said.

At its next meeting, the strategic discussion focused on the changing student body and what will be required to attract and support the diverse students of the future. Overseer Kenji Yoshino, Warren professor of constitutional law at New York University, an expert in the field, joined that conversation, along with College dean Khurana.

And in its meeting earlier this week, the Corporation focused on long-term financial plans and on the development of facilities in Allston.

How might the Corporation communicate about its findings and decisions concerning these issues? Lee responded that that was the realm of execution: the measures the president, the central administration, and the deans take. Thus, although federal funding for research is declining, Harvard is sustaining research funds by broadening its work with foundations, nonprofit organizations, and business sponsors of research, he said. As for the student body, Dean Khurana’s communications with undergraduates about the purposes of their education, how they interact and communicate among themselves, and other initiatives are a significant part of the response.

(In this sense, the Corporation appears to be shaping a buttoned-down communications policy like that in use for the capital campaign: high-level thematic statements of priorities—in this case via senior-fellow briefings— followed by specific fundraising activities at the University and school levels, but without the traditional case statement or specific outlines of programmatic or academic aims, at least so far. And so far, it would be hard to argue with the success of that strategy.)


Lee has joked in public about what Harvard’s Puritan founders might think of its twenty-first-century leadership: a tall female president and a “short Chinese guy” as senior fellow of the Corporation.

With easy confidence, he describes the senior governing board—reconstituted after the leadership and financial traumas during the first decade of the new century—as working well. The broader expertise made possible by expanding its membership from 7 to 13 has been valuable, he said, as has the injection of fresh perspectives from a procedure of regularly turning over Corporation members through imposition of a time limit on service. Those changes have been effected without in any way compromising the Corporation’s ability to have frank, open conversations, he said, with “egos checked at the door.” And the committee structure has worked better than he predicted it might.


To the extent that the changes Lee described create room for strategic and long-term thinking, and the Corporation pursues that opportunity, the reforms may have their most significant effect on Harvard’s future. That the capital campaign is proceeding spectacularly, of course, provides welcome breathing room at a time of rising external financial challenges, more volatile markets for the endowment, and rapid evolution of technology in use in libraries, laboratories, and classrooms.

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