A Look in the Mirror

Challenges for Harvard governance and leadership

On December 12, the Harvard Corporation declared its unanimous support for President Claudine Gay. The statement came a week after Gay and other presidents were berated for their testimony during a charged congressional hearing on free speech and alleged antisemitism on their campuses. The governing board also addressed Gay’s scholarship, pointing to changes in some citations but rejecting claims of research misconduct. The University’s five living former presidents also declared “our strong support.” Twenty-one days later, on January 2, Gay resigned. (A summary of the news appears in “A Presidency’s End,” at page 14 in this issue.)

For obvious reasons, alumni, faculty, staff, and students would like to understand how Gay’s presidency, which was celebrated at her installation on September 29 but began to teeter eight days later, when Hamas terrorists launched their murderous assault on Israel, ended so swiftly. Absent answers to their questions, community members are left to fill in the blanks. And Gay herself is left dangling—her reputation defined by critics and news accounts.

For less obvious reasons, but more important ones, the Corporation fellows need to have clear answers to such questions, and to the problems those answers illuminate. Any credible candidate for Harvard’s presidency will insist on understanding exactly what happened and why—and what sort of governing boards she or he will have to work with. Did the fellows, who seemingly saw in Gay a respected scholar and successful dean, come to conclude that she was simply ineffective in public under the harsh conditions arising after October 7? Do they now think her research is ashes? Or has Harvard acceded to a public narrative (promulgated by certain critics of higher education, disaffected donors and alumni, and those swayed by social media) that is a caricature at best? If the latter, where does that leave the University, and any prospective next leader, given broad antipathy to elites and institutions?

 

This way of framing the challenge is oversimplified, too—but usefully. In a highly polarized environment, with America’s political parties realigned along educational lines, many actors have strong incentives to score points at the expense of elite universities. Some of the loudest opponents, empowered by the abrupt end of the Penn and Harvard presidencies, clearly care more about taking scalps than improving schools. There isn’t much Harvard can do to duck that crossfire: this is an inescapably elite institution.

But it is equally the case that institutions like this one face real challenges. Dismissing all the criticisms out of hand is a dereliction of trustees’ responsibility: the risks of destructive change are rising, and could become existential (read president emeritus Derek C. Bok’s carefully worded warnings in “Why Americans Love to Hate Harvard,” at page 26 in this issue). The Corporation members must understand fully where Harvard can be improved and how it is perceived so they can act productively within the University’s sphere of influence. In short, Harvard and those responsible for its future need to take a look in the mirror.

Beyond the vital questions about the fall semester and the Gay presidency, even larger ones loom for the governing boards and the next president:

• Is Harvard fulfilling its role as an educational institution in creating opportunities for upward mobility in a sharply unequal society?

• Given the cardinal virtue of open campus discourse, do today’s students and professors encompass views on vital issues broad enough to engender effective debate?

• How will the community remain diverse in the post-affirmative action era?

• Are the equity and inclusion programs put in place in recent years effective and appropriate—and how might they be revised, if warranted?

• And (lest anyone forget), are Harvard’s core research and educational efforts making their intended difference in the world?

 

As trustees, the Corporation fellows ensure the financial, physical, and human resources the University requires to pursue its academic mission. They operate by consensus, and naturally want as colleagues people genuinely committed to Harvard’s enduring excellence (some even raise stupendous sums of money for the cause). Well and good—but perhaps no longer sufficient. A tough-minded, realistic assessment of the political, cultural, and social forces that increasingly determine the University’s scope of action may now matter as much as gifts received or endowment returns.

When Lawrence S. Bacow was chosen to lead the University in early 2018, he and William F. Lee, then senior fellow, focused on the external threats. Lee called Bacow a leader who “clearly sees and is ready to confront the great challenges facing us at a moment when the value of higher education is being questioned, at a moment when the fundamental truth of fact-based inquiry is being questioned and called into doubt.” He described Bacow as “someone who could hit the ground running, because neither we nor higher education have time to spare.”

By December 2022, when Gay was elected, this magazine speculated that after the 2021 change in national administrations, the sharpest criticisms of higher education had come to focus on contested cultural norms (instruction involving race and gender, definitions of free speech)—largely at the state level, and principally involving public systems. Accordingly, the Corporation may have felt it could elect as leader someone who could be afforded time to take stock of Harvard’s academic challenges and opportunities, rather than arriving fully armored for battle against urgent external threats.

If that were the case, October 7 exploded such notions. Compared to 2018, the political environment for universities today is far more toxic, and the external demands on presidents far more difficult. That raises a basic question: Is the Harvard presidency essentially academic and administrative—or has the time come to conceive of the role as primarily outward-facing, perhaps with an empowered provostship directing academic affairs? (For the curious, there are good models at excellent places like Duke.)

 

The end of Gay’s presidency after only six months leaves lots of pressing business pending—but the moment demands more than rushing to choose a successor (were it even possible to do so). There was a precedent for a Harvard presidency to end unexpectedly (see 2006), and there is a precedent for rethinking University governance and the leadership choices the fellows and Overseers make. The reforms unveiled in late 2010—prompted by the 2006 transition and the staggering financial losses in 2008 and 2009—enlarged the Corporation and refashioned its operations and internal structure (see harvardmag.com/governance-change-10). Those changes were intended to improve financial oversight; expand the Corporation’s (negligible) communications about its work; and create space for strategic thinking about the University’s future.

Grade inflation aside, the reforms merit an A for matters financial: Harvard has operated solidly in the black for a decade. Mark communications incomplete at best: the senior fellow gave annual briefings soon after the reforms took hold, but the sessions became increasingly anodyne and abstract and have since petered out. The Corporation’s high-level statement January 2 following Gay’s resignation was unilluminating. And absent robust discussion of what the fellows have been up to, it is hard to judge what strategic thinking about Harvard’s prospects has taken place: the academic mission, and now a new, harder set of questions.

Fully effecting the 2010 reforms and deepening that work given recent events seem imperative. All great institutions, including Harvard, can falter if they get too enamored of themselves. Gay was the University’s thirtieth president in 387 years—but Harvard has had two truncated presidencies, two interim leaders, and a financial crisis within the past 17. Proceeding from here might mean involving outside experts (as in 2010) to help Corporation members think through how best to assure that they fully understand Harvard’s challenges, and the kind of leadership and administration required to meet them. Perhaps the two fellows elected February 4 (see harvardmag.com/fellows-24) will shake things up and contribute some fresh perspectives.

On January 2, the Corporation members understandably wrote, “May our community, with its long history of rising through change and through storm, find new ways to meet [current] challenges together, and to affirm Harvard’s commitment to generating knowledge, pursuing truth, and contributing through scholarship and education to a better world.” The University’s friends and constructive critics may hope that aspiration comes with the commitment to see the way forward through very clear eyes. 

—John S. Rosenberg

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