For Next Harvard President, Bet on a Scientist

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Harvard University will choose its next president in the coming weeks. Surprises are always possible, but the search looks like it’s headed in a direction that tells a story of national, even international significance.

Among the leading contenders for the job are reportedly:

  • The dean of Harvard Business School, Nitin Nohria, whose bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering is from the Indian Institute of Technology.
  • The dean of Harvard’s faculty of arts and sciences, Michael Smith, whose Ph.D. in electrical engineering is from Stanford.
  • The president of the Broad Institute, Eric Lander, whose undergraduate and graduate work were in mathematics and who was a professor at Harvard Business School and in MIT’s biology department before founding Broad, which does health-related genetics research.
  • Harvard’s provost, Alan Garber, an economist who has an M.D. from Stanford.
  • The president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, a 1991 graduate of Harvard Medical school who was featured recently in the New York Times as a big pal of Harvard presidential search committee member and billionaire David Rubenstein.

Notice any common themes emerging?

Three of the past five presidents of Harvard were trained in the humanities. Nathan Pusey was a classicist. Neil Rudenstine is a scholar of Renaissance literature. The outgoing Harvard president, Drew Faust, is a historian.

Harvard hasn’t had a scientist or engineer as president since James Bryant Conant stepped down from the job in 1953. It appears as if the university is ready for another one.

Some of that may be driven by circumstances peculiar to Harvard itself. But part of it has to do with broader trends.

The humanities, and to some extent the social sciences as well, are in crisis, with faculties afflicted by a heavily leftward political tilt. Students have responded by choosing to study other things, such as computer science and applied mathematics, instead. The Republican Party, which controls both the White House and the Congress, has responded by retaliating against the elite universities, imposing a new tax on endowments and investigating the use of affirmative action in admissions. (The senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation, William Lee, another search committee member, is a lawyer at WilmerHale who is defending Harvard in some of the admissions cases.)

If a turn to science (climate change and embryonic stem cell research aside) may have potential as a way of defusing the conflict with Washington, it may also address some of the other issues shaping Harvard’s competitive landscape. The university increasingly attracts students and donors from overseas. Science, engineering, and technology may translate more easily to East Asia than do Shakespeare, Homer, Virgil, or the history of the U.S. Civil War. Kim and Nohria were both born in Asia.

Even within the American context, if Harvard (or Boston) has competitive anxiety or rivalry, these days it relates less to New York than to Stanford and the Silicon Valley start-up fortunes it spawns. The Harvard Crimson reported in 2016 that Harvard had lost ten economics professors to Palo Alto in the last decade. Harvard’s most financially successful and culturally consequential recent undergraduate, Mark Zuckerberg, decamped to California to develop Facebook.

Not that Cambridge and the Boston area have been entirely deprived of their own commercial boom. Faust joined the corporate board of Staples, and Garber serves on the Vertex Pharmaceuticals board. Smith co-founded and sold a data security firm, Liquid Machines. Nohria raised $20 million from the family foundation of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft for an “accelerator” to speed progress on precision medicine.

The business school, which is in Boston, has always been the target of some condescension from college professors across the river in Cambridge, some of whom believe a business school belongs at Harvard as much as a plumbing school does, which is to say, not at all. But the current dean of Harvard College, Rakesh Khurana, is a business school professor. If a business school dean-turned-president can raise money from a network of wealthy graduates and increase the returns on the endowment, that may help ease objections.

The Harvard presidency, as structured, is notoriously weak. Rudenstine went on leave from exhaustion. Lawrence Summers was forced out amid faculty unrest. The job is a combination of fund raiser, change agent, and public intellectual. The officeholder has the outward appearance of being the executive responsible for the university. Internally, though, the president spends considerable time fighting against the notion that any authority he or she wields over the deans, the schools, or the faculty is illegitimate. 

Whichever scientist or engineer takes over the job, in other words, will have quite an adventure ahead.


Ira Stoll is editor of and author of JFK, Conservative.