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Harvard Presidential Search Reportedly Winding Down

The buzz around Harvard University is that the university could soon name its first woman president. But gender is hardly the only issue on the table as a nine-member committee tries to fill one of academia’s most prestigious jobs.

Other factors include whether 21st-century Harvard needs a scientist at the helm, and whether an insider or a fresh face would best lead the university after the tumultuous five-year tenure of former president Lawrence Summers.

Another wrinkle: Several prominent potential candidates don’t seem to want the job.

Harvard isn’t commenting, but The Harvard Crimson student newspaper, citing anonymous sources, has reported that final interviews are underway. It has focused on several leading contenders. Internal candidates include law school dean Elena Kagan, historian Drew Gilpin Faust and provost Steven E. Hyman. External candidates include Dr. Thomas R. Cech, president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and a number of other scientists.

Pressure to pick a woman intensified with the uproar over Summers’ comments that genetic differences between the genders may explain the dearth of women in top science jobs. The growing financial importance of research also could pressure Harvard to tap a scientist for the top job, something it hasn’t done since 1933.

But Harvard also could go the other way, picking a nonscientist who could rise above turf battles and reassure the rest of the school that America’s oldest and richest university isn’t becoming a giant science lab.

“No one’s going to know everything about everything,” says Dr. Harry Lewis, a former Harvard dean and author of a recent book on the school. “The test is whether they know what they don’t know and have good judgment about the people that they get advice from.”

Harvard’s presidency is perhaps the most prestigious job in academia, offering a bully pulpit and unparalleled resources, including an endowment valued at nearly $30 billion.

But the job is also one of the hardest, with enormous fund-raising obligations, an unusually powerful board and fiercely independent divisions. And everything must be coordinated under a harsh public gaze. Summers resigned after bruising battles with elements of the faculty; and his predecessor, Dr. Neil Rudenstine, was forced to take a leave of absence for exhaustion.

That may partly explain why several high-profile figures have proclaimed that they aren’t interested.

At first, some of those denials were coy, perhaps leaving open a window of doubt or room for gamesmanship. But more recently, they have been blunter. Stanford University Provost John Etchemendy e-mailed the Crimson to say he was not a candidate “in my own eyes or, I trust, in the eyes of the search committee.” People close to him and to Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman, who has also declined interest, say it is almost inconceivable they would take the job.

Brown President Ruth Simmons, meanwhile, said flatly in an e-mailed statement to The Associated Press that she is not a candidate. Alison Richard of England’s University of Cambridge issued a statement saying she was “unequivocal” in her commitment to remain at Cambridge and “does not consider herself a candidate” for the Harvard job. A spokesman for Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, runner-up to Summers in 2001, says Bollinger hasn’t talked to Harvard and wouldn’t take the job.

Tufts President Lawrence S. Bacow also has reportedly declined interest, though he refused to comment and a spokeswoman said last week: “I can tell you that that he is very happy at Tufts and has no desire to leave.”

The University of Pennsylvania’s Amy Gutmann was perhaps the most definite. She told her trustees: “I will say it, and I will say it for the last time. I am absolutely committed to being Penn’s president, and I am not interested in any other presidency.”

Taken together, the chorus of “not interested” raises questions: Is Harvard’s appeal ebbing? Are other institutions not only competitive but more satisfying places to be?

“It’s a tough job, but because it is Harvard I still think at the end of the day it embodies higher education for a lot of people,” says Bill Funk, a veteran consultant not involved in Harvard’s search. He predicts an insider will win. “I think they could get an audience with whoever they wanted to talk to. Maybe one or two folks would turn them down, but it’d be very few people.”

The word on campus is a decision could come within weeks, but a Harvard spokesman declined to comment even on the timetable. Harvard is not the sort of place to rush these things. Former president Derek Bok is serving as interim president this academic year.

Other scientists under consideration, according to the Crimson, include Nobel laureate Steven Chu, biologist Eric S. Lander and chemist Mark S. Wrighton, chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis.

A dark horse is always a possibility. Tilghman was a biology professor with no senior administrative experience and a member of Princeton’s presidential search committee in 2001. One day after she left a committee meeting early to teach, other members started talking about how impressed they were with her. They decided to ask her to resign from the committee to be considered for the job herself.

— Associated Press

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