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Speculation Swirling About Summers Replacement

By Michael Levenson

Everyone has a favorite.

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president of George Washington University, recommends Shirley Ann Jackson ’68 who is a theoretical physicist, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate from MIT.

Donna E. Shalala, health and human services secretary in the Clinton administration, would be perfect, suggests Paul S. Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, because she’s “tough” and “politically savvy.”

Leon Botstein, president of Bard College in New York, wants a scientist such as Shirley M. Tilghman, a molecular biologist and president of Princeton University who would push a bolder science curriculum.

As some of the nation’s business, academic, and nonprofit leaders contemplate a new president for Harvard University, they offer an array of suggestions about who could triumph where president Lawrence H. Summers ’75 stumbled, and successfully lead the country’s oldest and most influential university. The Harvard presidency demands almost superhuman abilities: brilliance, worldliness, vision, charm, and tact, to name a few.

While those interviewed in recent days expressed a range of ideas, some common themes emerged.

There were numerous calls for a strong female or minority candidate, someone bold like Summers but more perceptive about people, with a soothing manner and an ability to inspire trust among a fragmented faculty. Others said that rather than a prominent figure, like Summers, the former Treasury secretary who occasionally autographed dollar bills for admiring students, Harvard might be well served by a longtime administrator who rose quietly through the ranks.

Still for some, it’s imperative that Harvard turn to a scientist to underscore a new direction, away from the campus culture wars of previous decades and toward a new era of scientific discovery.

There was near unanimity that the next leader must have more political acumen and ease with outsized egos than Summers did, and a better understanding of the megaphone effect that makes everything the Harvard president says and does reverberate far beyond Cambridge. The Byzantine politics of the job encompass everything from international issues to inter-departmental tiffs. And the president must relish the challenge of engaging with demanding students, donors, a prying media, and independent-minded professors.

“You have to have the respect of the faculty, and you have to demonstrate a high degree of respect for the faculty,” said Paul E. Gray ’54, a former president of MIT. “That doesn’t mean you can’t push.… It just means you have to go about it in a way that maintains a sense of being part of the process.”

“Upsetting people is not synonymous with good leadership,” said Nancy Hopkins, an MIT biology professor and critic of Summers. “You’ve got to somehow be both able to lead and to serve — and I think that’s hard — and to know and be right.”

Many say the new president must first soothe faculty anger if he or she hopes to realize a vision of a bigger, bolder Harvard.

Peter C. Wendell, a California venture capitalist and member of the Princeton University board, said Harvard’s next president, no matter how much of an academic heavyweight, needs to listen well.

“The most important thing would be someone who would have the respect of the faculty and be able to lead them,” Wendell said, “so it would have to be someone with a great intellect, because Harvard faculty are bright people who expect a bright leader — and also probably someone with two ears and one mouth used in that proportion.”

Also important is the president’s willingness to push professors in powerful perches, to collaborate, for instance, with junior colleagues in other departments, said James A. Champy, chairman of Perot Systems Corp.’s consulting practice and a member of the MIT board.

“They’ve got to have the strength to force an openness and transparency between the schools and departments,” Champy said. “There’s going to be some forcing action involved — a strong hand is still what’s required.”

After several prominent African-American professors, including Cornel West and K. Anthony Appiah, left during the Summers presidency, the new leader must build better relations with people of different backgrounds, said Beverly Daniel Tatum, president of Spelman College. Harvard has never had a minority or woman at the helm.

“The Harvard of the 21st century needs to be setting an example for people different from its historic constituents,” she said. “This is a conversation that is important for the Harvard community itself to take up.”

While some in academia shy from suggesting a specific person for the job, others gleefully recommended candidates. Trachtenberg said Jackson would be “the answer to every complaint alleged about Summers.”

A past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and an insatiable intellectual, she has lectured on topics as diverse as Ethiopian art and opto-electronic materials, and has established a biotechnology center at Rensselaer, dedicated to combating what she calls a “quiet crisis” of too few American engineers and scientists.

“African-American. Woman. Physicist. Proven university administrator,” Trachtenberg said. “She has the charm of being both right for the moment at Harvard, a radical departure and answer to the critics of the last five years, and simultaneously capable of doing the job. What a wonderful thing when two things like that come together in one person at the right time.”

Another Summers critic, Denice Denton, chancellor of the University of California at Santa Cruz, called Jackson her top choice, saying, “She’s bold and she speaks out.”

James F. Jones Jr., president of Trinity College, suggested Nannerl O. Keohane, a member of Harvard’s governing board and past president of Duke University and Wellesley College. A scholar of political philosophy, she has written on France and feminism.

“People have respected Nan Keohane for 20 years,” Jones said. “She would just be the perfect person.”

He said he was not sure, however, whether she would want to serve again as a university president.

Though he said he could not name a suitable scientist for Harvard’s top job, Botstein said he was certain science should be the new president’s discipline.

“It’s not about the culture wars and the social sciences and the humanities or the arts,” he said. “It’s a question of the role of science in society and democracy, and for that you need a scientist, it seems to me.”

Grogan, who recommended Shalala, now the president of the University of Miami, said she would help tackle the politics of Harvard’s expansion into Allston. “The whole Allston thing would be right up her alley in terms of leading that process and getting more of it executed,” he said.

Harvard’s 28th president will be selected, under no timeline, by Harvard’s board, known as the Corporation, with the support of the university’s Board of Overseers. The board so far has been silent on its preferred candidates. That person will become an instant force, Botstein said.

“It is indeed a presidency unlike any other,” Botstein said. “It’s important to all of us who the president of Harvard is, even where we have no relationship to Harvard, because the job is so important, so visible,” he said.