October 18, 2000

Colleges Look for Presidents

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In the past year alone, three Ivy League presidents have relinquished their administrative posts. First, E. Gordon Gee vacated his office abruptly after just two years at Brown University. Then Neil L. Rudenstine, Harvard president since 1991, announced his resignation, and on Sept. 22, Princeton chief Harold T. Shapiro decided to step down after 13 years.

Now, the three universities vow to leave no stone unturned, scourging executives in academia and business the nation over — and beyond.

“We are all seeking very broad and experienced pools of people,” said Joseph Wrinn, Harvard University spokesperson, whose list of candidates may exceed 450 this week and is still growing.

Harvard sent out over 300,000 letters to the extended Harvard family, including — but not limited to — faculty, staff, students, alumni and donors.

“We want to find the best person, [and] we will not let time be a factor,” Wrinn said.

Last Friday, Robert G. Stone Jr., chair of the search committee that will nominate Rudenstine’s successor — the university’s 27th president — said an announcement would come some time during the spring. The committee intends to begin narrowing its list of candidates as this year ends.

Simultaneously, Brown and Princeton continue the process of naming a leader for their universities.

“The right president for Harvard and Brown might not be the right president for Princeton,” said Robert Durkee, vice president for public affairs. “We wish them well, and we’re sure they wish us well.”

Durkee’s comments were echoed at other universities.

“The three jobs are not the same jobs,” said Mark Nickle, director for the Brown news service, noting that Brown’s search is nearing its conclusion. “The person who is right for Brown may not be the right person for Harvard — and vice versa.”

At the same time, Nickle continued, Harvard is announcing its expansive list of candidates, bearing the names of some people who are deceased.

The Brown Corporation met last weekend discussing the status of the presidential search. According to Nickle, the Corporation’s senior governing body hopes to name Brown University’s 18th president during the current academic semester.

At Princeton, Shapiro will remain at the University’s helm until the end of the academic year. Meanwhile, on campus the administration is electing prospective members for the search committee, including nine trustees, five faculty members, two undergraduates and a graduate student. Upon this week’s conclusion, the committee will be in standing.

“There will be an aggressive effort to develop as strong a list as possible,” Durkee said, despite the scrutiny that has been applied to the university. “The search has received a fair amount of attention.”

Officials acknowledged that there is good reason for the secrecy that veils the committees’ deliberations and interviews.

“We have to set up a working venue so people are safe and won’t be reading their names in the paper,” Wrinn said.

Despite keeping presidential candidates’ names hidden with the utmost security, Princeton — like its counterparts — has opened a vast forum for suggestions from its community of alumni around the world.

Shapiro will remain at Princeton after a sabbatical, teaching and conducting research. The announcement of his resignation follows a major fundraising campaign.

In the search for new presidents, the length of time a candidate will remain in office might prove to be a significant factor. Soon after Rubenstine’s appointment, he set off on a three month hiatus to cope with exhaustion, but he returned to meet many of Harvard’s goals soon after. Gee, on the other hand, chose a more permanent separation from his university two years after receiving his appointment, citing a poor fit between his own leadership style and the university culture.

Wrinn noted that Harvard’s search committee has a set period of time in mind to target for its next president’s tenure.

“Bob [Stone] said they are hoping the president stays about ten years,” Wrinn said.

Additionally, “I am sure something like that will come up in the interview process,” he added.

For a successful appointment in this growing period for higher education, it’s not only about figuring out what issues will be important, but how to deal with those issues as well. Many officials have said that, for universities such as Harvard, Princeton and Brown, information technologies will be key. So will other applications of science, they agreed.

The searches at Harvard and Princeton remaining months from conclusion, Brown has also chosen not to rule out anybody who might match up with its university, according to Nickle.

“We have been in very good hands, and [interim President Sheila E. Blumstein] has afforded the university the luxury in taking its time,” Nickle said.

At each university in search of a new president, the search committees have not been stressing the duration of the search. However, they have been forced to withstand many byproducts of an all-inclusive search.

For example, Wrinn spent a recent day responding to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s ‘second candidacy.’ That morning a radio show hosted by Rush Limbaugh linked Clinton with the Harvard list, Wrinn said, and he spent the rest of the day fielding questions related to the First Lady.

Regardless, the university will take on any name to add to its history of leadership. “If you have any candidates, send them our way!” Wrinn said.

Archived article by Matthew Hirsch