William F. Lee ’72 may be the most influential member of the committee leading the search for Harvard’s next president, but he wouldn’t be the one to tell you that.
Lee, the senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation and chair of the presidential selection committee, is one of only two searchers to have served on the body that selected current University President Drew G. Faust. He's worked with Faust throughout her entire tenure and has remained one of her most vocal champions.
Now, as Harvard goes through that process again, he will offer unique insight to other committee members about what qualifications they should consider when choosing Faust’s successor.
An intellectual property lawyer who has litigated such high-profile cases as the “smartphone wars” between Apple and Samsung, Lee previously served as the Managing Partner of the powerhouse firm WilmerHale. He was elected to Harvard’s second-highest governance board, the Board of Overseers, in 2002, and was appointed the senior fellow of the Corporation in 2014.
He has spent much of his professional career in courtrooms, not classrooms, but his colleagues nonetheless praise his experience in higher education.
A. Douglas Melamed, a law professor at Stanford who recently co-authored an essay with Lee, said that while he and Lee have never chatted explicitly about Lee’s role on Harvard’s governing boards, he knows Lee is very “knowledgeable” about Harvard and its place in the higher education world.
Melamed added that he marvels at Lee’s ability to balance high-profile legal cases and his roles at the University.
“He does several trials a year, mostly as a litigator of big-stakes trials,” Melamed said. “This is a guy who is enormously productive as a lawyer in terms of hours, time, success, and business, and yet still has time to be on the Harvard Corporation and have that energy and productivity without ever making an enemy.”
While most of his colleagues said they had not spoken with Lee about issues in higher education that are important to him, it is possible to trace a rough sketch of the topics he privileges based on his tenure on Harvard’s governance boards thus far.
For example, it is possible Lee will consider candidates whose qualifications straddle the business and academic spheres.
“We’ve evolved now to the point where we’re much closer to a fiduciary organization, where Drew is—the word CEO does not seem to fit for an academic organization, but that’s what she is,” Lee said in an April interview. “She’s the CEO and the leader. The person who articulates the strategy and the vision should be her.”
At the time of Faust’s announcement of her departure, Lee said the University would be looking for continuity.
“In terms of her successor, we’re in a wonderful place right now. There’s been enormous progress made in the last decade, there’s been enormous progress made in the past year, and we’ll be looking for someone who can carry forth the progress that’s been made, and who has the kind of visions she had for the University,” Lee said.
Lee’s role on the Corporation has been significant: He helped spearhead efforts in 2010 to radically revise the Corporation’s governance structure, expanding its membership from seven to 13 and formalizing pathways of collaboration with the Overseers.
His colleagues from other law firms say Lee employs an unassuming and earnest leadership style in the courtroom and at the boardroom table. Joan A. Lukey, a partner at the Boston-based firm Choate Hall & Stewart, said her colleague of 30 years was fiercely intelligent but “relaxed” when interacting with co-workers.
“One of the moments that stick out in my memory: He was answering his phone, and his office wasn’t far from mine. And I hear him say ‘oh please, don’t call me Mr. Lee, that’s my father,’” Lukey said. “He’s laid back in that sense. Intense in the courtroom and in the litigation process, but on a personal level a very relaxed and friendly person.”
Lukey said that Lee initially had reservations about becoming Managing Partner at WilmerHale, largely because he was just getting his own intellectual property practice going. He split responsibilities at WilmerHale with an associate managing partner.
“However he did it, the firm grew and prospered at the same time that his practice became [one of] the best IP practices in the country,” Lukey said. “And that’s pretty phenomenal to run a huge firm at the same time that you grow your own practice.”
—Staff writer Brandon J. Dixon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BrandonJoDixon.