The Year of Provost Garber

With his training as an economist and a physician, deep knowledge of the University, and increasingly wide breadth of responsibilities and power, Garber is uniquely suited to run Harvard during an unprecedented crisis.


University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 has toed the starting line of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, Mass. six times.

“Marathon running is supposed to be hard, right? If it wasn’t hard, we wouldn’t do it,” Biology professor Daniel E. Lieberman ’86, who runs often with Garber, said.

As University Provost, Garber — who took office in 2011 — has grappled with a multitude of challenges in his professional life. The Provost’s office oversees a plethora of faculty and academic offices, including Title IX, Institutional Research, Harvard Library, Harvard University Health Services, and the Office for Dispute Resolution.

Now, he’s charged with solving a problem that for months has gripped not just Havrard, but all of higher education — a pandemic that has shuttered University operations, sent students home, and posed unexpected financial burdens for the school.


In it, Garber faces a marathon that he has been training for his entire career: The Provost is both a trained economist and an internal physician. His doctoral dissertation on wide-scale disease outbreaks — “Costs and Control of Antibiotic Resistance” — is a playbook of sorts for a coronavirus pandemic.

University President Lawrence S. Bacow said in an interview with The Crimson that Harvard is fortunate to have Garber at its helm during such a time of turmoil.

“If I could have designed the Provost from scratch to be our chief academic officer as we are addressing the challenges posed by COVID-19, I would have designed Alan Garber,” he said. “To have a Provost who is both a physician and an economist at this moment in time is extraordinarily valuable.”

Lieberman, who chairs the Human Evolutionary Biology department, said the two first connected through a love of distance running and compatible research interests. He doesn’t know how many miles they have logged together, but he said he vividly remembers long conversations that matched their long runs.

When training for a marathon, the running itself is draining and Boston’s winter weather is depleting; but in spite of this, marathon runners like Garber still have to log miles upon miles to prepare. Lieberman said he hopes that despite tough conditions, Garber remains determined.

“Those qualities, which make him a very good marathon runner, also make him a really good administrator,” he said. “A dedicated person who goes the distance.”

Garber’s colleagues and friends often remark that he is built for the current moment. With his academic training, his deep knowledge of the University, and his increasingly wide breadth of responsibilities and power, Garber is uniquely suited to run Harvard during an unprecedented financial and public health crisis.

‘A Somewhat Unusual Situation’

Garber grew up in Rock Island, Illinois, a town bordering Iowa, but his uncommon educational path had him traverse the country from coast to coast.

Garber graduated from Harvard College in 1976 with a degree in Economics. A candidate for advanced standing, Garber completed a masters degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 1977 before starting his doctorate in economics and simultaneously enrolling at Stanford Medical School to complete a doctorate of medicine.

Garber quickly fell in love with Harvard the summer before his senior year of high school.

“I actually had visited Harvard once when I was in the summer before my senior year of high school,” Garber said in an interview with The Crimson. “I fell in love with the place. I didn’t know much about it so it was as much about the atmosphere and the people walking by as anything substantive.”

“This is not how I would recommend that anybody choose a college, but it worked out pretty well for me,” he added.

It was Economics 10 — the flagship introductory Economics course offered at the College — that sparked Garber’s interest in pursuing a career as an academic. Despite his initial plan to study biochemistry, he ultimately decided to concentrate in Economics.

“I thought that I wanted to be a doctor for a good part of my childhood,” he said. “But it was when I arrived at Harvard that I decided I wanted to become an academic.”


As an undergraduate, he enrolled in graduate-level courses in Economics before graduating summa cum laude. A member of Phi Beta Kappa, Garber was organized and studied an “unusual combination” of economics and the sciences.

Andrew “Andy” E. Strominger ’77 was a part of Garber’s rooming group in Dunster House when they were College students. He said, even then, Garber’s work ethic was evident.

“It’s not that he worked hard because he needed to keep up with everyone else,” Strominger said.

“I think we’re incredibly lucky,” he added, noting that Garber’s “intellectual bandwidth” in an administrative position is rare.

With his interest in both economics and medicine and a desire to address health policy issues, Garber said he realized at some point that he wanted to go to medical school on the West Coast.

So he constructed a method of attending schools on both coasts at the same time.

“Let me first say that enrolling in two universities on opposite coasts is a good way to make sure that people have a hard time keeping track of you, which at the time I thought had tremendous advantages,” Garber said.

Garber decided to defer his admission to Stanford Medical School and begin his economics Ph.D. at Harvard. Taking a break from his graduate school work in the early 1980s, he then attended medical school for two years.

After his initial start at medical school, he flipped a switch, returning to Harvard again to work on his dissertation in economics. But his clever plan did not pan out. Garber failed to finish his dissertation on the two-year timetable he set for himself and had to head back to medical school for clinical rotations.

“I finished my dissertation when I was doing the obstetrics rotation, which is why you wouldn’t want me to deliver your baby,” he quipped.

After graduating from both Harvard with a Ph.D. in economics and Stanford with a medical degree in 1983 — with research honors — Garber began a residency at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, where he met his wife Anne M. Yahanda, an oncologist.

His career has allowed for him to immerse himself in both economic and health policy.

From 1986 to 2011, Garber was a professor of economics, health research, and policy at Stanford. He also directed Stanford’s Center for Health Policy and the Center for Primary Care and Outcomes Research at the School of Medicine from 1987 to 2011. He worked as a physician at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System from 1986 to 2011.

Garber also served as a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, where he oversaw the healthcare program.

Harvard Medical School professor Barbara J. McNeil said she worked closely alongside Garber on advisory committees for Medicare and Blue Cross Blue Shield. McNeil, who is a radiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said they also met through research meetings.

“I followed his research quite closely for years,” she said, adding that she didn’t need to look at his CV to refresh her memory on what he has published. “He was doing top-of-the-line, very well cited research in the cost effectiveness of various diagnostic therapeutic procedures.”

An expert in the field, McNeil, who now chairs the department of public health policy where Garber teaches, said he is a “superb” teacher and lecturer.

In addition to teaching, Garber saw patients as a general internist up until two months prior to starting as Provost.

Searching for Garber

The University Provost is a centralizing force in the Central Administration: The deans of Harvard’s twelve schools report to both him and the President.

“That’s true of most places,” Garber said. “But there are some ways in which being provost here is different from other universities.”

The modern-day role of the Provost is relatively new to Harvard, per Garber. It was refurbished under former University President Neil L. Rudenstine’s tenure to “take charge of inter-faculty initiatives.”

Since Rudenstine’s revamp, Harvard has seen three provosts: Harvey V. Fineberg '67, Steven E. Hyman, and Garber. At the time of his start, Garber said there were around five interfaculty initiatives, depending on how one counts — but now, there are 25 to 28. Still, Garber said his role forms more than just those efforts, helping faculty matters and overseeing a wide range of “initiatives of various kinds.”

“Ideally, the Provost office helps advance the academic mission of the entire University,” he said. “That extends from recruiting and retaining the best faculty to ensuring that we have the funds and leadership to pursue new academic programs, whether it's across schools or maybe collaborative across different universities, at Harvard.”

John Thelin, a University of Kentucky professor and expert on American higher education, wrote in an email to The Crimson that provosts typically “ascend through the academic ranks.”

“This means having a Ph.D., being hired in a tenure track faculty position, gaining tenure and probably promotion to full professor,” he wrote. “One usually must have experience serving as an academic dean, but not always. What is crucial is with this base of experience and credentials is whether one can balance the disparate academic colleges and schools.”

Thelin wrote that the provost typically serves as the Chief Academic Officer, serving as a “mediator to orchestrate opinions, priorities and decisions among the numerous academic deans and their colleges.” He noted that a provost candidate must have “ the support and trust of the incumbent president” in order to succeed.

Hyman and Garber both served in the role during former University President Drew G. Faust’s tenure — but it was Garber who Faust courted when the school was searching for Hyman’s successor.


Once Faust began Harvard’s search for the next Provost, she said, Garber’s name continued to resurface. At the time, he was serving on the visiting committee for Harvard Medical School and taught as a professor of medicine and economics at Stanford University.

“I thought, ‘I really need to look at Alan Garber, who has such positive reviews by everybody as a human being and a contributor to higher education,’” Faust said in an interview.

On a trip to the West Coast, she asked Garber to meet with her to give advice on who she should select as the next Provost. But the request had an ulterior motive.

“This is how you try to get people interested in the job,” Faust said. “People said, ‘Maybe Alan Garber would be interested.’ I thought, ‘Okay, let’s see what he has to say.’”

“I don’t think he’d had any intention of being a provost or leaving Stanford,” she added.

The two met at the Rosewood Hotel in Palo Alto near Stanford, where Faust and Garber had the first of a series of conversations about the job that would continue in the search committee.

“I very happily persuaded him that this would be an exciting new adventure in his life,” she said.

“He came and has been here since since then, which I'm very happy about,” she added.

On April 15, 2011, after months of discussions, Harvard announced Garber as the new Provost. Faust said Hyman, who preceded her at the University, helped Garber adjust to his new role, and that he transitioned naturally into the job.

“He’s one of the most intellectually curious people I know, and so the job of Provost is like giving him a smorgasbord of desserts and telling him, ‘Explore all of these fields across the University,’” she said.

Though Garber joined Faust midway through her tenure, he quickly became an interlocutor of her ideas.

“If I had an idea, he both listened to it and tried to find the good parts of it, but then also pointed out what the dangers or weaknesses might be so he could save me from myself a little bit if I was going off in the wrong direction,” Faust said.

Faust said Garber also played a crucial role in her “One Harvard” campaign. Before the campaign, Harvard colloquially abided by an “every tub to stand on its own” philosophy, keeping its 12 different schools relatively separate. During the campaign, Faust launched the first capital fundraising effort that raised money across the schools, with Garber spearheading the project. She said she believes the Provost became the “embodiment” of the One Harvard ideal.


The University Provost serves as a close partner and ally to the University President — a relationship Garber has now maintained with two presidents.

Faust said she and Garber often discussed novels and literature, particularly his interest in fiction.

“He has this whole passion for the humanities and literary matters, as well as his more quantitatively based scientific vocational identities,” she said.

Now, he serves alongside University President Lawrence S. Bacow. Bacow described Garber as a “wonderful thought partner” to have.

“I think the fact that we are both trained as economists also allows us to speak a common language,” Bacow said.

In addition to their training as economists, both Bacow and Garber also boast multiple professional identities and attended institutions outside of Harvard — Bacow as a lawyer from MIT and Garber as a Stanford-trained doctor. Bacow said he believes this allows the two to bring “complementary perspectives and strengths” to a variety of issues.

Garber said the Provost role fits well into his “wide-ranging” interests.

“The provost role is constantly intellectually stimulating and one of the great wonders of this role, is that you get to see what happens in almost every corner of the University and the work of our students and our faculty and our staff is simply stunning, sometimes in ways that don't come to public attention,” he said. “I feel incredibly fortunate to have a window into that.”

The Man for the Moment

While the University Provost’s job focuses mainly on internal Harvard matters, Garber has carved a space for himself in Massachusetts Hall that has placed him at the forefront of some of the biggest decisions administrators have made in the past decade.

He garnered enough respect during his tenure that alumni and faculty named him one of four likely candidates to be Harvard’s next president.

Now, Bacow, who ultimately won the top job, says Garber has served as an essential asset in his administration since his Fall 2018 inauguration.

“I can’t think of a major decision that I’ve had to make during my time as president that Alan has not been involved in,” Bacow said. “We collaborate on decisions regarding the hiring of deans. We collaborate on decisions regarding academic policy when we’re making tenure promotion decisions, recruitment decisions, retention decisions, capital planning decisions.”

Over the years, Garber has accrued a long list of duties across Harvard’s campus. He oversaw the creation of EdX and HarvardX, programs that provide free online courses from Harvard and other institutions. Garber said he considers the creation of HarvardX “a real bellwether event” for him, as he began the project shortly after he arrived from Stanford.

Strominger praised Garber for his handling of much of Harvard’s internal business.

“I think he’s kind of Harvard’s hidden gem,” Strominger said. “It’s not the job of the provost to be a public figure. It’s his job to keep the thing running and make impossible decisions.”

Garber’s responsibilities have created a singular role for him among the University’s administrators — a common occurrence in higher education, according to experts.

“The customary practice was that a Provost was ‘first among equal’ among the vice presidents – but this is no longer to be taken for granted,” Thelin wrote. “It’s a role that has to be conferred and, more important, has to be earned by trust and performance in some very tough turf battles.”

Garber’s seat at the top of the Central Administration has also embroiled him in contentious issues — most recently, tenure promotion decisions and Harvard’s graduate student unionization.

Along with Bacow, Garber chairs ad hoc committee meetings for tenure cases at Harvard, helping to lead the final stage of the secretive, intense process to promote new talent into the highest ranks of the school’s faculty. The normally quiet process made headlines in fall 2019, when the University informed Romance Languages and Literatures associate professor Lorgia García Peña of its decision not to grant her tenure.

Harvard affiliates protested the denial by writing letters to administrators, rallying in Harvard Yard, and staging sit-ins in University Hall and outside Garber’s office. Administrators declined to comment on whether Bacow or Garber chaired García Peña’s ad hoc committee.

Though labor relations does not typically fall under the purview of the Provost, thanks to its direct impacts on academic life at the University, Garber has also taken a leading role in the University’s interactions with its new graduate student union.

In August 2016 — as student teaching and research assistants waded deeper into efforts to form a union — the Office of the Provost sent a message to affiliates arguing graduate student unionization would disrupt academic programming. The email was the first of many Garber would send over the next two years forewarning against unionization, using his role as chief academic officer to stake out the University’s claim that TFs and RAs were primarily students, not workers.

After an initial unionization vote in November 2016 failed, the NLRB overturned the election’s validity, and a second vote succeeded in April 2018.

In May, Garber announced the University would bargain in good faith with the newly recognized Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers, despite its previous opposition. Nevertheless, he drew a line in the sand on which issues were fit for negotiation, laying out the three “fundamental principles” the University has sought to adhere to over the past several months of bargaining with the union: to maintain the “integrity” of teaching, “protect academic freedom,” and “serve all of its students,” regardless of whether they are in the union.

After months of negotiations, the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers went on strike in December 2019. The two sides, now aided by a federal mediator, have yet to reach a contract, though negotiations are nearing completion.

Garber said that the most consequential decisions he has faced during his tenure, though, have been those related to the coronavirus pandemic — many of which remain ongoing.

Garber — who is a part of a task force overseeing Harvard’s response to the pandemic — was the one to make the announcement April 10 that the University would be open this fall, regardless of whether classes are held online or in-person.

The Provost’s Office has also announced a variety of travel restrictions for Harvard-funded trips during the pandemic. Garber most recently sent a May 11 email to affiliates discouraging them from all personal or professional travel.

“These were not my decisions as much as joint decisions but they included when we decided not to have students return from spring break, to have the labs closed down,” he said. “They sound like very negative decisions but they were decisions that were made in order to protect the health of our community.”


While Bacow made the final decision to send students home after spring break, Garber has been involved in crafting the school’s logistical and academic plans during the crisis.

His perspective as a physician and an economist seeps into his decision-making, Garber said.

“One thing that anybody who has studied pandemics, epidemics, and the history of pandemics has a lot of respect for the damage that they can do,” he said. “And the other thing that people who have either experienced or studied infectious disease outbreaks knows is that a seemingly small contagion — maybe even an innocuous looking outbreak — could rapidly turn into something that is truly devastating.”

He added that he thinks the steps needed to promote public health and the economy are the same.

“The reason I say that is, if we reopen the economy too quickly without taking appropriate precautions to ensure that there is not a second severe outbreak, the economic consequences will be devastating too,” he said. “I believe that what’s good for the public health will indeed be good for the economy.”

Still, Garber maintains that, despite his expertise, he doesn’t know everything. Administrators say the school is consulting with state and public health officials as they plan for the future, including forthcoming decisions regarding the fall semester.

Harvard administrators have a long list of decisions to make regarding the future of the University during an unpredictable crisis. For Garber, running marathons is “helpful” to prepare for the challenges higher education face today, a test of his own endurance.

“Running marathons helps you understand that the finish line may always seem too far in the distance, and you need to adjust your efforts accordingly,” Garber said. “One thing you know as a marathon runner is that when people think that they're about to run a five mile race and it turns into a marathon it's devastating. But if you know you're in it for the long haul, it’s doable.”

—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.