By Amanda Y. Su

Fifteen Questions: Rakesh Khurana on Pizza, Veritas, and “Squishy Things”

The Dean of the College sat down with Fifteen Minutes to discuss how Harvard has transformed him and the challenges he sees ahead. “I’m not saying that we’re a perfect institution, but we’re trying to be good for the world,” he says.
By Amber H. Levis

Rakesh Khurana is the current Danoff Dean of Harvard College, Marvin Bower Professor of Leadership Development at the Harvard Business School, and a professor of Sociology at the University. He is the former Faculty Dean at Cabot House. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

FM: You’re from Queens, and in an interview, you told The Independent you prefer New York to Cambridge — could you elaborate on that?

RK: Pizza. [laughs]

FM: What’s your favorite pizza place?

RK: It’s the pizza place I used to deliver for in high school. It’s called Joe’s Pizza on Springfield Boulevard in Bayside. There were two pizza stores across the street from each other: us, who were on the side of the light, and Gino’s, which is on the dark side [laughs]. That was crazy now that I think about what I did; I used to deliver in a van with a pizza oven in the back with two propane tanks connected to it that lit up as I drove that van on the Long Island Expressway. It didn’t even occur to me how dangerous that was — it never went through my mind that I was basically driving an explosive device. I’ve had a lot of jobs. My first job was delivering two newspapers: in the morning, I used to deliver the Daily News, and in the afternoon I used to deliver the New York Post. Then I had a job working as a busboy at Sizzler. My mother didn’t like that because she was a vegetarian, and the fact that I was working at a steakhouse just drove her crazy. Then I worked at Swensen’s Ice Cream Factory, and then I delivered pizzas. I didn’t have any fancy internships – internships didn’t pay. That wasn’t going to be a starter for me.

FM: In the ’90s, you helped found Cambridge Technology Partners, a business and IT consulting company. How did you make the switch from the business world to academia?

RK: I was actually interested in academia before. I really loved school and had a lot of people encouraging me to go and pursue a Ph.D., but at the last minute I decided not to, so I quickly scrambled to apply for a bunch of jobs. I had actually accepted a job at a financial services firm, but I had one more job interview left, which I thought would be bad to cancel and so I ended up going to this last interview, and I really liked the person who was interviewing me. It was a small startup doing some really interesting cutting-edge work, and because I really liked the person and the values that they had and just how inspiring they were, I ended up going to work for that organization, which grew quite a bit. While I left that organization a really long time ago, that person is now my wife, Stephanie.

How did I make the switch to academia? There were some faculty from Harvard Business School who were writing a case study on the company, and they had interviewed me as part of the case study and, as I mentioned earlier, I had really shown interest in academia, but part of what I was interested in was applying it to real-world problems. I didn’t know that was possible. I asked the faculty who were writing the case study, “how did you get into this field?” They said, “many of us have social science backgrounds, and we study problems of organizations or institutions. We have Ph.D. programs.” I literally ended up interviewing them. I was fortunate enough to apply to some Ph.D. programs, got in, and I ended up coming to Harvard, which changed my life.

FM: What’s the best part of your job as Dean of the College?

RK: The best part of my job is being around students. I just find that incredibly energetic. For me, young people are society’s most important moral responsibility. I find I’ve learned so much from our students, the perspectives they bring, the experiences they bring. It’s a constant source of renewal, and it also causes me to question my assumptions about the world or things that I thought I knew.

FM: The worst?

RK: The most challenging part of my job is how much I worry about the students. There are so many things going on in the world; there are a lot of stressors and challenges of being a young person today. I want every student to know that they’re not alone, and yet I know it can sometimes feel that way. I’ve been in those moments in my own life when I didn’t know if there was anybody else who could understand my situation or if I had somebody to talk to. I want students to know there are so many people here to support them, and I hope they count me as one of them.

FM: You wrote a book called “Searching for a Corporate Savior: The Irrational Quest for Charismatic CEOs,” which describes the pitfalls of selecting leaders based on their charisma above all else. What traits do you think we should value more highly instead — say, something you’d like to see displayed by the next president of Harvard?

RK: I think there are lots of leaders – everybody can be a leader. I think it’s less of a formal position than it is a set of behaviors. One of the things that I think is different from charisma is first of all, substance. People who have depth. People who are very mission-driven, and at the same time care about the people who work with them. They can hold both of these ideas: the needs of the institution and the needs of the people who constitute that institution.

The trait I most admire in leadership is courage, because it’s the trait that gives someone the consistency to uphold the things that I also value in others. What leadership looks like, to me, is someone who paints an accurate picture of reality and helps make sense of reality, and at the same time gives you a sense of hope and idealism for the future. I think being able to do both is really critical, because you can’t tackle the issues if you’re not going to make a realistic assessment of what the issues are, but you also can’t tackle the issues if you just wallow in the problems and don’t remind people about what’s right in the world.

FM: A big part of your agenda in your first few years as Dean was trying to implement sanctions against single-sex social organizations — primarily final clubs. Ultimately, the policy was unsuccessful. Has your stance on the issue changed at all?

RK: The value, for me, that really makes Harvard College a really special place is inclusivity. I want every single person to know they belong here. It’s a value that I find critical to our mission. I know that good people of good conscience can have different views about how we realize that notion.

FM: Despite your relative fame on campus, do you think there’s something about you that most students don’t know about? Any hobbies hidden from public view?

RK: I go to hot yoga a lot, but I don’t know if that’s a hidden hobby. I’m also a huge reader. I can constantly be found with my nose in a book whenever possible; I’m reading whether I’m in line, queuing up for something, or I have like 15 minutes to drink something, I’ll reach for a book that I’m reading. Right now I’m reading “Enduring Love” by Ian McEwan.

FM: You’re also a fan of vinyl – what have you been listening to lately?

RK: I just found an excellent copy of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors.” I’ve been listening to that because Stephanie and I went to the Summerfest in Connecticut a couple of months ago, and Stevie Nicks was one of the performers. I was just reminded about what an electric, energetic performer Stevie Nicks is, and almost every song on “Rumors” is really good.

Stephanie has an amazing record collection. I thought I had a good record collection – Stephanie’s record collection is excellent. Most of our records are from ’80s alternative music. It would begin, for me, with Joy Division, New Order, and The Smiths. With Stephanie, it would be New Order but also Depeche Mode, and more in that angle with the synthetic music, and then we find ourselves in common again with things like General Public. All ’80s, British, mostly New Wave bands. But we also like some contemporary stuff — we just went to a concert last month to see Noah Kahan down in Fenway.

FM: You often talk about Harvard as a potentially “transformative experience” – do you think you’ve changed since you were first appointed Dean eight years ago?

RK: Yes. Between being Faculty Dean at Cabot House and being Dean of the College, it has been one of the most amazing gifts in my professional life. Because we were faculty deans, it also deeply affected us personally, to be able to live in a community with people from all over the world who are asking themselves very similar questions about “Why was I put on this earth?” and “How do I see the humanity in somebody I don’t know that well?” and then begin realizing that humanity. Bearing witness to that has been as close to a sacred experience as I’ve ever had.

FM: What are the biggest challenges facing the College in the next few years?

RK: I think the most significant challenges we face are related to how people question how selective institutions work and how they contribute to society. We have to be clear and transparent about our purpose. We of course want our students to benefit from this education, but what really defines us is the contributions they make to the larger world. I think as a college, we have to demonstrate how our alumni and our research are a complementary and positive force to the larger community. We can do a better job at listening to some of the criticisms, but also at having a chance to dialogue about them and share some more facts about who we are and what we’re trying to do. I’m not saying that we’re a perfect institution, but we’re trying to be good for the world.

FM: Do you have a favorite memory since you first came to Harvard?

RK: I have so many wonderful memories. One of the most poignant for me since I came to the College was early on in our faculty dean career, we actually were able to get some resources to go with the faculty deans of Currier House to bring several students from each house to Uganda over the winter break. The then-faculty deans of Currier House had also arranged for us to go on a safari for a couple of days, and there was this amazing sunset; we were on a lake, and animals were coming to water themselves, and we were just with our students. Again, there’s just a sense of awe and humility and yet a sense of togetherness that I have not typically experienced in my life, especially when I was that age. But to be there at that moment, it imprinted itself on me about all that is right in the world, all that is possible, feeling a sense of stewardship and connection between all living things. I’m not very poetic. I wish I could have been a poet at that moment.

FM: How do you try to live by the motto of “semper veritas” or “semper cor”?

RK: “Semper cor,” which is the Cabot House motto, means “always heart.” I think it’s an aspiration in a place like Harvard, which values intellect. Intellect without heart is incomplete. One reason I sign the emails to our students “semper veritas” is that it's Harvard’s motto, and it’s also an aspiration that we shouldn’t confuse cleverness for the truth. But the truth is not something easily discovered. It’s something that we’re always trying to go toward, but I don’t think you ever reach the destination. But you get closer to it.

For me, it is trying as best as possible, as a flawed human being, to live in a way that is truthful. To live in a way that has integrity, and when I can’t keep my word, I let people know I can’t for whatever reason, and then as quickly as possible make up in whatever way I can for where I might have fallen short, and help them clean up the mess. That’s really hard. One of the things that my mom would often tell me was, “Don’t try to be perfect, you’re not perfect. You’re a human being. You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself,” because I would get really hard on myself when I was younger and go down weird rabbit holes. When Stephanie sees me in those rabbit holes, she takes the book away immediately and says, “We’re going for a very long walk. You’re going to stop going down pathways that are circular.” One of the reasons I really like Noah Kahan is that his first album is called “Busyhead.” That just spoke to me – I have a very busy head. It’s really good to try to clear that out and purge every once in a while, which is why I started doing yoga a few years ago.

FM: What advice would you give to a Harvard freshman?

RK: You’re already in Harvard – you don’t have to get in over and over again. I also would like to tell every student that the most important question to ask oneself is: “Now that I’m here, how can I make the most of this place?” There are very few opportunities that you have in life to live with such a diverse group of people who are interested in so many different things. Try to lean into that.

A Harvard alum and good friend of mine, Michael Brown, always gave such great advice. He said, every day, a person should do three squishy things. What he meant by “squishy” is something that makes you uncomfortable. Something that challenges your comfort zone, makes you grow, and helps you learn a little bit more about yourself.

FM: And a senior?

RK: Don’t gratuitously drop the H-bomb [laughs].

— Associate Magazine Editor Amber H. Levis can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @amberlevis.

Fifteen QuestionsConversations