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Harvard’s Old Presidential Model Is Dead. Here’s a New One.

Harvard's four most recent presidents pose for a photo in front of Massachusetts Hall ahead of Gay's September inaguration ceremony.
Harvard's four most recent presidents pose for a photo in front of Massachusetts Hall ahead of Gay's September inaguration ceremony. By Julian J. Giordano
By Lorenzo Z. Ruiz, Crimson Opinion Writer
Lorenzo Z. Ruiz ’27, a Crimson Editorial Editor, lives in Greenough Hall.

President Claudine Gay has failed. Her resignation reflects that failure.

Gay held two basic obligations as the executive of Harvard: to administer over an academic institution and to speak on behalf of that institution in its interactions with the public.

Revelations of plagiarism — politically motivated as they may have been — shattered her credibility as an academic and administrator. They hollowed out her authority and bellowed in the flames of media scrutiny.

Her now-notorious, certainly calamitous performance before Congress proved President Gay an incompetent public face for the university. Free speech on university campuses is vital, but her inability to defend Harvard’s values convincingly, relatably and decisively — both in and outside of Congress — was unacceptable.

Perhaps there was once a time when a purely academic leader may have excelled in this position.

That time was when an insular, ivy-fenced Harvard catered to the tastes of a homogenous American gentry — when students chafed under the tyranny of subpar butter and campus tumult mirrored the folly of the playground. Perhaps, in this age, a sober, smart, respected professor was enough to keep students trained on their textbooks, to keep the walls up, to keep the status quo.

But Harvard has changed.

Over the last century, we have evolved from a mere university into an intellectual engine with a distinct social purpose and heightened social sway. We brand ourselves as an institution with a sacred mission of “contributing through scholarship and education to a better world.”

Even if President Gay had preserved her academic credibility and brokered peace on campus, the professor-president archetype is outdated. A thoughtful leader adept at coping with internal issues is insufficient.

This university has squarely placed itself at the heart of American public discourse.

I welcome that. The nation needs a forceful institutional voice advocating on behalf of the academic project, and elaborating that commitment in inclusive and pioneering terms. But with that stature come new responsibilities, and those new responsibilities require a new sort of leadership.

To successfully maneuver Congressional hearings, partisan assaults, and media smear campaigns, a president must brandish superhuman charisma, media savvy, and oratory skill. As sympathetic as I have been toward President Gay’s very human struggles since October, I can confidently state she was no such president.

She displayed neither the charm, nor the know-how, nor the PR-support infrastructure to analyze and respond to unrest on campus and across the nation. It is for these reasons that she tumbled down a rugged cliff of impersonal, uncoordinated statements and testimony into oblivion.

Let her serve as a lesson.

If we are to persist as an active national ideological force, to continue to embrace the image of Harvard as an institution of the nation, we must accept the burden of unparalleled public scrutiny and select a leader capable of not just bearing it, but using it.

Our next president must be everything President Gay should have been but failed to be.

This individual must be seasoned, connected, academically unimpeachable. Must be — akin to President Derek C. Bok — an educational visionary capable of unifying the university behind institutional goals, and of melding a potent institutional agenda with a national one.

That president should be passionate and convincing, and should be able to exploit the University’s pulpit — not to apologize or react to national fervor — but to shape it.

That president should buck convention. Should be remarkable and novel. Should be a spectacular amalgam of intellect and charisma armed with the media and strategy staff of any national political entity.

The precedent is dead. Long live “The President.”

Lorenzo Z. Ruiz ’27, a Crimson Editorial Editor, lives in Greenough Hall.

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