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10 Contenders for the Harvard Presidency

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{shortcode-6e9cc86367dce0ec88e10a05a3dcbb035e21ad02}or the second time in two years, Harvard is searching for a new president.

Claudine Gay, Harvard’s 30th president, was expected to lead the University for much of the next decade. Instead, she resigned just six months and two days into her tenure, becoming the shortest serving president in Harvard’s history.

Now, Senior Fellow Penny S. Pritzker ’81 and the Harvard Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — must find someone to lead Harvard out of its leadership crisis.

After appointing two new members to the board on Sunday, the Corporation is primed to announce a presidential search committee and formally begin the process of selecting Harvard’s 31st president.

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Harvard doesn’t use an external search firm, instead relying on a committee that typically includes all 12 Fellows of the Corporation — as the board’s members are formally known — and three members of the Board of Overseers, the University’s second-highest governing body.

After a search committee is named, they typically conduct broad outreach among students, faculty, alumni, donors, and higher education experts to create a candidate pool.

Months before selecting Gay, Pritzker solicited advice and nominations from affiliates via email. The Corporation wrote in a Jan. 2 email announcing Gay’s resignation that the search for her successor will include “consultation with the Harvard community.”

Later in the process, the search committee will develop a short list of candidates. While Gay’s selection was the shortest in 70 years — lasting just five months — the process typically takes just less than one year.

While there are no official restrictions on the position, the last four presidents had degrees from Harvard. Harvard professor and education governance expert Richard P. Chait also told The Crimson in September 2022 that being eligible for tenure at Harvard “has the greatest effect” on the search.

While former U.S. President Barack Obama, a graduate of Harvard Law School, was rumored to be a potential contender for the Harvard presidency, a person directly familiar with the matter told The Crimson that Obama is not in the running.

The Crimson spoke with Harvard alumni, professors, and donors to determine a list of 10 possible candidates for the University’s top job.

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Alan M. Garber ’76, Interim Harvard President

Garber is one of the most obvious options to serve as Harvard’s 31st president.

In an interview with The Crimson late last month, Garber, 68, did not remove himself from the running to become Harvard’s next permanent leader.

Garber, who has served as the University’s provost for 12 years, has more experience in senior administration at Harvard than any other contender.

Garber, who received a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard and an M.D. from Stanford, serves on the faculty of four Harvard schools.

HMS professor Maryam M. Asgari wrote in a statement to The Crimson that Garber “would be my first pick for the next President.”

“He has the requisite institutional knowledge and a proven track-record of effectively managing a diversity of ideas and deftly navigating both internal and external relations,” she added.

Despite being a central figure in many of the University’s academic union disputes, Garber largely avoided the spotlight over the years.

His biggest disadvantage, however, might be his age. Garber was expected to retire toward the start of Gay’s tenure, before the leadership crisis propelled him into the presidency.

He was also among the first top administrators to publicly acknowledge mistakes in the University’s initial statement after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, and billed himself as a unifying force since becoming interim president.

Harvard Law School professor Noah R. Feldman said that “Alan has been doing an extraordinary job as provost for a long time, and so far seems to be doing an excellent job under very challenging circumstances.”

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John F. Manning ’82, Harvard Law School Dean

As HLS dean, Manning, 62, is a bit of an outlier among Harvard’s top deans.

Manning is a conservative who clerked for former Associate Supreme Court Justice Antonin G. Scalia. He also gained a reputation for promoting intellectual diversity among an outspoken faculty and student body.

Manning joined the Harvard faculty in 2007, as part of an effort to recruit more conservative faculty, and gradually rose through the HLS ranks to deputy dean in 2013 and then dean in 2017.

Lawrence Lessig, a professor at HLS, said that Manning has been an “outstanding” dean who he would be “very sad to lose.”

“What's most striking about John is, though he comes from a conservative background, he is masterful at knitting together people of all different perspectives to address issues that are complicated in a healthy and productive way,” Lessig said.

Compared to other law schools, HLS has avoided major blow-ups over free speech issues under Manning’s leadership, Lessig said.

The biggest controversy of Manning’s tenure as dean came after Associate Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, an HLS lecturer at the time, was nominated to the Supreme Court in 2018. After several women accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault, protests erupted on the Law School’s campus and some students called on Manning to remove Kavanaugh from his teaching position.

While Kavanaugh eventually decided to leave his teaching position at Harvard and Manning resisted calls to take a public stance on the confirmation, it was among his most controversial periods as dean.

“He’s not just an administrator,” Lessig added. “What he does and is able to do as dean of the Law School is to set a tone and manage the intellectual environment in a way that is productive.”

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Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study Dean

Brown-Nagin, 53, who was rumored to be a serious contender in the last presidential search, will likely be considered again by the committee searching for Harvard’s 31st president.

In addition to the Radcliffe deanship, Brown-Nagin is also a professor at the Law School and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Brown-Nagin chaired the Presidential Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery established by former University President Lawrence S. Bacow in 2019 until 2022.

She then co-authored the committee’s 2022 report that documented the University’s institutional connection to the slave trade and revealed that Harvard faculty and staff enslaved 70 Black and Indigenous people.

Harvard pledged $100 million to implement recommendations made by Brown-Nagin’s committee.

Brown-Nagin is also an extremely accomplished scholar, who won both the Bancroft Prize in 2012 and the 2023 Order of the Coif award for her books on the Civil Rights Movement.

Paula A. Johnson ’80, Wellesley College President

Johnson, 64, is one of the strongest potential external candidates to become Harvard’s 31st president.

She has served in her role leading Wellesley since 2016, but previously taught as a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School, and founded the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

JoAnn E. Manson, a professor at HMS who has known Johnson for over 30 years, wrote in a statement that she would be “an outstanding candidate” for the Harvard presidency.

“When she was the Executive Director of the Connors Center, I served with her as Co-Director and saw her skills first-hand in building programs and interacting collegially and inclusively with people from all walks of life,” Manson said.

As a current college president, Johnson is one of a small pool of potential candidates who have both a substantial academic portfolio and experience helming an institution of higher education.

“She is a really good listener -- she has a genuine interest in hearing input from others and listens intently to their feedback,” Manson said.

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Danielle S. Allen, Harvard Government Professor

Allen, 52, who also serves as director of the Allen Lab for Democracy Renovation, was reportedly considered for the Harvard presidency during the search that landed on former President Lawrence S. Bacow.

Allen ran the Safra Center for Ethics for eight years before stepping down in 2023. A highly accomplished scholar, she was appointed a University professor in 2016 under former President Drew G. Faust — the highest recognition a member of Harvard’s faculty can receive.

Allen also had political ambitions, staging a failed campaign for governor of Massachusetts in 2022. She suspended her campaign before the primary elections.

“She has had the experience of putting herself into a wide range of direct contact with people from every walk of Massachusetts life all the way up to the very senior kind of academics,” Lessig said.

“I think one of the qualities that a president needs is the ability to meet people where they are for who they are,” Lessig added.

Following Claudine Gay’s resignation, Allen even publicly responded on X to an immediate swell of support for her candidacy, writing that her work as a faculty member was her “only focus.”

“Look, friends, I appreciate the kind words out there — & don’t mind the not so kind things,” she wrote.

“But let’s all just take a breath,” she added. “My heart just hurts for Claudine right now.”

Allen is currently running for Democratic State Committeewoman for Middlesex and Suffolk in Massachusetts.

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James E. Ryan, University of Virginia President

Ryan, 57, is another potential external candidate who would be familiar to many Harvard affiliates.

Ryan previously served as dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education from 2013 to 2018.

He left Harvard for UVA in 2018, assuming the presidency at a tumultuous moment for the Virginia institution. One year earlier, white supremacists had marched through Charlottesville, a rally which resulted in numerous injuries and one death.

Michael J. Klarman, a professor at Harvard Law School who has known Ryan since teaching him in law school, said that the tragedy which played out near UVA’s campus helped convince Ryan that the presidency was something he needed to take on.

“I don’t think that Jim went into university administration because he has some ambition to be an important person,” Klarman said. “I think it’s because he cares so much about education, and he feels like he can make a real contribution.”

Ryan is adept at navigating charged political situations and finding common ground, Klarman said.

Ryan’s proven fundraising track record could also serve as an advantage in the selection process, especially at a time when some of Harvard’s most generous donors have pledged to halt donations.

During his tenure as HGSE dean, he helped raise $346 million for the school’s capital campaign, surpassing the $250 million goal. He is currently leading a capital campaign at UVA, which passed its $5 billion goal 18 months early.

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George Q. Daley ’82, Harvard Medical School Dean

As the leader of one of Harvard’s biggest schools, Daley is another potential internal candidate to succeed Gay. Daley has served as HMS dean since 2017, after first joining the HMS faculty in 1995.

“Dr. George Daley is an incredibly thoughtful leader, a visionary, an excellent communicator and has demonstrated an incredible track-record for enhancing philanthropic-led new initiatives on campus,” Asgari wrote in a statement.

As Dean, he helped HMS stabilize its finances in 2022 — putting the school in its best financial position since 2009 — despite strain caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. He has also invested heavily in increasing funding for HMS researchers.

Daley was one of the signatories of the University’s widely criticized initial statement on the Israel-Hamas war, along with the rest of Harvard’s top administrators, including Garber, Brown-Nagin, and Manning.

HMS professor Michael S.D. Agus described Daley as someone able to “listen to new perspectives” and “describe his own initial responses as imperfect.”

He “was able to circle back and make some substantial improvements on his messaging to the community with real moral clarity,” Agus added.

HMS, however, has faced intense scrutiny when federal prosecutors accused a former morgue manager at the school of stealing and selling human remains that had been donated.

Daley was quick to strongly condemn the alleged theft, but the scandal prompted an onslaught of lawsuits against the Medical School and could damage Daley’s potential candidacy.

Jenny S. Martínez, Stanford University Provost

Martínez, 52, became Stanford’s provost in October and is also a strong potential candidate for the Stanford presidency.

After former Stanford President Marc T. Tessier-Lavigne resigned in July, the University began a search process for their next president. That process is expected to conclude this spring.

As provost, Martínez is likely a contender to succeed Tessier-Lavigne.

Martínez, who graduated from Harvard Law School in 1997, has taught at Stanford since 2003.

She served as the university’s law school dean from 2019 to 2023, and faced heavy scrutiny over her own free speech issue on campus, Martínez made national headlines with her response to a protest during an on-campus speech 5th U.S. Circuit Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump.

After students interrupted Duncan — accusing him of threatening the rights of women, Black people, and LGBTQ people — the judge called the students “bullies” and demanded the school apologize for his treatment. Martínez apologized and said the school had not enforced its speech policy, which prohibits such disruptions.

While Martínez was protested by students for apologizing, she appeared to successfuly weather the storm, becoming Stanford’s provost just months later.

Tamar S. Gendler, Yale Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean

Gendler, 58, is another potential candidate for the Harvard presidency who might be even more likely to take the helm at her current institution.

Gendler, the dean of Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, currently occupies the same position Gay held before ascending to Harvard's presidency.

Yale’s own presidential search process, which started in September 2023, will almost certainly conclude before Harvard’s. Gendler’s current term as Yale’s FAS dean is slated to end on July 1.

A strong external candidate, Gendler received a doctoral degree in Philosophy at Harvard before teaching at both Syracuse and Cornell. She has served as chair of Yale’s philosophy department and deputy provost for humanities and initiatives before assuming her current role in 2014.

HLS Professor Feldman said Gendler has been “an extraordinarily successful dean” who is “an extraordinarily warm and lovely person.”

John B. King, Jr. ’96, State University of New York Chancellor

King, 49, would bring both extensive higher education leadership and political experience to the Harvard presidency, having served as U.S. Secretary of Education under Obama. He currently serves on the Harvard Board of Overseers.

Before being appointed chancellor of the SUNY system in December 2022, King headed The Education Trust, a civil rights nonprofit focused on bridging opportunity gaps in education. He was also New York State education commissioner for three years prior to joining the Obama Administration.

King ran for governor of Maryland in 2022, pledging to address racial equity in state schools. Like Allen, he did not win his state’s Democratic primary. He now oversees the largest public higher education system in the country.

Sarfraz A. Mian, a professor at the State University of New York at Oswego, said King’s leadership at the 64-campus system impressed him.

“He has brought scholarship at a higher level,” Mian said.

“I would like to keep him,” he added.

—Staff writer Emma H. Haidar can be reached at emma.haidar@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @HaidarEmma.

—Staff writer Cam E. Kettles can be reached at cam.kettles@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @cam_kettles or on Threads @camkettles.

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