At Yale in 1992, two top administrators and the University president resigned amid faculty upheaval and criticism over how the University was governed. After a yearlong search, a dean from the University was picked as a replacement.
Fast-forward 14 years: Cambridge, Massachusetts. Two top Harvard administrators and the university president resigned amid faculty upheaval and criticism over how the university was governed. After a yearlong search, a dean from the university was picked as a replacement.
The new Yale president was Richard Levin; the new Harvard president will be Drew Gilpin Faust. The sequence of events leading up to both appointments share eerie similarities. In both cases, search committees sought presidents who would not succumb to the pitfalls of their predecessors — at Yale, Benno Schmidt ’63 LAW ’66, who served six years, and at Harvard, Lawrence Summers, who served five.
A New President
Following the turmoil under Schmidt and Summers, both of whom were appointed from outside their respective universities, search committees at both schools picked insider candidates who displayed leadership styles markedly different from their predecessors. Whereas Schmidt and Summers engendered ire among their faculties, Levin and Faust are, by all accounts, widely respected at their institutions.
It has always been typical of Yale search committees to pick candidates who stand in contrast to the negative qualities of the previous president, emeritus history professor and University historian Gaddis Smith ’54 said. The same was probably true for the Harvard search committee, according to a source familiar with the Harvard presidential search who did not wish to be named. He said it was his impression that the search committee was looking for someone who exhibited noticeably different leadership qualities from Summers.
In both searches, the early front-runner appears to have ended up with the position.
Many Harvard officials — including interim Harvard President Derek Bok — have indicated that Faust was the dominant candidate throughout the search. Howard Lamar, who served as Yale’s interim president after Schmidt resigned, said he had recommended Levin to the search committee from the beginning.
It was Lamar who appointed Levin dean of the Graduate School.
Although the Yale committee considered outsiders, Levin’s 24-year experience as a professor at Yale — which included a stint as head of the economics department — did afford him advantages in adjusting to his new post, said Yale Vice President and Secretary Linda Lorimer, who served on the presidential search committee in 1991-’92.
“He could hit the ground running,” she said. “He had deep relations with so many faculty members and deans.”
At the time, Lorimer was not yet secretary and served as a Yale Corporation fellow.
Like Levin at Yale, Faust has a high-profile track record at Harvard. Since 2001, she has served as the head of the Radcliffe Institute, Harvard’s smallest academic unit.
John Morton Blum, emeritus history professor and former member of the Harvard Corporation, said he believes the two presidents were both the ideal candidates at the times they took over.
“I think both Levin and Faust — because the combination of their professional capacity, their temperament and their intelligence — neatly fit the needs of the institutions at the time,” he said.
The qualities that the search committees were looking for in a new president were likely inspired by the tumultuous tenures of their predecessors, observers of both schools said.
Schmidt, who had been dean of the Columbia Law School before becoming Yale’s president, incurred the faculty’s disfavor through his initiatives to rein in the University’s ballooning budget deficit. With Yale in financial turmoil, Schmidt and then-Provost Frank Turner made plans to cut the size of the faculty by more than 10 percent. The “restructuring” would have eliminated several whole departments — including linguistics — and severely diminished the Faculty of Engineering.
Like Schmidt, Summers was an outsider and faced heavy criticism with the faculty for his leadership style and controversial decisions. Summers made comments that offended faculty members and ran into the most trouble when, in January 2005, he suggested in a speech that the underrepresentation of women in the sciences could be explained by innate differences.
Perceived as unresponsive to the concerns of the faculty, both presidents oversaw the departure of top administrators and received unfavorable attention from national media. Many members of the Yale faculty saw Schmidt as heavy-handed and declared the cuts to be unnecessary. The ensuing chaos led to the resignations of Turner and Yale College Dean Donald Kagan, who condemned the administration’s faculty critics when he stepped down.
“The wheels were coming off Yale,” Smith said.
Schmidt announced his intentions to resign abruptly, over breakfast with the Corporation on the morning of Commencement in May 1992.
Much the same happened at Harvard 14 years later. Critics on the Harvard faculty became even more vocal after Summers reportedly forced the resignations of Harvard College Dean Harry Lewis in 2003 and Dean of the Faculty William Kirby in January 2006. Summers announced his resignation less than a month after Kirby announced his.
The two corporations’ choices of interim president highlight their concerns with the ex-presidents’ leadership styles.
After Schmidt resigned, the Yale Corporation turned to Lamar, a history professor and the former Dean of Yale College, to fill the power vacuum at Woodbridge Hall while a search committee looked for someone else to fill the post. Last year, former Harvard president Derek Bok was summoned back to Cambridge to be the interim president during the search for Summers’ successor.
Both Lamar and Bok were deeply connected to their respective institutions, and their one-year terms served as a cooling-off period for the faculty.
Lamar said once Schmidt left office and he took over, the faculty became less fractious.
“The faculty pulled together and cooperated in a way they hadn’t in years,” he said.
Over the past year the same thing has happened at Harvard under Bok, according Chronicle of Higher Education reporter Robin Wilson, who has followed Faust’s appointment closely. The Corporation’s decision to bring Bok back to Harvard was driven by their desire that the next president would be able to focus on running the institution, Wilson said.