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Harvard in a stealthy courtship to find its next leader

Harvard President Drew Faust will step down in 2018.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File 2017

Harvard President Drew Faust will step down in 2018.

Imagine the dance of manners in a Jane Austen novel combined with the subterfuge of a John le Carré spy thriller.

Suitors come armed with the most stellar credentials, hoping to win the prize, but not so openly eager as to seem, gasp, vulgar.

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Well-heeled allies and powerful advocates pull strings from the sidelines.

The lead ducks into a darkened food court before being whisked away by a driver waiting in a nearby car.

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Sound like the latest production from Netflix?

No, this is the Harvard presidential search, now in full swing.

When it comes to conducting university presidential searches, “it is safe to say that Harvard probably defines the far end of that spectrum,” said Robin Mamlet, a managing partner in Witt/Kieffer Executive Search, based in Chicago.

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The search to find the next president of Harvard University, only its 29th in nearly four centuries, resembles few other job hunts. Forget the resumes and cover letters, there’s not even a formal application process.

Here, a whisper from the CEO of a Fortune 100 company or a nod from another elite college president is more likely to put you on the right track. An obvious play for the job could scratch your chances. And secrecy is so paramount that candidates have been known to sneak into the side streets of Cambridge before being taken to interview locations away from the prying eyes of curious staff and nosy school newspaper reporters.

Harvard president Drew Faust’s announcement this past summer that she will step down in June 2018, after a decade-long and historic run as the university’s first female leader, kicked off the search process.

A 15-member search committee, made up of the business and education leaders who oversee the university, hopes to select a new leader in the coming months.

The search for a university president is ultimately a courtship, said Judith Block McLaughlin, a senior lecturer on education at Harvard who runs a seminar for new college presidents.

“You’re investing your hopes and ambitions for the future,” McLaughlin said. “A failed presidency is very costly — it’s financially costly, costly in the time lost, and costly in terms of morale. These are tough jobs and getting tougher.”

At Harvard this behind-the-scenes politicking and persuasion are well underway.

Potential candidates are reaching out to Harvard insiders — former university leaders and active donors, among others — to handicap their chances of being considered for the top job, according to those who have been contacted.

Prospective candidates can always subtly find ways to promote their skills as scholars, fund-raisers, or thought leaders. Announcing a significant donation or serving on a high-profile committee during the process usually doesn’t hurt.

And search committee members are meeting behind closed doors with Harvard professors, former university presidents, higher education experts, and even informally, with professional search consultants.

The search committee’s goal: to suss out the characteristics and skills that Harvard needs in its next president and cull together names of prospective candidates.

They are mum on what they’ve gleaned.

“The search is progressing well,” said William Lee, a lawyer with WilmerHale in Boston and the chairman of Harvard’s presidential search committee. “Beyond that, we have no additional information at this time.”

Harvard has also set up advisory committees made up faculty, staff, and students and created an e-mail box for candidate suggestions. The names that often surface from community recommendations are famous, public figures who may capture the imagination at that moment. A decade ago, former president Bill Clinton was a popular pick. This time, former president Barack Obama, a Harvard Law School graduate, and former acting attorney general Sally Yates, who was fired by President Trump for refusing to defend his executive order on banning immigrants from certain predominantly Muslim countries, are often brought up as appealing prospects in college presidential searches.

Ultimately, though, the search committee and Harvard’s governing board have the final say.

Harvard’s search for its last president, more than a decade ago, offers some hints of how the top-secret process might work this time around.

Thomas Cech, the director of the University of Colorado’s BioFrontiers Institute, was among the leading candidates for the Harvard presidency in 2007.

Members of the Harvard committee initially contacted him seeking his opinion on potential candidates, Cech said.

He agreed to help, and they visited him in the Washington, D.C., area, where the Nobel Prize laureate in chemistry was then working as president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

“When the committee returned for a second visit, it started to become apparent that they had some interest in me,” Cech said.

Cech withdrew his name from consideration about a week before the university announced that it had named Faust as president.

“Harvard is one of the top universities in the world in a great many areas, so the opportunity to work on its behalf at such a high level was pretty grand,” Cech said. “Ultimately, however, I realized that the presidency would be dominated by fund-raising and continuous social events, and I wanted to return to my own biomedical research and to teaching science to freshmen.”

Candidates for the Harvard presidency must prove that they have the credentials to lead an Ivy League university of 22,000 students and 2,400 faculty members, the confidence to speak on contentious issues facing academia, and the stamina to raise money for the largest college endowment in the world.

But they also have to demonstrate some stealth.

Faust has said that late in the interview process she was forced to resort to “various devious methods” to elude newspaper reporters who were tracking the movements of many of the finalists. In one case, she had to pretend she was out walking her dog with her husband in Cambridge before she slipped into a nearby shopping center to catch a car waiting at the back entrance to take her to downtown Boston for an interview, Faust recently told The Harvard Crimson.

She initially kept the job offer a secret even from her daughter, who was a fact-checker for The New Yorker magazine, Faust told the school newspaper.

Search experts said for a high-profile position such as the Harvard presidency, the cloak-and-dagger tactics serve a purpose. Candidates are likely to be presidents of other colleges or hold top positions elsewhere and don’t want to rock the staff, trustees, or donors at their current workplaces.

The most desirable candidates are likely to also have other job options and aren’t necessarily interested in dealing with the hassle of a public search process, search experts said.

Candidates have pulled out of university presidential searches for even small slights, such as running into another candidate for the job in the hotel lobby where the interviews are taking place, McLaughlin said.

“Searches represent an opportunity for very positive public relations,” she said. “But they can leave some candidates and others who know the candidates with a bad feel.”

As the candidates and the search committee circle each other, mistakes can be made. For candidates, the most likely is to seem too hungry for the job, presidential search experts said.

Having their advocates reach out too often to the search committee or talking up their skills in public too frequently can be a turnoff.

“This is not a lobbying job,” said Vartan Gregorian, the president of the philanthropic Carnegie Corp. and former president of Brown University.

So many remain coy about their interest.

Harvard Business School dean Nitin Nohria, whose name has been bandied about as a potential contender, said last month when asked about the presidential search that he is focused on his current job.

“I enjoy the job I have 100 percent,” Nohria said. “I trust the process. You don’t run for the job. We’ll see how the process unfolds.”

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.
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