As Harvard University concludes a secretive search for its next leader, the rest of the higher education industry has a big ask: Don’t forget about the rest of us.
This new chief, they argue, must be able to not just lead the world’s most prestigious university, but also to work on the national stage to combat the current wave of anti-intellectualism elevated by President Trump and a number of other looming threats.
College officials are increasingly concerned about the next decade. The number of foreign students choosing US universities has recently dropped. Americans are increasingly unable to pay expensive tuitions. There is growing skepticism about whether a college education is even necessary, especially when it leads to a liberal arts degree.
Although an elite school like Harvard is largely immune to these troubles, the president it chooses will have a platform — if he or she uses it — to speak out and help higher education navigate them, the experts said.
Drew Faust, the outgoing Harvard president, has sometimes used her elevated role to address big problems facing higher education, but her peers say her successor will need to be even more outspoken.
“There is an anti-intellectualism spreading across the country, and the Harvard president is important to state the case for higher education,” said Donna Shalala, the former president of the University of Miami who also served as secretary of Health and Human Services during the Clinton administration and later ran the Clinton Foundation. “The Harvard president gets an attention that no other college president in America gets.”
Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, the former George Washington University president, said the next Harvard president should not only lobby the federal government but speak to the American people about the value of a degree.
“If we can get a spokesman to the American people speaking from the podium at Harvard, he or she could have a very positive effect on the relationship between higher education and the American people,” he said.
Harvard’s search committee — 14 executives and business people who oversee the university in various capacities — has been interviewing candidates for weeks.
The search has been kept extremely secret, with meetings held in the suburbs and out of town to vet candidates away from the public eye. The committee has weighed the pros and cons of choosing an academic versus a business person. After months of speculation, a decision is expected any day.
Any successful president of a major university needs to be a gifted academic, superb administrator, prodigious fund-raiser, and have the common touch, said Terry Hartle, a senior vice president at the American Council for Education, a group that lobbies on behalf of colleges.
“You need to be able to walk on water,” Hartle said. “The Harvard presidency will probably include being able to do a cartwheel on water.”
Harvard chooses a president rarely — only nine times since the Civil War. There have been 29 US presidents since then, and six British kings and queens.
The Harvard president will immediately become internationally visible and face pressure to address a range of industry issues: access, equity, free speech, the value of higher education, the price, and the relationship between higher education and social mobility.
Because outgoing president Drew Faust did a good job, Hartle said, the school doesn’t need to change direction. On the other hand, he said, the school needs someone who recognizes the way technology and artificial intelligence are transforming the creation and transmission of knowledge.
“You need somebody who is going to be very able to pick up the baton and carry it forward without losing a step but you also want somebody who’s looking a little bit down the track to see what challenges are coming up,” he said.
Several experts said it will be interesting to see if Harvard chooses a more traditional candidate or someone unconventional. Names like Barack Obama were floated early on as potentially interesting choices, though there has been no indication that the former president is interested.
When Faust was named president in 2007, she was seen as something of a wild card. She was the first female president and had no experience as a college president. But the choice was considered fitting after the controversial departure of her predecessor Larry Summers, who created an uproar with his statements about women’s aptitude for science research.
Much attention has been focused recently on the school’s expanding Allston campus, where it is building a new engineering campus. Some have said the school should tap a scientist, since developing this campus will be a major task of the next decade.
But Michael DeCesare, who chairs a committee on university governance at the American Association of University Professors, said the school ought to pick an academic, to send a message to faculty that their work is important.
“For Harvard to kind of reaffirm the importance of an academically oriented president would go a long way,” said DeCesare, who is also a professor at Merrimack College.
In recent years, university governing boards have become increasingly composed of business people who tend to choose people who look and sound familiar to them.
Others have mentioned Harvard Business School dean Nitin Nohria as a likely candidate for the job of president. Nohria is known as a solid administrator and expert fund-raiser, having helped secure a $400 million donation to the engineering school. He has also hinted that he wants the job.
But mostly, experts said they want a president who will stand up to threatening policies pushed by the Trump administration.
During his first year in office the president has launched several new attacks on colleges. The new GOP tax plan will tax colleges’ endowment earnings, cutting into revenue that does not come from tuition.
Trump has also threatened to deport DACA students, the children of illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children.
And the Trump administration is investigating Harvard’s admissions practices, based on claims that the school limits the number of Asian students it admits.
Marvin Krislov, the newly installed president of Pace University, who formerly led Oberlin College, said it is important that the new leader speak to the country’s changing demographics.
He also said the next leader should underscore the value of international students, who flocked to the United States earlier this decade, but have started to look elsewhere since Trump’s election.
“It’s important that this person address some of the challenges all of us in higher education have, which include affordability and access and also making the case more broadly to the public of the value of investing in higher education,” Krislov said.Laura Krantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.