THE LAST LAUGH Is It Time for a Short, Black Lesbian to Lead Harvard?

Harvard gets to choose the next leader…our editor and publisher wonders…

Our January 1997 Outrageous Predictions Affecting Women on Campus began: “Harvard University will demonstrate its commitment to walking the walk on diversity by naming as it’s next president a short, black lesbian.”

When the Corporation that manages Harvard chose Larry Summers as president five years ago, it did manage to fill the short part, but he was never taken for a black or lesbian. His abrasive, challenging leadership style and tendency to rock the boat enabled the sharks to devour him.

After the embattled Summers resigned last month, it will get another opportunity to choose the leader of the nation’s oldest and most influential university. It has never had a female or mimority as president.

The job description

Members of the Corporation include four white males with ties to Wall Street or Washington. The fifth is a white fe-male, Dr. Nannerl O. Keohane, who has been president of Wellesley College MA and Duke University NC. The groups’s only black member resigned recently when he objected to its continued support of Summers.

Members listed some priorities, according to the Boston Globe on February 16 and 23, and March 16, 2006:

“willingness to push professors in powerful perches, to collaborate, for instance, with junior colleagues in other de-partments” and “the strength to force an openness and transparency between the schools and departments… a strong hand is what’s required.”

Other educational leaders have used words like: tough, politically savvy, scientist, brilliant, vision, charm, tact, perception about people, bold, soothing manner, inspire trust, good listener, prominent figure, longtime administrator, servant/leader .

A woman?

Clearly women are the best candidates to fill the job.

“Nothing could be more just, more apt, than to choose a woman of science, perhaps a woman of color,” said James E. Samuels, a higher education consultant and author of a book on presidential transitions. Veteran presidential search consultant John Isaacson said he expected some “serious interest” in the idea of a woman president by members of the search committee.

Those with a sense of irony appreciate the idea of replacing Summers—the man who speculated a year ago that lack of innate ability might account for so few women being in science and math—with a mere woman.

In fact, six women’s names already have been tossed in the soup, including three insiders:

  • Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson , a short physicist who is president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute NY and the first black woman to earn a doctorate from MIT. “She’s bold and she speaks out,” said Dr. Denise Denton, chancellor of the University of California at Santa Cruz. Another fan is Joel Trachtenberg, president of George Washington University DC, who said, “She has the charm of being both right for the moment at Harvard… and simultaneously capable of doing the job.”
  • Dr. Shirley Tilghman, a molecular biologist and president of Princeton University NJ, would be expected to support a bolder science curriculum.
  • Dr. Donna Shalala is the president of the University of Miami who migrated south after having been chancellor of the University of Wisconsin. She served as secretary of the health and social services department in the Clinton admini-stration, and is described as “tough” and “politically savvy.”
  • Dr. Nannerl O. Keohane is on the Corporation appointing the next president. Now 65 and a professor at Princeton University NJ, she has declined to be considered. “I’m not available,” she said. “I’ve been looking forward to this for many years. I’m not getting any younger, and this job needs someone with stamina and energy. It’s not a good time in my life to do it.”
  • Dr. Drew Faust is dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard.
  • Dr. Elena Kaglan is dean of the Harvard law school.

A minority?

Given that several prominent black professors left Harvard during the Summers years, the new leader needs to build better relations with people of different backgrounds, advised Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, president of Spelman College GA. “The Harvard of the 21st century needs to be setting an example for people of different from its historic constituents,” she said.

A lesbian?

A tennis friend who counsels job seekers said the above description needs only a disability to be complete. Of course, a candidate’s sexual orientation is nobody’s business but hers, but it is a protected attribute, like race. Many in such categories have to be truly outstanding just to be considered good enough.

Maybe it is time for a short, black lesbian president at Harvard.

Back   |   Read Archive