Sunday, February 26, 2006

Harvard's Gentleman's C

Much of the press coverage of the recent resignation of Harvard’s president has focused on Larry Summers’ rough edges. But as a non-profit board member and author of a book on corporate governance, I see a problem with Harvard’s board whose governance I’d grade a gentleman’s C.

The Harvard Corporation’s seven-person board should never have appointed Larry Summers in the first place. Although he was a brilliant scholar Summers felt the need to prove his intellectual superiority in his interactions with others. He had a reputation for aggressiveness which the Board may have thought would contrast nicely with his predecessor, the genial Neil Rudenstine, who took a
leave of absence in 1994 due to the stress of the job.

Famously, his former boss at Treasury, Robert Rubin had encouraged Harvard’s board to overlook Summers’ rough edges. This turned out to be an important mistake in the board’s exercise of its governance responsibilities. Since Harvard, with its 12 separate schools, operates under the principle “Every Tub on its Own Bottom”, its president must be able to lead while gaining sufficient consensus to overcome the natural inertia of these highly decentralized, and innately competing Tubs. Perhaps the board should have considered more deeply whether Summers’ combatitiveness was compatable with this leadership requirement.

To its credit, it appears that Harvard’s board took action when it became clear that his loss of support among parts of the faculty threatened Summers’ ability to lead. Moreover, Summers can cite some important accomplishments during his tenure such as setting the groundwork for a stem cell research facility in Allston and earning significant support from Harvard undergraduates.

Now that Summers has resigned, it begs the question: “What kind of leader does Harvard need?” Probably someone more like Rubin. As
Boston Magazine described him, Rubin “is slender, elegantly tailored… a polished veteran of the New York financial world and a graduate of Harvard College -- suave, sophisticated, mannered, charming.” Rubin rose to the top of Goldman Sachs, a company where intellectual brilliance and teamwork are highly prized. This contrasts with other Wall Street firms, where the rewards go to individual superstars who outcompete their peers.

Harvard’s board can show that it’s learned from the Summers experience by choosing a leader who combines intellectual horsepower with deft tiger herding skills – someone not unlike Robert Rubin.


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