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University prepares to search for new leader, amid speculation

The search for the next president of Harvard University will probably be conducted in secret by a handful of leaders who will avoid setting a public deadline for replacing Lawrence H. Summers, the embattled president who will resign June 30, a university official said yesterday.

Meanwhile, speculation began on campus about potential in-house candidates and the possibility that Harvard will hire its first woman president.

Members of the university's governing board, known as the Corporation, said this week that the search for a new president will begin promptly, as former Harvard president Derek Bok stands in as interim leader. The first steps in the long process could be taken by the end of this month and should mirror Harvard's usual procedure for presidential searches, including the selection of search committee members and the creation of an e-mail account to receive nominations, according to an official familiar with past searches.

The search is likely to begin with a broad appeal for input. Six years ago, at the outset of the search that ended with Summers's selection as president, Harvard officials sought opinions from thousands of alumni, donors, students, and others about who should be the university's next president.

Members of the Corporation will decide who will serve on the next search team, said the Harvard official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The search committee will be anchored by Corporation members, who would not speak publicly about the search yesterday, and may include other advisers. The group's leaders are unlikely to name a specific date for hiring Summers's replacement to avoid criticism if they take longer than a set deadline, said the official. Faculty and students typically are not a part of the search committee.

''I would surely hope there would be a great deal of consultation all around in the search," said Kay Shelemay, a Harvard music professor who has criticized Summers's leadership.

Harvard's last presidential search took eight months from its official launch, in July 2000, to Summers's acceptance of the job in March 2001. That search was led by Robert G. Stone Jr., who had recently led a major Harvard fund-raising campaign. The nine-member search committee also included Corporation members D. Ronald Daniel, Harvard's treasurer, and Hanna Gray, former president of the University of Chicago.

During the last search, 400 people were nominated for president by faculty members, students, and alumni. The field slowly narrowed to three finalists: Summers; Lee Bollinger, president of the University of Michigan; and Harvard provost Harvey V. Fineburg. In the final weeks, committee members came to favor Summers, who was seen as a change agent; jitters about his abrasiveness were smoothed by high-profile supporters, including Robert Rubin, former treasury secretary, who later would join Harvard's governing board.

This time around, the suggestions for Harvard's next president are likely to include the names of three powerful women at Harvard who were already being mentioned yesterday as possible presidential contenders, according to several staff and faculty members: Drew Faust, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard; Elena Kagan, dean of Harvard Law School; and Nannerl O. Keohane, past president of Duke University and Wellesley College and a member of the Harvard Corporation.

The selection of a woman president for the first time in Harvard's history would send a strong message about gender equity, after a year of controversy touched off by Summers's divisive comments about women in science last January.

''Nothing could be more just, more apt, than to choose a woman of science, perhaps a woman of color," said James E. Samels, a higher education consultant who has co-authored a book about presidential transitions.

John Isaacson, a veteran presidential search consultant with Isaacson, Miller in Boston, said he would expect to see ''some serious interest" among Harvard search committee members in the idea of a woman president.

Most important in choosing the right leader this time, said Samels, will be careful deliberation about the university's direction. Special responsibility will fall on the faculty, he said; because their rebellion led to Summers's departure, they must be prepared to explain what they believe should come next.

Mary Waters, a sociology professor and past critic of Summers, said in an e-mail that the faculty must help ''pick up the ball and carry it forward," by working with Bok and the next president on key projects including curriculum revision and expansion in Allston. ''Progress toward shared goals will help to heal the wounds of the past five years," she wrote.

Shelemay said she hopes the faculty will take ''a little time out" before focusing on the next search. ''There needs to be a time of healing," she said.

Jenna Russell can be reached at jrussell@globe.com.

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