Interim Harvard President Alan Garber’s 100 Days of Trial By Fire


{shortcode-24643cedbe14221289878261864001a8ceef067a}ne hundred days into his surprise, interim trial by fire presidency, Alan M. Garber ’76 is not keeping the seat warm for anyone — except maybe himself.

Far from serving merely as a placeholder, Garber, 68, is seeking to heal divisions between students and professors on campus, traveling internationally to court back disillusioned donors, and persuading admitted students that Harvard is not embroiled in crisis but instead emerging from it.

Garber has seized on the worst turmoil in Harvard’s recent history — not just to try to stabilize the institution he has loved since arriving on campus as a freshman in 1973, but also to audition for a role he never expected to have.

At the 100 day mark — a common metric by which to judge the early effectiveness of U.S. presidents — Garber has accomplished a lot more than any of his predecessors in recent memory, but a series of institutional challenges remain unresolved.


Interviews with Harvard professors, major donors, student activists, and current and former senior University officials revealed that Garber — the University’s longtime provost — enjoys broad support among affiliates for his early efforts to guide Harvard out of crisis even if he has not managed to completely avoid controversy.

In what is perhaps the most important vote of confidence thus far, the Harvard Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — has not even launched a presidential search to appoint a permanent successor.

Either way, Garber is not waiting around.

“I am the interim president,” Garber said in a February interview with the Harvard Magazine, an alumni publication. “But the problems we need to deal with are not interim problems.”

A Crisis President

It is unlikely that many people envied Garber when former President Claudine Gay’s resignation on Jan. 2, suddenly propelled him into the Harvard presidency.

Congress has just begun investigating Harvard, longtime donors were still publicly cutting ties with the University, and there was no indication that the bitter divisions on campus would dissipate when students returned in the spring.

In his first University-wide email as interim president, Garber acknowledged the weight of the challenge.

“Our task is difficult yet essential, and we have much work ahead of us,” he wrote.

Just 17 days into his tenure, he released updated protest guidelines that banned protests in dorms, libraries, and classrooms without prior reservation. While the move faced harsh criticism from student activist groups for limiting free expression, the number of protests on campus has significantly decreased throughout the spring semester — and Garber got the credit.

He also quickly moved to establish twin presidential task forces to combat antisemitism and anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bias.

The decision to appoint History professor Derek J. Penslar as a co-chair of the antisemitism task force led to an outpouring of criticism from some Jewish affiliates, who alleged that Penslar — the director of Harvard’s Center for Jewish Studies — previously downplayed antisemitism on college campuses.

Despite calls for Penslar’s removal as the task force’s co-chair, Garber held firm and Penslar stayed on.

A month later, Harvard Business School professor Raffaella Sadun — Penslar’s initial co-chair — abruptly resigned from her role on the task force over concerns the University would not implement its recommendations.

Sadun’s resignation prompted a second round of controversy for the antisemitism task force, but Garber simply appointed Harvard Law School professor Jared A. Ellias in her place.

Despite the controversies, the task forces have continued their work and are expected to release an initial set of recommendations before the summer.


Garber himself has met with the task forces in addition to speaking directly to alumni, prospective students, and concerned donors during his short initial stint in Mass Hall.

In public statements, he has come out forcefully against antisemitism on campus. When two pro-Palestine student groups published an antisemitic cartoon in late February, Garber put out a statement “unequivocally condemning” the image within hours.

He also formed two working groups to address free speech concerns and consider whether the University should adopt a statement of institutional neutrality. The groups are also working toward their own sets of recommendations.

“We are convening two working groups to examine these issues and recommend how the University can most effectively nurture and reinforce a culture of open inquiry, constructive dialogue, and academic freedom,” Garber wrote in his email announcing the groups.

Interim Only in Name

Garber’s ability to be a bold and assertive interim president is explained, in part, because he does not have much to lose.

Before assuming his current role, Garber intended to retire from the University’s administration once Gay had settled in as president. He also announced in a January interview with The Crimson that he will not return to his role as provost when his interim presidency ends.

After serving in the dual roles of provost and interim president for two months, Garber appointed longtime Harvard Law School Dean John F. Manning ’82 to serve as interim provost.

The decision was an early indication that Garber was not afraid to make high-level administrative appointments during his interim presidency.

In early April, Garber took another step characteristic of a permanent president by offering the Harvard Kennedy School deanship to Stanford political science professor Jeremy M. Weinstein.

By offering the role to Weinstein, Garber revealed he does not believe his mandate is to fill dean vacancies on an interim basis until the University’s next permanent president can make the final pick.

Garber will likely also appoint the next Harvard Graduate School of Education dean after Bridget Terry Long steps down at the end of the academic year.

Paul Reville, a HGSE professor, said Weinstein’s selection answered the question of whether appointing a permanent dean is within an interim president’s power.

“The administration basically answered that, saying, ‘Yes, it’s. It’s within our powers to do that,’” he said.

Including Weinstein, five out of the 14 current permanent University deans have been picked within the last year, and nine of those were appointed in the last five years.

The relatively recent turnover across schools would leave the next president, if it is not Garber, with little opportunity to pick their own deans.


But former Harvard Medical School Dean Jeffrey S. Flier said the dean pick likely came at the direction of the Corporation, the body charged with hiring and firing the president.

“We’re always left to judge what is happening by the outcomes,” Flier said. “The outcome at the moment is they have named Alan Garber the interim president, and he is taking certain actions that might not be taken if he was told: ‘Just be a caretaker while we get the real president.’”

Garber has also made it a priority to mend relations with donors upset at Harvard’s initial response to campus antisemitism.

He made the first international trip of his tenure to the United Kingdom, which has long topped the list of Harvard’s largest sources of foreign funding, and spoke to around 200 alumni in London.

During spring break, Garber also visited Miami, home of major donor Kenneth C. Griffin ’89, to field questions and meet with Harvard alumni in-person.

His travel was not just confined to spring break.

Garber visited Washington D.C. several times as interim president, where he has met with alumni and members of Congress. The visits come as Harvard also faces fierce pressure from some lawmakers in Congress to do more to combat antisemitism.

Neither Gay nor her predecessor Lawrence S. Bacow traveled internationally during the first three months of their time in office. Bacow, who said he was “still in sponge mode,” had not made any official policy changes during his first 100 days in office.

Harvard Law School Professor Richard J. Lazarus wrote in a statement that Garber’s active approach to the interim role is necessary and that he has all the responsibilities that come with the Harvard presidency.

“The University obviously cannot go into hibernation, postponing all significant decisions until the next president is chosen,” he wrote.

The Promise of Garber’s Task Forces

But Garber’s success as interim president largely hinges on the promise of reforms made from the task forces’ recommendations still to come.

In response to early criticism about the approach, Garber asked that observers suspend judgment until after the groups publish their recommendations.

“They should judge us based on what these task forces produce, but they have an ambitious set of goals for this process,” he said in a January interview with The Crimson.

But three months later, Garber’s administration is still waiting to make official changes to University policy until it receives recommendations from his task forces.

Reville said that although the campus had largely stabilized, “there’s a lot of uncertainty because of not knowing where the leadership is ultimately going to go.”

When the anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bias task force met with a group of Muslim affiliates at an Iftar program March 29, event attendees grilled Garber and criticized him for evading questions about Harvard’s financial ties to Israel.


Later, taskforce co-chair and Harvard Kennedy School professor Asim Ijaz Khwaja said in an interview with the Harvard Gazette, a University-run publication, that such reactions were to be expected and would not affect the group’s approach.

“These conversations will be hard, and students will express how angry and upset they are at us, and, yes, even “grill” us,” Khwaja said.

“We will not always be welcomed, but that should not deter us from engaging and doing so in a way that models how leaders of an institution like Harvard approach difficult but necessary conversations,” he added.

Some student activists, however, said implementing task forces was the wrong approach to begin with.

Palestine Solidarity Committee organizer Asmer A. Safi ’24 wrote in a statement that the group had collected and submitted hundreds of testimonies to the Dean of Students Office, Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana, the Harvard University Police Department and other administrative offices and no “action was taken.”

“It is incredibly trivializing to put entire communities through that pain and frustration, in the midst of a genocide, only to now ask them to ‘share’ their grievances with newly formed task forces,” Safi wrote.

“These task forces are placeholders for appeasing contingents of Muslim and Arab students – and we see through it,” he added.

University spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment on the criticisms of the task forces.

‘A Delicate Balancing Act’

But beyond campus activists, Garber seems to have won at least passive approval from affiliates.

Former Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers, a frequent critic of Harvard’s administration, said that Garber has been well-received in the role, but true responsibility remains with the Corporation.

“Alan Garber is trusted, respected, admired and a calming presence,” Summers said. “This is welcome and needed.”

“Unfortunately the Corporation has not acted strongly to address antisemitism and other major issues so Harvard's situation remains problematic,” he added.

HKS professor Richard J. Zeckhauser ’62, who has known Garber since he was a graduate student, said that Garber’s 12 years as provost allowed him to get to know “an extraordinarily large number of people” across the University.

“He just knows what’s going on in a way that I don’t think that anybody else who’s been at the University in the time that I’ve been there – which is since I was a freshman — has known the University,” Zeckhauser said.

Among alumni, Garber’s candor in acknowledging the challenges he faces has been appreciated.

Harvard Alumni Association board member Eduardo J. Dominguez ’01, who met with Garber during his spring break trip to Miami, said his continued involvement in the day-t0-day University activity and research projects had impressed him.

“I think among my cohort, there's probably a unanimous consensus that he's very well prepared,” Dominguez said. “He would be a great option to keep in that position because he served the University so well as provost.”


Former University fundraiser James F. Hayden ’77 said that from his view, Garber had been able to get his message across in part because he was listened to more seriously than Gay.

“It may just be that the impact of that unfortunate congressional testimony sort of poisoned the well for her,” he said.

Steven A. Pinker, one of the co-presidents of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard, said that he thought Garber has done “extremely well” balancing the “contradictory demands” he faces as interim president.

“Keeping the ship going without just replicating the status quo which got Harvard into trouble in the first place but, on the other hand, not really having a clear mandate to change anything fundamentally is a delicate balancing act,” Pinker said.

As Harvard’s governing boards prepare to launch the search for the University’s 31st president, speculation is growing that they will only need to look across Harvard Yard from Loeb House to make their pick.

While the Corporation has not announced any details about the search process or the composition of the search committee, many of the names floated in previous presidential searches are now involved in Garber’s administration.

Manning, one of the finalists in the process that selected Gay, now serves in the University’s second-highest administrative position– interim provost. Radcliffe Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin, another finalist, was recently appointed co-chair of the “Open Inquiry and Constructive Dialogue Working Group.”

Garber has also declined to rule himself out as a candidate to serve as Gay’s permanent successor.

“I am happy in my current position,” he said in a January interview. “I’ll just leave it at that.”

Zeckhauser said that Garber “should be seriously considered” for the permanent job.

Unlike other potential candidates the Corporation might consider, Garber has the benefit of a trial run as his first 100 days have served to cement his place as a front-runner to be the next president.

Zeckhauser compared the Corporation’s current task to a baseball manager deciding how to replace an injured hitter.

“If they bat .320, you’re going to keep them on,” Zeckhauser said. “If they bat .260, you’re going to let them go.”

“And if they bat .280, you’ll decide whether they’re better than the next guy you can get,” Zeckhauser said.

—Staff writer Emma H. Haidar can be reached at Follow her on X @HaidarEmma.

—Staff writer Cam E. Kettles can be reached at Follow her on X @cam_kettles or on Threads @camkettles.