Five months after Harvard president Claudine Gay’s abrupt resignation, the university’s top governing body, the Harvard Corporation, has yet to launch a formal search for its next leader.

Interim President Alan Garber, the former provost, has been on the job since January. He’s tended to regular duties of the office, traveled to Washington to lobby Congress, dealt with student protests and encampments over the war in Gaza, and last week adopted a policy of institutional neutrality on controversial issues.

GBH News spoke to more than a dozen sources inside and outside the university, most of whom were unwilling to comment on the record due to the sensitivity around the search process. A university spokesperson told GBH News they had no updates at this time.

Here are five key questions about the search for Harvard’s next president.

Why hasn’t the search started in earnest?

At this point, we know little about the search to find Harvard’s next president, and there does not appear to be much urgency. That means Garber could be on the job for months, if not years.

Some faculty tell GBH News they are demanding greater transparency, and the Harvard Corporation is considering certain recommendations related to that. The student newspaper, The Crimson, reported earlier this month that Penny Pritzker, senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation, told faculty members that the body had convened a subcommittee to review its presidential search process.

Even if you put aside the messiness and bureaucracy around Harvard’s situation, higher ed experts say the search for a new president takes time and patience.

“A search takes a year from the time you decide you’re going to do it,” said John Isaacson, founder of the higher education search firm Isaacson, Miller.

Forming a search committee and vetting candidates can take up to eight months, he said. And after a candidate accepts an offer, it takes several months for them to transition into the role.

Finding the right pool of candidates with the skills needed to succeed in today’s highly politicized environment is challenging, said Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education and former president of Occidental College.

“You really just can’t afford anymore to find the glad-handing fundraiser or the great faculty researcher when you really need to be very careful about the range of skills that people bring to the job,” Mitchell said.

These jobs are tough, especially now. Stanford and Yale recently filled their top jobs after a bit of a stutter-step search, and the presidency is still open at the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell. 

Today’s college presidents have to balance competing constituencies: students and their parents, faculty and staff, boards and alumni, as well as critics in the political realm. Mitchell said each of those constituencies feels like they’re a real stakeholder and that they should have a voice — and sometimes a vote — in what happens on campus. 

“Presidents are on edge all the time,” he said. “It’s, in the best of times, like tap dancing on a surfboard in the middle of a storm. And I think the storms are just getting more rugged.”

How are Harvard faculty responding?

The lack of urgency and slow process is frustrating for some faculty members like Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a professor of history, race and public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

“The number of governance issues that are unfolding at the university do require definitive leadership,” Muhammad said. “We are currently under a full-scale assault by Congress, particularly under the direction of the [U.S. House] Committee on Education and Workforce led by Chairwoman Virginia Foxx.”

During a high-profile congressional hearing on campus antisemitism in December, Foxx, a Republican from North Carolina, singled out one of Muhammad’s courses as a “prime example” of “race-based ideology.” Muhammad said he’s disappointed the university hasn’t vigorously defended itself from House Republicans and other critics.

“I can’t tell if this is an Alan Garber choice or a [Harvard] Corporation choice,” he said. “But I can’t imagine a future president won’t have a strong opinion on this.”

Other faculty said the delayed search is not on the top of the list of things that frustrate them about the corporation.

“I’ve been distracted by all the other horrors coming out of Loeb House and I haven’t even had time to worry about the presidential search,” said history professor Alison Frank Johnson, referring to the corporation’s treatment of President Claudine Gay and its more recent overruling of the faculty recommendation to grant degrees to graduating seniors facing discipline for their involvement in pro-Palestinian protests on campus.

In this political climate, who would want Harvard’s top job?

Garber has not publicly indicated whether he wants the job or not, although he has expressed interest in the past. As provost, he was a finalist in the search for Larry Bacow’s successor that resulted in Gay’s appointment.

As interim, sources inside and outside of the university agree that Garber is acting like the Wizard of Oz, quietly keeping his head down and doing the work inside the main administrative building. He’s only given occasional interviews to internal publications like The Crimson.

Other names have been floating around on campus, like political science professor Danielle Allen.

In December, Allen notably wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post saying institutions should reform diversity and inclusion efforts to embrace mutual respect and viewpoint diversity. Some on campus viewed that piece as her cover letter for the top job. In the months since, GBH News sources have repeatedly named Allen as one of the people they believe are jockeying for consideration.

In an email to GBH News, Allen explained her op-ed was motivated by a desire to defend her work as one of the co-chairs of the University Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging when that work was under attack by Congress.

Is this Garber’s job to lose?

Garber has a long history at Harvard, first arriving on campus in the 1970s as an undergraduate from Illinois.

Jeff Sonnenfeld, a leadership and governance professor who was at Harvard for 18 years and at Yale for 24 years, knows several members of the Harvard Corporation. He said in this politically charged moment, they don’t want any more surprises.

He thinks Garber is battle tested because he served several prior presidents through transitions.

“Alan is a trusted insider,” said Sonnenfeld, “but serving as president is different from serving as provost, with the loneliness of making all the decisions.”

Similar to Larry Bacow, some faculty see Garber as a potential bridge president to a more racially diverse candidate. Some insiders and outsiders are pointing to Tomiko Brown Nagin, dean of Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute, or Dr. Paula Johnson, president of Wellesley College. But after seeing the way Gay was treated and the racial animosity she faced and detailed in her op-ed in The New York Times, some think candidates of color might be wary of the post.

Other faculty, though, worry that political correctness has gone too far at Harvard.

“Look, you don’t have to choose somebody just because they’re Black or gay or a woman,” said one longtime professor. “Just choose the best person right now. That’s the pressure on the board.”

Is there pressure on the Harvard Corporation to reform itself before a presidential search?

Several sources familiar with the process said the corporation is still “traumatized,” “reeling” and “shell shocked” from Gay’s short tenure and the subsequent fallout following her initial response to Hamas’ attack on Israel on Oct. 7.

There’s also a belief that the last presidential search lacked due diligence, considering the plagiarism charges that also dogged Gay. Behind closed doors, both supporters and detractors of Gay have said they have little confidence that the same group of people who selected her and botched the university’s response to plagiarism allegations should be involved in selecting a successor.

In January, Penny Pritzker, a Democratic mega-donor, pushed back against prominent alum and hedge-fund manager Bill Ackman’s persistent calls for her resignation. But some faculty and alumni familiar with the corporation’s inner workings tell GBH News they think she needs to go before a new president is named.

So, at least for now, the corporation appears to appreciate Garber providing an image of calm competence and deliberate leadership in a chaotic, tumultuous time on and off campus.

Corrected: June 05, 2024
An earlier version of this story misstated when Allen's op-ed was published in The Washington Post. This story has also been updated to include Allen's motivation for writing the op-ed.