Succeeding at Succession: How Harvard Got It Wrong and Yale Got It Right

McInnis Portrait
Photo courtesy Stony Brook University
Yale’s presidential succession is a case study for other universities, and companies, to emulate. 

Editor’s Note: Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a longtime columnist for Corporate Board Member, spent 18 years at Harvard and has spent 24 years at Yale as a professor of leadership and management. He has three degrees from Harvard. Sonnenfeld has 45 years of expertise and scholarship on leadership succession and in academic governance, including his service on the National Commission on University Governance Reform of the Association of Government Boards of Colleges and Universities, as well as chairing the Blue Ribbon Commission on CEO Succession of the National Association of Corporate Directors. His first book, The Hero’s Farewell, examined leadership succession models and still is regularly freshly profiled by outlets such as The New York Times even 40 years after publication.


In 1962, Harvard alum John F. Kennedy declared as Yale’s Commencement speaker, “Now I have the best of both worlds, a Harvard education and a Yale degree.” Clearly the Yale degree had prestige then and now, but maybe a Yale education can help in the governance process too. 

Today’s news that Yale appointed Maurie McInnis to serve as its 24th President represents not only a historic day for the university–with McInnis the first woman to be appointed permanently to the position, following in the trailblazing footsteps of Hanna Gray who had served as Acting President in the 1970s–but also reflects how Yale’s presidential succession has been a case study for other universities, and companies, to emulate. 

In contrast, as I wrote previously in Corporate Board Member, Harvard’s disastrous leadership succession culminating in the fiasco around Claudine Gay’s resignation yielded bitter lessons for board governance. 

The difference between how Yale—where I am a professor—approached presidential succession and how Harvard approached it could not be more clear. Consider these following four key factors which distinguish Yale’s approach to leadership succession vs. Harvard’s disastrous approach. 

Diligence, or lack thereof in search

At Harvard, the hiring of Claudine Gay began with what was perceived–regardless of the facts–by many as a hasty, careless, hiring process, in what the Harvard Crimson called “the shortest presidential search in history.” It was unclear how much diligence the board exercised in reviewing her thin scholarly credentials—for example, Gay never authored a single book. The search committee preemptively discarded, in their own words, “extraordinary scholars” who did not have as much “administrative experience” in a process resembling a coronation, with some savvy insiders speculating the board had Gay in mind from the outset, perhaps not without reason. 

In stark contrast, Yale’s search has played out over nine months, nearly two times longer than Harvard’s search. The board reviewed dozens, if not hundreds, of qualified candidates, and entered into the process with a genuine open mind and no preconceived favorites, whether internal or external.

While McInnis’ academic credentials speak for themselves–a renowned cultural historian who has published no less than six books in addition to dozens of widely cited peer reviewed articles, with trailblazing academic approaches to understanding the visual representations of slavery–this was no coronation, and McInnis distinguished herself on her merits, her vision, and her experience. 

Engagement with key stakeholders

Despite the fury taking place on college campuses today, McInnis’ selection has been greeted with perhaps the rarest commodity of all on campus: near-universal acclaim (or as near-universal at it gets in academia) from students, faculty, and other key stakeholders alike.

Many in the Yale community, like myself, are overjoyed with the selection of McInnis, whose background, temperament, and expertise equips her to handle highly politically sensitive, emotionally fraught issues with transcendent intellectual insight, historical factual foundations, and personal authenticity, while grappling pragmatically with the implications for how we live and learn together today.

But the acclaim greeting McInnis’ selection reflects not only her own credentials, but also the groundwork laid by the board in proactively engaging key stakeholders. Across the last few months, the Board carefully listened to input from all constituencies, ranging from one-on-one meetings with faculty members to listening sessions with the Student Advisory Committee to small group feedback sessions across campus. 

The Harvard Corporation, on the other hand, was criticized by many for being closed-off during its own selection process, and its insular deliberations did not feature the same extent of personal, proactive outreach to many key stakeholders who were left feeling spurned or upset. I heard from several prominent faculty members that there was strong faculty resentment for what some judged to be Gay’s overreliance on administrative protocol and lack of support for cross-discipline faculty endeavors. That these professors were left to groan to their friends rather than feeling substantively engaged by the decision-making process speaks volumes.

Respect for the unique brand, culture, and institutional mission of each school 

Even comparable elite academic institutions have distinct cultures and flavors of their own, and no two schools are alike. McInnis is deeply rooted in the Yale community as an alum with multiple degrees from Yale, as well as an active board member who has deeply immersed herself in the community. In fact, recently, she spearheaded at the board level an effort which blossomed into the Yale Slavery Project, led by noted Civil War historian David Blight, to document Yale’s difficult history with slavery, which has engaged the entire community from students to faculty. Furthermore, the Yale board has been careful to seek and solicit input from all stakeholders, on campus and off campus, ranging from alumni to community members, to ensure nobody feels left out. 

While both were knowledgeable insiders of their own institutions, Claudine Gay as a Dean and McInnis as a board member, the contrast between the processes that the boards of Yale and Harvard ran could not be more stark. The Harvard board made continual mistakes as it chose and then had to defend its choice of Gay, which alienated many in the Harvard community and seemed by many to fly in the face of the “shared governance” model which has long governed university affairs.

When plagiarism accusations surfaced against Claudine Gay, rather than investigate fully, Harvard authorized a highly-aggressive, well-known law firm to threaten journalists looking into Claudine Gay’s track record. The board subsequently appointed a small sub-committee of Gay supporters to “investigate,” which only raised more questions. 

Confidentiality of board discussions and internal trust without groupthink

Amazingly, across the nine months of Yale’s board deliberations, not a single word leaked to the press about any candidates being considered or board deliberations. Media platforms were so desperate for scoops some even ludicrously resorted to citing “knowledgeable students” in echoing fact-free speculation. 

Harvard’s deliberations were constantly leaked to the press in real time, from beginning to end. Even at the end, news of Claudine Gay’s imminent resignation leaked seemingly before anyone was ready to officially announce it, in an embarrassing black eye for the board. Leaks emerged of strife within the board with some sub-factions meeting on their own without their colleagues there. 

Yale’s selection of Maurie McInnis as its next President, and the selection process run by the Yale board, reflects a case study of triumphant leadership succession which ought to be the model for universities across the nation. In this, at least, perhaps a “Yale education” is worth much more than John F. Kennedy quipped.

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