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The Moral Leader

I met Neil Rudenstine for the first time on August 5, 1992. I was a partner in a Boston law firm, and a mutual friend had suggested that he talk with me as he thought about a successor for Daniel Steiner ’54, LL.B. ’58, Harvard’s longtime general counsel. I was not a candidate.

For the next four years I saw or spoke to Neil almost every day. Why did I know that August morning that our conversation would continue? I can begin to explain it by saying that Neil has a capacity, unusual for a man of his age and position, to listen—really listen—to different voices.

When Neil became Harvard’s twenty-sixth president, the University was in good condition. As he leaves, it is the greatest center of scholarship and learning anywhere. For Harvard to catapult ahead of its many excellent rivals has been a remarkable achievement. Neil’s humility, his moral leadership, his absolute refusal to compromise on excellence have made the difference.

The president of Harvard works in a fishbowl. Should this candidate be given tenure? Should Harvard withdraw this student’s offer of admission? Should these hospitals merge? For every decision he must make there are countless "advisers." Faculty, alumni, students express strongly held views in different ways, sometimes in a letter, just as often on national television! Time and again I watched as Neil refused to make a "popular" decision: he always made what he felt was the right decision. But could he, did he, listen to different voices? Of course he did, with grace and humor and wit and enjoyment.

Consider race…the searing wound across our history that will not heal. Harvard in 1990 and Harvard in 2001…is there really any comparison? Neil changed the face of Harvard’s faculty. He insisted that excellence, brilliance, sparkle come in all shapes and sizes and colors—and in both genders. In a single decade, one man made the difference that had eluded so many before him. Moral courage. A deep respect for the other. Nerves of steel.

I was not alone in my occasional sense of frustration that Neil went about the business of the University with such quiet passion. It is the "quiet" in that sentence that marks his manner. Neil loved the successes…but never took the credit, ever. He is generous beyond belief. A sought-after scholar has agreed, finally, to join the faculty. I know of the hours and hours that Neil has devoted to the effort, making sure that her spouse is well placed, housing is secured, whatever it takes. But the announcement comes from the dean, the fingerprints of the president invisible. "That’s Neil," I hear myself saying.

Neil loves to be with students…not by attending football games but in conversations, really listening to them, learning from them. Neil writes, by hand, on paper, lyrical scribbles meandering across the page like a Dubuffet sketch. No computer on his desk. But when a student introduced Neil to the wonders of the Internet, Neil was exhilarated, thrilled by what he learned and by the excitement of his young teacher.

September 18, 1998…the red banners of Harvard’s Houses brilliant against the green canopy of the Tercentenary Theatre. "Mr. President…Mr. President…." Neil attempts to quiet the thunderous applause for Nelson Mandela, here to receive an honorary degree at a special convocation. I know that Neil has worked quietly, patiently for a long time to make this happen. "Conscience of a people…soul of a nation…. He has inspired by his courageous example the better angels of our nature." What Neil said that day of Mandela we can say of him, for Neil did inspire the better angels of our nature.

Margaret H. Marshall, Ed.M. ’69, Ed ’77, L ’78, served as the University’s vice president and general counsel from 1992 to 1996, when she was named to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. She has been chief justice since 1999.