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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

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Alan M. Garber Appointed Provost

4.15.11

Alan M. Garber

Alan M. Garber

Photograph by Justin Ide/ Harvard News Office

Alan M. Garber ’76, Ph.D. ’82 (M.D. Stanford, ’83), now Kaiser professor and professor of medicine and economics at Stanford, will become Harvard’s provost effective September 1. President Drew Faust made the announcement today. Garber succeeds Steven E. Hyman, M.D. ’80, a neuroscientist who has been provost since 2001; he announced in December that he would step down from the post at the end of this academic year, in June.

“I am humbled but extremely excited at taking this important position at Harvard,” Garber said during an interview at Massachusetts Hall (where he appeared wearing a vintage Harvard necktie). “I would be much less excited,” he said later, “if this was the Harvard I knew when I was a student.” The University of the 1970s, he explained, was extraordinary, “but the progress it has made since then has been nothing short of spectacular,” both in the caliber of the individual faculties and in the ways the parts of the institution work together; he gave particular credit to Hyman in effecting the latter gains.

In a statement accompanying the announcement, Faust said of her new appointee, “Alan is a distinguished academic leader who brings to Harvard an extraordinary breadth of experience in research across disciplines. He has an incisive intellect, a deep appreciation for the challenges facing research universities, and a loyalty and commitment to Harvard, where he has maintained strong ties since his years as an undergraduate in the College. I am extremely pleased that a person of Alan’s talent, range, and versatility will be joining the University’s senior leadership team.”

The disciplinary breadth is evident. According to his Stanford biography, Garber is professor (by courtesy) of economics, health research and policy, and of economics in the Graduate School of Business. He is also a senior fellow in the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies and in the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. He has been director of both Stanford’s Center for Health Policy and the Center for Primary Care and Outcomes Research at the School of Medicine since their founding and is a staff physician at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System, associate director of the VA Center for Health Care Evaluation, and research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), in Cambridge, where he founded and was director of the health care program for 19 years (responsibilities that brought him back to Massachusetts four times yearly, he reported).


 

Garber thus straddles two very large fields within Harvard’s academic activity—medical research and practice, and the social sciences—a particularly useful qualification for a senior administrator whose responsibilities have come to focus particularly on interdisciplinary collaboration (in the sciences most prominently, but in all fields in general) and on University-wide issues such as the management and operation of the library system. (His predecessor brought similar breadth to the position: Hyman studied philosophy and the humanities as a Yale undergraduate, earned his M.D., became a Harvard Medical School professor of psychiatry, served as the founding faculty director of the interdisciplinary mind/brain/behavior program, and in 1996 was appointed director of the National Institute of Mental Health.)

In an interview, Faust said that as she thought about the qualifications for a provost, a commitment to the University's mission and values was of course central, as was personal compatibility. Beyond that, she said, she sought someone "who has a really wide range" of interests and curiosity about the broad spectrum of the University's activities. Garber's academic training and multiple appointments speak to that. Further, she noted, when she had a conversation with him in connection with the Harvard Medical School visiting committee, which he chaired, Garber was then reading the Iliad, an interesting choice. It was "a high priority for me to find the right person with the first set of qualifications," she continued, "and, if possible, in a different area from my own, with science as an example," complementing her work as an historian. In considering Garber's administrative experience, she said, her conversations with him and with people who know him brought out the clear judgment that "he's a leader" who enjoys colleagues' respect—as reflected in his election to membership on, and the chairmanship of, the Stanford committee that oversees tenured appointments (see below). As he returns to an institution where he was an undergraduate, a graduate student, a professor known to many faculty members in Cambridge, and a visiting committee member, Faust said, Garber "knows the geography, literally and figuratively."

 

Garber’s dual interests in economics and medicine emerged early in his life. He recalled in his class of 1977 twenty-fifth anniversary report (he entered the College in 1973 with the class of 1977, but received his A.B. in 1976 and his A.M. in 1977), “As a freshman, I was a reluctant and ambivalent pre-med. After Ec 10 exposed the latent economist in me, I switched my concentration from biochem to economics. That decision led to a Ph.D. in economics at Harvard and a simultaneous M.D. at Stanford, and eventually to a career that combined the two interests.” His dissertation was titled Costs and Control of Antibiotic Resistance.

His research has focused on improving healthcare delivery and financing, especially for the elderly. According to his Stanford biography, Garber has “developed methods for determining the cost-effectiveness of health interventions, and he studies comparative effectiveness of health interventions, along with ways to structure financial and organizational incentives to ensure that cost-effective care is delivered. In addition, his research explores how clinical practice patterns and health care market characteristics influence technology adoption, health expenditures, and health outcomes in the United States and in other countries.  He is Principal Investigator of The Center for Demography and Economics of Health and Aging, and the Center on Advancing Decision Making in Aging, which are both sponsored by the National Institute on Aging.”

In deciding now to turn from a life in research and—at least during the initial period of his new duties—teaching, Garber said that he had probed the challenges facing Harvard’s faculty and students, and those that higher education now confronts, “But overwhelmingly, my impression has been that this is an amazing institution that is well positioned” to maintain and sustain its preeminence in the future. He is looking forward, he said, to “assisting Drew in easing that path to the future.”

After comparing the seemingly centralized Stanford to Harvard’s legendary decentralization, with each school proceeding “on its own bottom,” Garber said, “The reality is that neither institution is at the extreme that’s sometimes portrayed.” Within research universities he said, no matter what organization charts may suggest, “in fact, leadership occurs by a process of persuasion and consensus.” In its recent past, he said, Harvard had shown “a much greater ability to work together” across the boundaries of schools and units. “It’s not so much about centralization as about what you can accomplish” academically, he said. Citing such collaborations as the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (and the associated department of stem cell and regenerative biology), he said, “They contradict the idea that the different parts of Harvard cannot work together well.”

He said he hoped to build on such collaborations, to enlarge their scale, and to pursue them wherever appropriate. The task force report on the arts—released, unfortunately, as economic and financial crises arose in late 2008—is full of “compelling” ideas, he noted. Its finding that “people in the arts have felt marginalized” surprised him, given student extracurricular engagement; a high priority, he said, was to “make the arts more central to the University’s life.”


 

Turning to the environment for higher education generally, Garber cited “threats to our traditional sources of funds,” particularly federal grants for research from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. He also cited the growing breadth and excellence of universities in other countries, and the general economic “uncertainty.” In light of the latter, he said, “Every major university has to be prepared for all kinds of eventualities,” putting a premium on flexibility and nimbleness.

 

During his Stanford career, Garber has been a clinical teacher of general medicine for both inpatient and outpatient practices, and has taught a course on healthcare costs, risks, and benefits at the Graduate School of Business. He has mentored a large number of postdocs, graduate students, and medical students through the fellowship program in healthcare research and policy. All of his teaching, he said, has been “extraordinarily rewarding.”

Administratively, he has established and run the centers noted above, and has been on the steering committees of the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research and the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies—in which capacities he has been involved in budgeting, building and space issues, and personnel matters, Garber said.

Ramsey professor of political economy Richard Zeckhauser, one of Garber’s dissertation advisers (the others were Baker professor of economics Martin Feldstein and the late Zvi Griliches), recalling Garber's work at the National Bureau of Economic Research, called his former student “a pretty good organizer,” who excelled at getting others to speak at and participate in the bureau’s forums—a chore Zeckhauser frankly called “a pain in the neck” administratively. (Zeckhauser remembers him as “a very bright doctoral student” and a “successful academic entrepreneur” who has run a “quite successful” research operation at Stanford melding physicians and economists, and also—not a given for academics—“a nice person, easy to get along with.”)

Garber has also served on, and chaired, a committee “with no Harvard analog,” Stanford’s University Advisory Board, which makes the final decision on all faculty appointments and promotions to tenure. That experience, he said, exposed him to “the work of tremendously talented people” who do “extraordinary work” in fields ranging from studio art to engineering to English to physics. That appreciation for how faculty members in different fields view their work, and the languages they employ to define it, should serve Garber well in one of the Harvard provost’s key responsibilities: leading the ad hoc committees that make final decision on appointments to tenured professorships. In recent years, the provost has assumed responsibility for a significant proportion of such committees; the exact allocation between president and provost, Garber said, would vary with Faust’s other commitments, but would be a significant part of his work.

His involvement in Stanford’s capital campaign, which is now drawing to a close, was limited to that of a faculty member who spoke at events; he said he did not have administrative roles in the campaign. Where he was involved, he found meeting alumni “enormously rewarding,” and he “very, very much look[s] forward to my interactions” with his fellow Harvard alumni.

 

Garber met Anne Yahanda, a University of Pennsylvania graduate, when he was a resident at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and she was an intern there (she is currently a nonpracticing oncologist); they married in 1988 and have four children, including son Daniel, now a sophomore at the College.

As he returns to Harvard, Garber said, “One of the things that makes me so excited about this position is the people I’ll be working with,” particularly a team of deans whom he describes as effective collaborators and visionary leaders of their individual schools. In the provost’s office, he said, he would be making the transition from a professor, with all the academic autonomy that implies, to a “role of service to the University.” The change, he said, is “dramatic,” but “the mission is compelling.”

Garber’s appearance on campus on April 15 immediately precedes the annual running of the Boston Marathon, an event in which he has previously competed. Citing his former student's roles as marathon runner, physician, and microeconomist, Richard Zeckhauser said that Garber combines “the energy of the first, the bedside manner of the best of the second, and the understanding of resources of the third”—a broad and eminently useful set of characteristics for the challenges he now faces.

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