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Published: Thursday, 12/28/2000

Presidential sweepstakes

Harvard University, unfortunately, chose the wrong time to choose a new president, just at a time when both the president and vice president of the United States are due to join the unemployment line.

Egged on by radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh, Vice President Al Gore is being mentioned as a possible head of the nation's oldest university. Mr. Limbaugh said he was an effective vice president, published author, and accomplished inventor, a reference of course to the tale about Mr. Gore claiming to be the inventor of the Internet.

Both President Clinton and his wife, U.S. Sen.-elect Hillary Clinton, are among the 500 or so people who have been nominated for the Harvard presidency. A number of these are either gag nominations or efforts to embarrass either the institution or the nominee. But if the ability to communicate is an important attribute of any leader, Mr. Clinton may well be unexcelled in this respect. At the moment, though, his need appears to be to raise a much larger amount of money to deal with family and legal obligations.

It is by no means uncommon for prominent nonacademic figures to be named presidents of universities. A leading example was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who became the president of Columbia University in 1948, only to be recalled to military service two years later before becoming a two-term U.S. president.

Dr. Neil L. Rudenstine, who will step down next summer after 10 years as Harvard's president, was paid more than $342,000 for the 1998-1999 school year. He is certainly not a household name, and there are many celebrities who might regard his salary as small change. He is unlikely to get an $8 million advance for writing his memoirs.

A celebrity president might be good in some ways for the institution, given that the president of such a school usually has the primary task of heading fund-raising campaigns. However, that is not the main thrust of the search committee. According to its chairman, Robert G. Stone, Jr., the search has concentrated on academic figures who have spent much of their careers in research and teaching. Mr. Gore is a “deeply admired Harvard alumnus,” Mr. Stone said, but he added that he “doesn't have the academic and intellectual standing.”

That's his view, anyway. Actually, about half the people who turned out at the 2000 election felt he had the intellectual standing to be president of the United States, and Mr. Gore's extraordinary ability to master the details of public policy and weld them into meaningful legislative proposals was often commented upon. He has the ability to be an outstanding university president, if his career inclinations eventually lean that way.

Maybe Harvard isn't ready for him, or he isn't ready to commit himself to such a position in any event. But it is not a joke nomination, despite Mr. Limbaugh's heavy-handed humor. Mr. Gore was extremely well qualified to be president of the United States, and he will have a wide variety of career choices at his disposal once he decides what he would like to do.

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