Harvard University has narrowed its hunt for a president to a handful of candidates, including three Harvard administrators and a Nobel Laureate who heads a scientific research institute, according to people familiar with the search.
The Harvard insiders on the short list are the provost, Steven E. Hyman, a neuroscientist; the dean of the law school, Elena Kagan; and the dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Drew Gilpin Faust.
Another top contender is Thomas R. Cech, a 1989 Nobel Prize recipient in chemistry who is president of the multi billion dollar Howard Hughes Medical Institute, one of the top philanthropies and research organizations in the world.
Harvard also has asked the president of Tufts University, Lawrence S. Bacow, to be interviewed, but he refused.
Bacow has said several times that he expects to remain at Tufts.
The status of each of the five names was confirmed by at least two people familiar with the presidential search committee's discussions. All spoke on the condition of anonymity because the committee's proceedings are confidential.
Although the search is entering its final stages, it remains fluid. One of the sources who would not give the exact number of candidates said the committee is now considering fewer than 10 people. Harvard hopes to complete its search by early February, although committee members do not want to rush their work, the source said.
Harvard began searching for a new leader shortly after Lawrence H. Summers announced his plans to resign from the presidency almost a year ago. The nine-person search committee, which includes members of Harvard's two governing bodies, has whittled down hundreds of nominees to the current list.
A spokesman said yesterday that Harvard would not comment on the search while it is in progress. Yesterday, the Crimson, Harvard's student newspaper, reported on the winnowing down to a short list that included Faust and Kagan.
"If you want to find somebody to kick field goals, you go and find somebody who's been kicking field goals," he said. "I'm pretty confident that the committee will head in that direction."
Some people attributed Summers's clashes with faculty to his lack of experience as an academic manager. He had served in government, which is more hierarchical than academia.
While experience at the helm of a university may be preferred, sitting university presidents are often skittish about being considered for another post. If word leaks, it becomes harder for them to do their job. Leaving one presidency for another can also lead to feelings of betrayal at the first school.
Other people whose names have been mentioned recently have strongly rejected the idea that they would be candidates, including the president of Princeton University, Shirley M. Tilghman, the University of Cambridge's leader Alison Richard, and Stanford provost John Etchemendy. But it is unclear whether Harvard still intends to pursue them.
Etchemendy told the Globe yesterday that the search committee has not asked him to be a candidate.
"I'm quite convinced that there are stronger and far more appropriate candidates for this position," he said. "Stanford is my university, and I don't intend to leave."
People close to the search have said that numerous factors will count into Harvard's decision, including scholarly credentials, leadership experience, temperament, and charisma.
Choosing a scientist, like Cech or Hyman, would be advantageous because improving the university's science enterprise and building an Allston campus with a heavy science focus are among Harvard's top priorities.
Harvard has never had a female president, and some faculty and alumni are hoping for such a milestone, especially because Summers drew international attention for suggesting that women may not have the same "intrinsic aptitude" for science as men.
Harvard has also traditionally valued a previous connection to the institution. Cech never studied at Harvard, but his wife was a postdoctoral fellow at the university. Bacow earned degrees at the John F. Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Law School .
Cech's organization, Howard Hughes, is a wealthy behemoth that funds many of the biggest stars in scientific research. Its trustees include prominent members of the Harvard community, including Hanna H. Gray, a former Harvard Corporation member who championed Summers as president, and Jeremy R. Knowles, a powerful Harvard dean.
At Howard Hughes, Cech has spearheaded one of the most talked-about experiments in scientific research, a new campus in Virginia called Janelia Farm, where researchers don't have to apply for outside grants, because Howard Hughes provides all their funding in order to give them more freedom to explore research options .
Faust is a historian widely liked by her colleagues. Although Radcliffe, once the women's college of Harvard, has shrunk to a small organization, she is seen to have skillfully handled delicate matters, including layoffs, since she took the helm in 2001.
Kagan served in the Clinton administration and became dean of the law school in 2003. Popular with faculty and students, she has been revamping the first-year curriculum. She also has added student-friendly touches such as free coffee and a skating rink.
Before becoming Harvard's second-ranking officer in 2001, Hyman led the National Institute of Mental Health, where he earned acclaim for pushing for more rigorous psychiatry research. At Harvard, he has played a key role in pushing for more collaborative and interdisciplinary science research to prevent the university from falling behind.
All of the people mentioned as candidates on the short list declined to comment directly or through spokespeople yesterday.