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A top contender for Harvard post bows out

Move could delay decision

'I already have a great job,' says Nobel laureate Thomas R. Cech. 'I already have a great job,' says Nobel laureate Thomas R. Cech.

Nobel laureate Thomas R. Cech , a leading contender for the presidency of Harvard University, unexpectedly withdrew from consideration yesterday, sending a wave of uncertainty across campus about the search. Until yesterday, Cech and Drew Gilpin Faust , the dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, were the top two finalists, a person knowledgeable about the search committee's deliberations said yesterday. The search was expected to end as early as this weekend, but Cech's announcement could delay a decision.

Cech told the search committee of his decision yesterday morning, he said in an interview. He said he is not ready to give up his commitments to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, where he is president, or the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he maintains a biochemistry lab.

"I already have a great job at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and a commitment to its work promoting biomedical research and education throughout the country and the world," he said by phone from Colorado.

He refused to discuss details about the search.

The source said yesterday morning that neither Faust nor Cech had been offered the job. The person added that last week the search committee appeared to be tilting slightly toward Cech, and this week it seemed to tilt slightly toward Faust. But the decision could have gone either way, said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the process is supposed to be confidential.

Two other inside candidates, provost Steven E. Hyman and law school dean Elena Kagan, remain in contention, the source said. Cech's decision may slow the process, as the committee reconsiders its options, or it could speed it up, if the members simply agree to tap Faust, the person added.

A spokesman for Harvard declined to comment yesterday.

Several professors said privately yesterday that they are worried that Harvard is having trouble tempting some of its preferred candidates. Tufts University's president, Lawrence S. Bacow, refused to be interviewed, and a raft of other promising candidates have adamantly denied interest in the job.

Some alumni said they also are worried that Harvard's presidency has become less of a plum job, because candidates might not be eager to take charge of a faculty whose revolt led the last president, Lawrence H. Summers , to step down. In addition, Harvard is an unusually decentralized university, where much of the power rests with the deans.

"You're looking to find a president to come into this institution that's had some difficulty," said Claire Van Ummersen , a vice president at the American Council on Education.

However, C. Dixon "Dick" Spangler Jr. , a Harvard alumnus and a former president of the University of North Carolina, dismissed such concerns and said he doubted that anyone would turn Harvard down.

"Every major job requires effort and some pain," he said. "It's the best job in higher education in the world and the most important."

Cech made it clear he had carefully weighed the possibility of becoming Harvard's president, calling it "a terrific job" with profound opportunities to influence education around the world.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute is the second-biggest philanthropy in the United States and supports some of the nation's top scientists. Cech said he spends much of his time in administration, but at the same time, he gets to be an active scientist engaged in "the very detailed search for truth" that happens in the lab.

"I just can't imagine as president of any large university being able to keep an active lab going," he said, adding that it would be hard to devote himself wholeheartedly to the campus's agenda while also mentoring students in the lab.

Cech has been quoted in the past as not wanting to be a university president, but he has also interviewed for other presidencies, including the University of Chicago, where the question of what to do about his lab was an issue, the source said.

Both Cech and Faust are seen as good managers with strong people skills, but lacking in significant fund-raising experience. Cech, however, has run a much larger organization than Faust, and sources have said that some members of the search committee would prefer to hire a scientist at a time when expansion in the sciences is a major item on Harvard's agenda.

Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@globe.com. Sacchetti can be reached at msacchetti@globe.com.

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