Thirty Years at Harvard University
Yesterday, I received a letter congratulating me for my thirty year service as a professor at Harvard University. I was offered a gift and chose a necklace for my wife and daughters whose love supported this journey. My new book “Interstellar”, to be published in August 2023, is already dedicated to them with the statement: “To my three terrestrial partners, and our neighbors in interstellar space.”
A few hours after my arrival to the Harvard campus in January 1993, I heard a knock on my office door. Behind the door stood a young student from the Harvard Physics department, Daniel Eisenstein, who asked if I am willing to serve as his advisor. “There are no faculty here who focus on theoretical cosmology, and I was waiting for your arrival”, he reasoned. I agreed to mentor him as my first graduate student. Today, Daniel chairs the Harvard Astronomy department, following on my service in this same role between 2011–2020.
Over the past three decades, I had the privilege of mentoring hundreds of students and postdoctoral fellows, who make up my extended academic family. Each of these scholars carries my academic DNA on innovation stemming from a beginner’s mind curiosity.
As a starting professor, I focused entirely on scientific research while minimizing administrative work. I studied theoretically the expected properties of the first stars and galaxies at a time when only a few people around the world cared about this topic. This activity triggered an invitation to become a member of the first advisory committee that designed JWST when it was called the Next Generation Space Telescope (NGST). In retrospect, maintaining that initial name would have been a wise decision. It was very gratifying to see the deepest images of the first galaxies from JWST featured as the highlight of the press conference led by President Biden at the White House on July 11, 2022.
As junior faculty, I was advised to seek a permanent appointment elsewhere because the Harvard Astronomy department had not tenured junior faculty from within the department for decades prior to my arrival. My friend and colleague from my postdoc years at Princeton, Fred Rasio, alerted me to a new tenured job opportunity at Cornell University. I did not know anyone there but applied nevertheless and was invited for a visit. I did not sleep the night before my colloquium, but the visit went extremely well and Cornell offered me a tenured professorship. After returning back to Harvard, I asked for advice from Henry Rosovsky, the former dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Art and Sciences who passed away two months ago. My concern was simple: “Harvard requires six months for the promotion process before deciding about my tenure status and I must respond to Cornell within a month. Should I gamble and stay with the hope of getting tenure at Harvard or should I leave by accepting the secure permanent job at Cornell?” Henry looked at me and noted wisely: “Nothing in life is certain, but I advise you to stay.” Half a year later, I received a phone call from the chair of the Astronomy department, Bob Kirshner, who congratulated me for getting tenure at Harvard.
I felt very fortunate. After all, I originated from an unprivileged upbringing on a farm in Israel. As a child, I collected eggs every afternoon and drove a tractor to the hills of the village to read philosophy books in the company of nature. My village was near the sea. Although I dreamt about spending time at the most prestigious universities beyond the horizon, I never imagined becoming tenured faculty there. As a result, I felt obligated to support students and postdocs who came from unprivileged backgrounds — a theme that defined my most fundamental commitment in leadership positions later on.
But for a decade after receiving tenure, I continued to give my highest priority to research, letting others manage my academic environment. Eventually I realized that I must take responsibility and make my immediate academic environment better, or else others will not necessarily promote it to the desired level. When I asked a former department chair whether I should take on the chair position that was offered to me, he said: “Be prepared that the chair duties will take 80% of your time.” Gladly, the reality ended up being better. Administration only consumed 20% of my time because I delegated authority to others and saved time by making efficient strategic decisions. By not taking the wrong exit in the highway, one can save a lot of travel time.
When I kept telling colleagues that we make Harvard Astronomy better than our competition at prestigious institutions like Berkeley, Caltech or Princeton, one of them joked: “Avi is dreaming. This will never happen.” A decade later, after my simultaneous service as director of the Institute for Theory and Computation, chair of the Harvard Astronomy department and founding director of Harvard’s Black Hole Initiative, the same colleague admitted that we are attracting better postdocs and students than our competitors. The moral of the story is that by taking responsibility, we can shape reality rather than assume that the future will resemble the past. Life is a self-fulfilling prophecy and pursuing elevated goals pays off.
My guiding principle was always to negotiate with higher authorities for the benefit of the people I represent. Some of the resulting conflicts with the higher administration did not improve my chances for getting higher level administrative positions. This turned out for the better, since I always enjoyed pursuing creative work in the trenches with my young collaborators rather than attending long committee meetings.
During my leadership years, external appointments came along in the form of chairing the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies (2018–2021), chairing the Scientific Advisory Board for the Breakthrough Starshot Initiative (2016-present), serving as a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and leading the Galileo Project (2021-present).
I am proud of my public service. Although I represented the establishment, I never surrendered my childhood curiosity and my naïve preference for straightforward deliberations stemming from my farm boy toots. By avoiding the use of “make-up” to beautify reality and following the principle “what you see is what you get”, I gained the confidence of those who worked closely with me. They never suspected that I manipulated them politically.
When my parents passed away a few years ago, it struck me that we live for a short time and therefore we better focus on substance. Much of the academic culture is about showing off and impressing peers with intellectual or political gymnastics. I realized that if I follow this pattern until the end, I will regret not taking “The Road Not Taken”, as recommended by Robert Frost. Taking that road offers the opportunity to find low hanging fruits which nobody picked up.
The first thirty years at Harvard University had been amazing. Over the past decade alone, I mentored three Harvard students: Tony Pan, Henry Lin and Amir Siraj, who were selected to the prestigious listings of “Forbes 30 Under 30”. The next thirty years are promising to be even better, given the potential for low hanging fruits. Cheers!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s — Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011–2020). He chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos”, both published in 2021. His new book, titled “Interstellar”, is scheduled for publication in August 2023.