Former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny S. Pritzker ’81 will become the first woman to serve as senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — on July 1.
University President Lawrence S. Bacow announced Pritzker’s selection Tuesday, just over four months before current Senior Fellow William F. Lee ’72 is set to step down upon reaching the body's 12-year term limit. Pritzker, who has served as a member of the board for four years, will be the first woman to hold the post in the Corporation's 372-year history.
Lee, a partner at the law firm WilmerHale, praised Pritzker in a press release issued Tuesday. He led the selection process for his successor, according to Bacow.
“Penny Pritzker has been an outstanding colleague on the Corporation, and she’ll be a terrific new senior fellow, fully dedicated to helping Harvard thrive,” Lee wrote in a press release. “Our role on the boards is largely about doing what we can to enable our remarkable faculty, students, and staff to do their best work. And at its best, that work can make an enormous positive difference in the world.”
Pritzker, a member of one of America’s wealthiest families, has a net worth of about $3.3 billion, according to Forbes, making her the 368th richest person in the country. She has donated millions to Democratic political causes, non-profits in her home city of Chicago, and Harvard. In September 2021, she gave the school $100 million for a new Economics Department building.
Pritzker's brother, J.B. Pritzker, is the governor of Illinois.
After receiving her Economics degree from Harvard and business and law degrees from Stanford University, the Chicago native went into the Pritzker family business, eventually founding several branches of the investment giant along with real estate, senior living, and technology companies.
She first joined Harvard governance in 2002 when she served a six-year term on the Board of Overseers, the University’s second-highest governing body.
In 2013, Former President Barack Obama nominated Pritzker for Secretary of Commerce, a post she held until the end of his second term. Since leaving government, she has joined the boards of several corporations, including Microsoft.
Pritzker was elected to the Harvard Corporation in 2018. As a member of the board, she has served on finance, governance, and alumni affairs committees. She is also involved in the University’s Allston development plans as a board member of the Harvard Allston Land Company.
Pritzker wrote she was “deeply honored” to take up the role in a press release Tuesday.
“Harvard’s commitment to educating citizen leaders, to pathbreaking research, and to creating opportunity and knowledge that help people around the world has never been more important,” she wrote.
The 13-person Harvard Corporation, formally known as the President and Fellows of Harvard College, is the smaller and more powerful of Harvard’s two governing bodies. The board — made up of prominent academics, lawyers, and business magnates — has significant sway over the University’s direction and resources, weighing in on all top decisions. It also has the power to hire and fire the University president, who serves as a member of the board.
Other members from the Corporation lauded Pritzker's qualifications.
“Penny has excelled in so many fields. She is a highly successful entrepreneur, public servant, investor and philanthropist,” University Treasurer Paul J. Finnegan ’75 wrote in an emailed statement. “In each area, she has shown distinct leadership skills and an orientation toward collaboration which has inspired others to join with her.”
Shirley M. Tilghman, former president of Princeton University and a Corporation fellow since 2016, praised Pritzker’s commitment to education.
“Penny Pritzker has the leadership experience in both business and government, as well as a deep and longstanding interest in both K-12 and higher education that made her the obvious choice to succeed Bill Lee as Senior Fellow of the Corporation,” she wrote in an email.
As senior fellow, Lee led Harvard's last presidential search. Bacow praised his contribution to the school on Tuesday.
“I could go on nonstop about all that Bill has meant to Harvard — as a leading member of the Corporation for nearly twelve years, as an Overseer for six years before that, and as someone so engaged and so helpful on so many fronts that it’s hard to believe he’s just one person,” he wrote.