Hold the presses! Harvard’s historic selection last month of Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust as its first female president in the school’s 371-year history has rocked the campus and the world. As dean of its Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study since 2001—all that remains of Radcliffe College—Dr. Faust brings a lifetime of 59 years as a gifted scholar, feminist, activist, pioneer, rebel and peacemaker to her new job starting July 1.
Most Harvard women are thrilled that a woman will finally lead the nation’s oldest, richest and most prestigious university. With a first-year class that is 52% women, the world’s most powerful university finally gives its women faculty, administrators and staff a leader who gets it.
Joan Baer, chair of outreach for the Committee for Equality of Women at Harvard (CEWH), told WIHE she was “grateful and excited” at Dr. Faust’s appointment. Baer recalled Dr. Faust as the only Harvard administrator in the group’s 10-year history who understood women’s needs.
Known for her dry wit and unflappable demeanor, Dr. Faust has not followed an aggressive path in her career. “One of the things that I think characterizes my generation—that characterizes me, anyway, and others of my generation—is that I’ve always been surprised by how my life turned out,” Dr. Faust told The New York Times.
“I’ve always done more than I ever thought I would. Becoming a professor—I never would have imagined that. Writing books—I never would have imagined that. Getting a PhD—I’m not sure I would have even imagined that. I’ve lived my life a step at a time. Things sort of happened.”
Harvard becomes the fourth of eight Ivy League colleges with the wisdom to select a woman as president. Preceding it were the University of Pennsylvania with Dr. Amy Gutmann, Princeton University NJ with Dr. Shirley Tilghman and Brown University RI with Dr. Ruth J. Simmons.
Other female president with science backgrounds had been considered: Dr. Shirley A. Jackson at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute NY and Dr. Susan Hockfield at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Rejects Southern Belle upbringing
Born in Virginia’s horse country in 1947, Dr. Faust repeatedly fought tradition and feminine expectations. Dad bred thoroughbred horses and Mom was a homemaker who often told her, “It’s a man’s world, sweetie, and the sooner you learn that, the better off you’ll be.”
She rebelled, refusing to learn to sew and choosing to raise a beef cow like the boys in 4-H. Instead of becoming a debutante and learning traditional skills and values, she chose to attend Concord Academy, then a girl’s prep school in Massachusetts, and Bryn Mawr College PA, a women’s college known for creating future leaders. She chose Bryn Mawr because in the 1960s women were not admitted to Princeton, the choice of her father, two uncles and a great-uncle, two brothers and many male cousins. She is the first Harvard president since 1672 without a Harvard degree.
At Bryn Mawr she majored in history and took classes from Dr. Mary Maples Dunn, a professor who later became president of Smith College, the interim dean of the new Radcliffe Institute and a close friend and advocate.
“I think these women’s institutions in those days tended to give these young women a very good sense of themselves and encouraged them to develop their own ideas and to express themselves confidently,” Dr. Dunn said. “It was an invaluable experience in a world in which women were second-class citizens.”
25 years at Penn
From Bryn Mawr Dr. Faust went to the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned a master’s in 1971 and doctorate in 1975, both in American civilization. At Penn she taught history and directed the Women’s Studies program.
She and her first husband Stephen Faust divorced in 1976. At Penn she met her second husband, Dr. Charles Rosenberg, a leading historian of American medicine at Harvard. Their daughter Jessica is a 2004 Harvard graduate who works at The New Yorker, and Faust’s stepdaughter Leah is a scholar of Caribbean literature.
Dr. Faust is the author of five history books, including the winner of the Society of American Historian’s prize for the best nonfiction book that year on an American theme. Her sixth is to be published in 2008, describing the effects of the Civil War’s huge death toll on American life.
At Penn she reportedly refused opportunities to move into administration, first as chair of the arts and sciences de-partment and later as president. Finally in 2001 Harvard’s then president Neil Rudenstine recruited her to be the found-ing dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, after Dr. Dunn stepped down as acting dean.
At the time she said moving into academic administration “has been a move I’ve resisted for a long time, and one I didn’t think I ever wanted to make.” She was then the only female on the university’s 11-member Council of Deans, and headed its smallest academic unit.
At the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study she got the nickname “Chainsaw Drew,” for tackling forced budget cuts in a decisive manner. She deftly made major organizational changes, laid off a quarter of the staff and transformed the institute into a world leader in collecting scholars from various disciplines. Her administrative skills became obvious.
Admittedly running Harvard—with its 10,000 employees and annual budget of $3 billion and endowment of almost $30 billion—will be more complex than running the Radcliffe Institute, with a staff of 80, annual budget of $17 million and endowment of $473 million.
But observers cite her quiet leadership. “You don’t think of her as being a figure that has a lot of toughness to her. But she does,” said Sheldon Hackney, a professor of history and former president of Penn. “There’s just zero doubt in my mind that she can manage institutions as large as Penn and Harvard.”
It’s great irony that Radcliffe College, formed in 1879 to educate the elite daughters of Harvard’s professors and ab-sorbed into Harvard in 1999 as the Radcliffe Institute, should be the source of Harvard’s 28th president.
Not a dark horse
Faust’s selection by The Corporation reflects its choice of her as the best possible president, not the best female president, they said. Observers said Harvard had these priorities:
• a scientist whose leadership would underscore Harvard’s commitment to its new scientific initiatives,
• an insider who’d understand the university’s culture,
• a respected faculty leader to soothe the tempers of the recalcitrant arts and sciences department that had voted no confidence in former President Larry Summers,
• a peacemaker who would unify the school
• a deft administrator to oversee the construction of its new Allston campus
In August a Costa Rican Web site offered betting odds for 17 potential candidates, and Faust was near the bottom. As the field narrowed, top odds went to Harvard insiders and women. Law school dean Elena Kagan was the best bet at 3:1, while Provost Steve Hyman was at 7:2. But the disgraced President Summers had hired both of them, and sources noted that in the past choices by The Corporation indicated a propensity to choose the polar opposite of the previous president, who was described as blunt, brash, offensive, and refusing to listen.
Summer’s public downfall began in January 2005, after he was quoted as wondering aloud if the dearth of women in math and science was due to their lack of intrinsic aptitude in those fields. In the ensuing public outcry over the leader of the world’s most powerful university making such a remark, Summers turned to Faust to help him set up two commit-tees and pledged $50 million to support the women of Harvard. Next came the no-confidence vote by the university’s largest department, arts and sciences, and his resignation in February 2006.
Significance of her presidency
Feminists, women and others regard her presidency as full of irony, symbolism and hope. She plans to use the bully pulpit of the Harvard presidency to address nationally the role and expectations for higher education in an era of unprecedented challenges based on spiraling costs, ethics, organizational effectiveness and future relevancy.
Critics are already complaining. Writing in a publication by the right-leaning Manhattan Institute, columnist Heather Mac Donald called the choice of Dr. Faust a “tragedy” that represents an imminent “feminist takeover” at Harvard.
Asked whether her selection signified the end of gender inequities at Harvard that have been the source of repeated complaints by female faculty and staff, Dr. Faust replied, “Of course not. There is a lot of work still to be done, especially in the sciences.”
With her education, life experiences, temperament and knowledge of the Harvard culture, it’s hard to imagine a better choice as a leader to address those key issues.
Although she’s not the short black lesbian that WIHE predicted might emerge from the search committee, this tall mother of two daughters who wears pearls and writes history books may be the best thing that ever happened at Har-vard since its founding in 1636.
Info from The New York Times on February 12, the Boston Globe on February 4 and 11, and The Chronicle of Higher Education on February 12 and 13, 2007.
Check out the slide show on her at www.harvard.edu .