Drew Gilpin Faust and the Incredible Shrinking Harvard

When the university’s seven-member governing board, the Harvard Corporation, announced that it had selected Drew Faust as president in February 2007, Harvard’s new leader seemed to be stepping down a straightforward path. Foremost on the agenda was healing a university grown fractious during the five-year Summers era. For this, Faust (who at 60 was significantly older than her three immediate predecessors, Summers, Neil Rudenstine, and Derek Bok) was well qualified. Though little known around the university’s professional schools, Faust, dean of the Radcliffe Institute and a Civil War scholar, was popular and respected within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), Harvard’s most powerful internal constituency and one that generally loathed the outgoing president. Faust was also boosted by the manifest differences between them. She was, for starters, female, not an insignificant consideration after Summers’s infamous remarks about women. While Summers was an intellectual powerhouse, he was also bullying and impatient; Faust was quietly accomplished, conciliatory, a listener. Summers had come from Washington, Faust from Radcliffe Yard. Summers loved national media attention. Faust had never much sought press of any kind.

All of which was exactly what the Harvard Corporation wanted. Led
by former Corning CEO Jamie Houghton, the board did not want a star, someone who would “shake up” the campus, as its members had once said of Summers. Instead, Harvard would elevate Faust. As Peter Gomes, chaplain of Harvard’s Memorial Church and a sociologist of Harvard culture, once told me, “A great Harvard president is made by doing the ordinary job of president extraordinarily well.”

At the start, Faust needed some remaking. Having operated sotto voce for decades (before becoming Radcliffe dean, she was a professor and administrator at her graduate alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania), she was still not quite ready for prime time. Her persona was understated, her public voice undeveloped. While running a discreet campaign for the job, according to one FAS administrator, Faust seemed to experiment with a more commanding mien, trying to play the part of president-in-waiting. “She went from being very friendly and accessible to incredibly imperious”—this person describes an encounter in which the potential president acted as if the two didn’t know each other, which they did—”back to something in the middle.” Says a professor who knows and likes Faust, “Being president is not a natural fit for her. She has to work at it.”

In March 2007, I traveled to Toronto to hear the president-elect address some alumni at that city’s elegant Fairmont Royal York hotel, her first public speech to the Crimson faithful. (The Canadians were thought to be a safe debut, like a Broadway show opening in New Haven.) Gathered in a long banquet hall, the crowd welcomed her warmly. But Faust was uncharismatic and unimpressive, efficiently flipping the pages of her typed remarks as the enthusiasm drained from the crowd. Still, it was early, and she was sending a signal: This president would not think she had all the answers. This president would listen. This president would stay on message. Even if her message would prove to be, essentially, that she had no message at all.


  • Fearful

    Harvard Law School is in dire financial straits with crushing financial commitments–a tuition-waiving public service initiative, an expensive, perhaps unnecessary building project, and faculty expansion–necessitating a staff layoff in the several dozens this summer, with more to come next year, and slashed budgets. This despite the School's completing a successful, record-breaking fund raising campaign last fall.

  • Lisa

    Faust is not only from Virginia, she is from money in Virginia. In my interactions with her, I got the sense that this background made her quite bored and dismissive when discussions of money came up. I'm talking about mundane things — childcare subsidies, negotiating faculty salaries, etc. For all her commitment to diversity, when any of these issues turned to talk about money, she appeared quite disdainful, as if all this were quite crass and not worthy of Harvard faculty. If my read is correct, she must be incredibly uncomfortable dealing with the current situation — not to mention uniquely unqualified to handle it.

  • Schuyler

    It is insane that Harvard is cutting funding for science and the rest of its campus while granting free tuition to those who are in the middle class and above.

  • danny

    Harvard ought to feel what it's like to suffer. That dumb school deserves this completely. Stupid Harvard, like anyone should give a darn what happens to that dumb school. It's really good to be honest to all you readers there, Harvard stinks and it ought to be. It's undeserving of its fame and it deserves to be poorer than poor. Poorer than the lowest college there is in the country. I hope Harvard burns in hell.

  • Christine

    Thoughtful people are trying to digest the degree to which Harvard was complicit in the financial meltdown in the larger economy, with its graduates enlisting so readily in the group- think of Wall Street that has caused so much human suffering. One is inclined to beleive that Harvard selected a particularly compliant sort of thinker who jumped through all the hoops to present Harvard with a Harvard-eligible resume. With all the emphasis on the status of Harvard, it is not surprising that the next career step would be high-flying Wall Street, where arrogance knew no bounds: the Best and Brightest they claim to be, as though an Ivy League degree were some sort of certification. Harvard has sustained a major hit to its reputation. Obviously, it selects for herd-thinkers and it's undergraduate education does nothing to change that. In the current state of the world I am very grateful for the luster a UC Berkeley College of Engineering degree confers. It's a question of values. Harvard

  • Xi

    The level of bitterness in these comments makes you wonder…

  • Saddiq

    the welcoming ice cream party you spoke of? They ran out of ice cream moments after it started….the crowd was underestimated. Perhaps a metaphor for her presidency.She acknowledges she got the job because she is a woman. At least two people on campus will say it.

  • Christine

    Second Wow. The "luster a blah blah blah degree confers?" Just can't resist a snicker there–it never ceases to amaze me how it's always these types that won’t ever miss an opportunity to grandiloquently name drop whatever school they attended who are the most eager to denounce the name brands located one tier of prestige above their own. Guess their not as lustrous degrees didn't buy them the self awareness to detect the irony in how their petty resume flashing in fact attests to the hold of status symbols like Harvard over the collective consciousness. Which offers insight on another point addressed in the article. Might Harvard have overplayed its hand in its spending ambitions not simply because it was rich and thought it could afford to but because being the anointed holy grail of the aspirational elite means it couldn’t afford not to? Perhaps behind the drive to have it more and bigger than everybody else is the fear that without display of overwhelming dominance, Harva

  • Average

    Wow, you're a jackass. Harvard produces some of the WORLD'S most important science and technology. It employs a huge percentage of people in Boston (hundreds of thousands). Do us all a favor and go kill yourself. You're a useless vestige.

  • Joe

    Harvard made a ridicule of itself by ousting Summers. That points to a deep problem with many on the faculty who made that happen knowing full well that it is not an honest endeavor. Harvard is in for years of trouble independently of the financial situation.

  • Joe

    Larry Summers bankrupted America, he bankrupted Harvard too.

  • Peter

    With City Councilors like Marjorie Decker, who has proposed that Cambridge reduce Harvard's in lieu of tax payments so that 9 janitorial jobs at Harvard can be saved, it would appear that Pres. Faust has already found a sugar daddy.

  • Jeff

    It's not really bitterness, it's just that, when the Emperor has no clothes, people aren't inclined to believe you when you point it out, especially when the Emperor looks so good in Crimson.

  • c

    It's pretty clear that many of the key people who led to the current crisis had Harvard (and other Ivy League) backgrounds. Hopefully our society will get over the fascination with institutional brands and realize that reputational inertia and pedigree cannot be a substitute for performance. Many of these supposedly top notch professionals have proven themselves to be as incompetent as anyone else but the tailwind that Ivy educations provided put them in positions of responsibility for which they were unprepared, the result is before us.

  • Bill

    Why didn't Harvard's auditors note the risk? How come they didn't detect Madoff?Bill Drissel

  • Neeraj

    This author seems lazy. The "common touch" thing Faust does (taking handshakes at the freshmen ice cream social) is an annual tradition that every President does every year — the author could have learned that by speaking to anyone other than a single employee present at the time. The author acknowledges he couldn't get anyone to speak badly of the current president on record, but then didn't critically examine the positive comments. She is a total non-entity on campus — they should have hired Kagan. As for the author's thoughtless knee jerk animosity towards Summers, it has already been said many many times that if you simply google Summers' speech about reasons for the lack of tenured women in sciences then you'll see his comments in context have been mischaracterized by lazy reporters such as this author. In addition, the below is a fun article about Summers. He wasn't such a bad guy, and some people who were on campus at the same time he was remember him fondly.http://www

  • mike

    Beware of anyone who begins a sentence with the word "might:"
    Might Harvard have overplayed its hand in its spending ambitions not simply because it was rich and thought it could afford to but because being the anointed holy grail of the aspirational elite means it couldn’t afford not to?
    …and then doesn't know how to end it.
    Christine, I take it, is a graduate of the Great University.

  • Dwight

    Since most major universities depend on endowment funds, and all investments were hurt by the recent recession, why should the quality of Harvard decline any further than any other comparable institution? Why should the relative ranking of universities change at all as the sinking tide lowers all boats?

    The Harvard I knew as an undergraduate in the seventies was anything but an institution cultivating a 'herd mentality,' as some posters believe. I have been associated with five other universities since then, and I never enjoyed greater freedom of thought than at Harvard.