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.