Drew Gilpin Faust and the Incredible Shrinking Harvard

Photo courtesy of The Harvard Crimson and photographer David I. Fulton-HowardSome months later, Faust showed she was getting a feel for her new role. In July 2007, she hosted a well-attended ice cream social in Harvard Yard, a welcoming party thrown by, rather than for, the incoming president. "People lined up to shake her hand," says a Harvard employee who was there. "It showed that she was of the people, not riding in a limo, not jetting off to Davos," both things Summers had done.

Faust’s policy agenda, which she would roll out during her first year as president, was modest. She gave talks—reasonable, earnest, thoughtful talks—about Harvard’s undergraduate education (could be better), arts programs (ditto), and eco-friendliness (likewise). In a Morning Prayers talk at Memorial Church, Faust extolled "the wonders of biodiversity" and argued for "the preservation of the world—its glaciers, its forests, its waterways." And she sought to restore Harvard’s battered sense of community, launching the Common Spaces Initiative to find ways to make the physical campus more communal. There wasn’t anything groundbreaking in Faust’s vision—the word itself is generous—but nor was there anything controversial, and that was, at the time, sufficient.

Many Harvard professors like Faust simply because she is not her predecessor. (It’s difficult to overstate how vivid the memory of Summers remains for the Harvard arts and sciences faculty. Partly this is because, as President Obama’s economic guru, he is often in the news. But mostly it’s because the Summers-related wounds left lasting scars.) Yet despite this reservoir of goodwill, she remains supremely careful, intent on preserving her political capital. Faust has strong relationships with some of Summers’s closest aides, including Harvard Corporation secretary Marc Goodheart and policy adviser Clayton Spencer, and her inner circle is "very cautious, constantly thinking about communications, about what message they want out there," according to the FAS administrator. Aided by the 2008 publication of Faust’s impressive book on the Civil War, This Republic of Suffering, they have tried to cultivate her image as an intellectual leader. Some of her intimates were particularly disappointed that the tome did not win a National Book Award, for which it had been nominated. The prize would have drawn attention to Harvard’s prowess in scholarship, rather than its finances or its celebrity. That’s the kind of publicity Drew Faust’s Harvard wants.

That kind—and little else. Faust’s advisers don’t want her in the press when there is scant good news to promote and much bad news by which she could be defined. The more she distances herself from the financial crisis, the more it can be laid at Summers’s feet. Though Faust met with the editorial boards of both the Boston Globe and the New York Times early in her presidency, "they don’t want to be in the Times and Globe right now," says the FAS source.

Nor do they want to appear in this magazine. Faust declined requests for an interview and would not permit university officials to speak about her or about Harvard’s finances. Because Faust wasn’t cooperating, few of the dozens of people I contacted spoke on the record (there is nothing to gain by talking to the press when the boss doesn’t want you to, especially with steep budget cuts ongoing). It’s clear, though, that there’s a growing desire on campus to see Faust do more than duck controversy, and start taking a more assertive stance.
    

Photo courtesy of The Harvard Crimson and photographer David I. Fulton-Howard

  • 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.