Drew Gilpin Faust and the Incredible Shrinking Harvard
Some 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