Drew Gilpin Faust and the Incredible Shrinking Harvard
To get a sense of how Faust is selling the changes Harvard must undergo, I crashed an April question-and-answer session she gave at Dudley House, the grad student center in Harvard Yard. About 50 students, mostly doctoral candidates, had turned out. Faust arrived promptly, but most of the people in the room didn’t notice; she does not compel attention. A tall, angular woman, Faust can look stern when she is not smiling, and despite her southern roots (she’s from Virginia) she projects a Puritan austerity. She was wearing dark slacks, a black blouse, and a gray jacket. A publicity shot of Faust while Radcliffe dean showed her decked out in funky, oversize hoop earrings. Now she was uniformed in discreet gold hoops, a gold necklace, and gold wire-rimmed glasses.
She began by speaking for a few minutes without notes, indulging in the kind of boilerplate into which university presidents too often lapse and on which Faust too often relies. “You represent the future of higher education,” she told the students. “I am depending on all of you to keep the flame of commitment alive….”
Barack Obama could pull this off, but Faust is not Barack Obama. She is adept at communicating small truths, but her sweeping statements tend to feel forced. Things picked up when she told the graduate students, “I’m not allowed to say that I favor one school or another, but a lot of my heart is with you.” For about an hour, they asked Faust questions, mostly about the scholarly life. Perhaps because she felt at home among this group, Faust’s answers were, for her, unusually personal, touching upon an awkward theme: At virtually every point in her career, she has been promoted not only because of her merits, which are considerable, but also because of gender. While her gender has helped her get ahead, it has also left her, fairly or not, hampered by the perception that she is a beneficiary of affirmative action.
Faust told the students how, after earning her Ph.D. in American studies at UPenn, she was hired there as a lecturer and, ultimately, a tenured professor of history. “To be quite honest,” Faust said, “the department thought, We’re going to have to hire a woman—better to hire a woman we know and trust than to hire a strange and unknown one.
“This [pattern] happened over and over,” Faust said. As she went on to become Penn’s first female department head and win appointments to committees dealing with everything from tenure recommendations to athletic policy, “people were looking for women to do administrative jobs, and I seemed to be more or less sane.” She was the woman university officials turned to when they needed a woman. It was the same at Harvard, where President Rudenstine convinced her to become Radcliffe dean in 2001. “Harvard was slightly retrograde, so I had to come here and do a lot of that over,” she said.
Her honesty was self-effacing and likable—but as one graduate student who’s known Faust for years told me afterward, Faust has been dispensing bits and pieces of this autobiography since before she became president. It’s getting old, this student said. Where was the Faust who could command respect as she confronted Harvard’s economic woes?
Drew Faust would love to spend her tenure teaching graduate students, promoting the arts and the environment, ribbon-cutting at new dance and theater spaces—an NPR presidency, you might say. Which is why the current economic crisis seems so deeply ironic: Just as Harvard prepared to refocus on its core mission of teaching and scholarship, led by a passionate champion of those pursuits, the one thing no one ever expected to get in the way is suddenly making that harder.