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.

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  • 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.