Drew Gilpin Faust and the Incredible Shrinking Harvard

Suddenly, unthinkably, the World's Richest University finds itself forced to reconsider what it can afford to be. (Losing $11 billion will do that.) But if its president has a master plan for leading the school out of its financial crisis—other than letting Larry Summers take the blame—she's keeping it to herself.

photograph by david i. fulton-howard/harvard crimson

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.


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.


Guiding a university through this recession would challenge any president, and some of Harvard’s competing institutions—Yale, Princeton, Stanford, MIT—also find themselves under financial duress. But the situation at Harvard is worse and the consequences will be more dire.

One reason is the growth in university spending, most notably in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The last time the endowment stood at $25 billion, in 2005, the FAS budget was $812 million. Now it’s $1.2 billion—a particular problem because FAS depends on the endowment to provide more than half its annual budget. During the past decade, FAS embarked on a giddy hiring binge—according to Harvard Magazine, the number of FAS professors has increased by 126, a 22 percent jump—and a building spree including some $800 million in science labs alone.

Those labs were funded by taking on new debt, which has doubled from $538 million to $1.1. billion since 2005, a now-regrettable change of course for Harvard. In the past, the university would first find a donor, then erect a building, but its confidence in the endowment’s ability to beat the market made taking on debt seem safe. Servicing that debt now costs FAS about $85 million a year.

Then, of course, there was the hugely ambitious plan, driven largely by Summers, to develop a second campus across the Charles, in Allston. The land purchases and the planning cost millions and millions; the actual construction of the 350 acres of new housing, laboratories, museums, parks, and athletic facilities would cost billions and billions. Just the projected maintenance for the first building under construction, a $1 billion new home for the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, has been said to be $100 million a year. This February, Faust announced that the university would finish the basement, then stop work on the project. She has said the halt is temporary, but few are convinced. Allston residents worry that their neighborhood will be left with a massive hole in the ground.

Some of the scientists who had been looking forward to working in shiny new labs are also upset, muttering about leaving Harvard for greener pastures—not a threat that the university has heard much in recent years. But the fact is, the investment strategy that was to have paid for Harvard’s kudzulike growth was unsustainable.