Leadership & Governance

Harvard’s Departing Leader Pushed the University to Grapple With Its Past

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Drew Faust, a historian who guided Harvard through economic crisis and campus growth, will forever be remembered as its first female leader. But she deprecated that label, saying only that she was president of Harvard.
June 14, 2017

Drew Gilpin Faust, a Civil War historian who announced plans Wednesday to step down as president of Harvard University, has pushed the institution over the past decade to face its own complicated history, presiding over an era in which the elite university’s wealth and traditions ­— long its greatest assets — became rich targets for critics of inequality.

Ms. Faust took the helm of Harvard as its first female president in 2007, a little more than a year before an economic crisis would grip the globe and bring with it scrutiny of the university’s largess and criticism of its risky investment strategies. If higher education had a fat cat, the thinking went, it was Harvard.

It was in this context Ms. Faust began to chip away at Harvard’s fraught reputation as the most privileged of provinces. She suggested, for example, that the university’s single-sex final clubs, long-criticized as enclaves of Harvard bluest of blue bloods, were in conflict with a 21st-century institution that promotes diversity and upward mobility for low-income students.

"It’s very important that she’s taken a strong stance in promoting Harvard as a community that should be open to all of its members," said David L. Howell, a professor of Japanese history. "The idea of having areas of exclusion and special privilege within the Harvard community, she’s tried to get us beyond that, to feel that Harvard belongs to the entirety of the Harvard community."

In 2016, Ms. Faust endorsed a policy to ban members of single-sex groups from leadership positions in official campus organizations or on sports teams. The groups affected include fraternities, sororities, and the final clubs.

"Culture change is not easy, and members of our community will inevitably disagree about how to move forward," Ms. Faust wrote at the time. "… But we have as our touchstone an educational experience in which students of all backgrounds come together, learn from each other, and enjoy the transformational possibilities presented by sustained exposure to difference. By reinforcing core principles of nondiscrimination and inclusion, the recommendations of the college represent an important next step in our ongoing progress toward that goal."

Under the weight of scrutiny, some of Harvard’s single-gender groups have gone coeducational.

Leaning on her scholarly background, Ms. Faust has also pushed the university to reckon with its own dark history of subjugation. She has described Harvard, where at least three former presidents owned enslaved people, as "directly complicit" in slavery.

"Only by coming to terms with history," she said at a recent conference, "can we free ourselves to create a more just world."

But Ms. Faust seemed to pick her public battles carefully, understanding the power that Harvard’s bully pulpit has across higher education and beyond.

"When I publicly engage on an issue, it elevates it," she told The Harvard Crimson, the university’s student newspaper, in 2015. "So I want to be very careful of how I use my voice, and when I use my role in a very public way and when I try to work in quieter ways or when I let the people who are directly responsible for issues deal with those issues."

Ms. Faust’s more measured style was a portrait in contrasts with Lawrence H. Summers, whose polarizing five-year tenure as Harvard’s president ended in 2006 with great acrimony.

Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard who has known Ms. Faust since the early 1980s, says that wounds were still raw from the Summers era when Ms. Faust took the reins.

"It was sort of double whammy," Ms. Goldin says. "She came into a situation in which there was a lot of division, a lot of hurt feelings on both sides. Added to that, lots of things that were promised were taken away; she had to be a unifier and at the same time she didn’t have all the candy to hand out."

Amid the recession, for example, Ms. Faust decided to stop work on a partially-completed $1-billion science and engineering complex in Boston’s Allston neighborhood.

That project is among several that will be funded through Harvard’s capital campaign, which Ms. Faust says she will see through as president. The campaign has already surpassed a public goal of $6.5 billion.

Apart from building buildings, some professors argue that Ms. Faust helped to build an unwieldy bureaucracy at Harvard — one that may impede faculty input in university governance.

"We just have buildings full of provosts, assistant provosts, deputy assistant provosts, associate provosts, presidents, vice presidents, assistant vice presidents," said Charles Fried, a professor in Harvard’s law school. "It’s just an enormous bureaucracy, which quite recently never existed. And that’s because those functions were performed mainly within the faculty."

But Ms. Faust’s reputation as, first and foremost, a scholar, has ingratiated her to many of her colleagues. Her book, The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, was named a finalist for the National Book Award in 2008.

Her scholarship on a subject of interest beyond academe exposed Ms. Faust to broader audiences, such as that of NPR’s Fresh Air, where she spoke not so much as Harvard’s president but as a public intellectual.

From the start of her tenure, Ms. Faust resisted any single label, including the one that will follow her forever: The first woman to ever lead Harvard University.

"I am not the woman president of Harvard," she told a reporter after her appointment, in 2007. "I’m the president of Harvard."

Jack Stripling covers college leadership, particularly presidents and governing boards. Follow him on Twitter @jackstripling, or email him at jack.stripling@chronicle.com.