Deft Historian May Be Harvard's Future

Radcliffe Dean a frontrunner-and friends say she wants the job

This is the third article in a continuing series.
Part 1: Provost Considered for Top Post
Part 2: Will These Cowboy Boots March West?



When her name emerged as a favorite for the University of Pennsylvania presidency in 2003, Drew Gilpin Faust quashed rumors of her candidacy and said she would stay in her present post as dean of the Radcliffe Institute. Now, with Harvard’s presidential search committee vetting Faust for the top job in Mass. Hall, she’s staying mum.

In this instance, her silence speaks volumes.

Several colleagues say that Faust wants to be Harvard’s 28th leader. And her wish may soon come true. Two individuals familiar with the search committee’s activities have told The Crimson that Faust is one of a handfull of front-runners for the presidency.

A renowned historian who specializes in 19th century America, Faust has nonetheless gained a reputation as a “scientifically literate” administrator—one, perhaps, who could manage the complicated task of developing a science-focused campus in Allston.

She has led the effort to increase the number of female scientists at Harvard—an effort launched by then-President Lawrence H. Summers after his January 2005 remarks about the “intrinsic aptitude” of women.

Now, the woman who served as Summers’ trouble-shooter is possibly poised to become his successor.

THE CANDIDATE

When Penn came calling in 2003, Faust—who earned her doctorate at the Philadelphia school and taught there for a quarter-century—announced: “I am deeply committed to my work at Radcliffe. I am not a candidate for any other job.”

But in the past half-decade, Faust has been considered a candidate for several posts in higher education.

In 2002, The Crimson reported that she was in the running for the position of Faculty dean, though Summers ultimately chose another historian, William C. Kirby, for the job.

And more than three years later, after Summers had grown disillusioned with Kirby’s leadership, the president privately asked Faust if she would be willing to replace Kirby, The Crimson reported. She said no.

Last spring, the University of Chicago pursued Faust for that school’s presidency, and the search committee was prepared to make an offer to her, according to one source close to Faust. Again, Faust declined.

“There’s no question that if she’s interested in being president of a university, she’s going to be president of a university in no time,” says Steven Hahn,a professor of history at Penn who has known Faust for more than 30 years.

Until now, she hasn’t been interested in leaving her work at Radcliffe. But this time, the tables have turned.

Faust has declined to comment on the search through a spokeswoman. But, Hahn says, “my sense is that she’s interested and that she’s really ready for this challenge.”

“I think she’s maybe the most impressive person I know,” Hahn says. “I’d like to see her running the country.”

Indeed, Faust could be leading an institution that is 140 years older than the country—if, that is, the search committee members agree with Hahn’s assessment.

Regardless of the outcome of the search, Faust will have a place in University history: as the person who transformed Radcliffe from a defunct women’s college into a cross-disciplinary engine of research.

BUILDING THE INSTITUTE

When Faust became the first dean of Radcliffe in 2001, the institute looked quite different from the way it does today.

It had stopped issuing undergraduate diplomas separately from Harvard more than three decades earlier. Its graduate school had shut down in 1963. And Radcliffe College ceased to exist as an independent entity in 1999.

Linda K. Kerber, who was a fellow at the Institute in the spring of 2003 and teaches history at the University of Iowa, describes the challenge Faust faced upon arrival.

“What Drew embraced was an institution which had served one set of purposes in a set of generations when those purposes were desperately needed,” Kerber says. “The institution itself needed to be transformed to serve new purposes because answers had been achieved to the old questions.”

Though the institute had a library, a research center, and a 40-year-old fellowship program, Radcliffe alumnae were confused by the merger agreement that had made their alma mater into just another unit of Harvard.

Historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who served on the committee that appointed the Radcliffe dean, said that Faust “took something that had some respected but diverse pieces and created something new out of it.”

“She led the transformation of Radcliffe from what it had been into one of the world’s leading institutes for advanced study,” says Barbara J. Grosz, the dean of science at Radcliffe.

Today, the institute receives about 800 applications from around the world to fill 45 to 50 fellowship spots annually, according to Grosz.

In recent years, the program has attracted well-known names such as fiction writers Geraldine Brooks and Zadie Smith.

Though the institute promotes advanced study in a wide range of disciplines, its Web site states that it “sustains a special commitment to the study of women, gender, and society, and its research and programming include a substantial gender component.”

That made Faust a natural choice to lead Summers’ University-wide diversity initiative in January 2005. The initiative resulted in the creation of two task forces to generate proposals for the advancement of women at Harvard.

Summers pledged $50 million to implement the task forces’ suggestions—a diverse array of programs that include day care for faculty members’ children, targeted recruitment of women and minority professors, and summer research opportunities for female as well as male undergraduates.

A MOTHER OF INVENTION

Faust, who attended Bryn Mawr College as an undergraduate before entering Penn’s graduate program in American civilization, would be the first Harvard president since 1672 without a degree from this school.

Until 2001, her academic career had been confined to Penn. She taught there ever since she received her Ph.D. in 1975 and she became the Annenberg professor of history in 1989. From 1996 to 2001, she served as director of women’s studies.

When Faust was appointed to lead the Radcliffe Institute, she also received tenure in Harvard’s History Department.

Ulrich says that everyone was “totally enthusiastic” to name Faust the Lincoln professor of history, an appropriate title for an expert on the Civil War.

Faust’s husband, Charles Rosenberg, the former chair of the Penn History Department who is best known for his work on cholera in 19th century America, also moved to Harvard and is now the Monrad professor of social sciences here.

One of the couple’s two daughters, Jessica M. Rosenberg, graduated from Harvard College in 2004 and was co-president of the Radcliffe Union of Students.

Faust, raised in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, has devoted her scholarly career to the study of the South—with particular attention to issues of gender and race.

“She is clearly one of the most distinguished historians in the country,” Hahn says.

Her 1982 biography of a South Carolina plantation owner and senator, “James Henry Hammond and the Old South: A Design for Mastery,” won the Southern Historical Association’s prize for the year’s best book.

And “Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War,” her study of 500 white women’s wartime letters, won the Francis Parkman Prize, awarded to the best book in American history each year.

But Radcliffe has forced Faust to become something of an academic jack-of-all-trades—an asset as the search committee looks for a president who will expand the University’s science initiatives.

“Radcliffe is not one department,” says Lynn Hunt, a professor of history at UCLA and a former colleague of Faust at Penn. “She knows people in just about every department on campus because they have had intersecting interests with her and people in the Radcliffe Institute.”

“There’s no question in my mind that she is very able to work with scientists and to fully grasp scientific research and to understand what it takes to make progress in the sciences,” says Grosz, the Radcliffe science dean and artificial intelligence expert.

According to Grosz the institute welcomes about 12 to 14 fellows in the sciences every year. And it hosts annual science symposia—including a conference on tissue engineering this past November that drew speakers from labs across the country as well as from the Netherlands and Canada.

When physicist Lisa Randall spoke about string theory at a Radcliffe donor dinner, Faust gave “an introduction that sounded so scientifically literate that someone who really knows the field thought it had been written by a scientist,” Grosz recalls.

SKILLS OR SCALE

When she became dean of Radcliffe, Faust’s first challenge was not scientific, but economic. The institute faced a budget shortfall in 2001 that forced Faust to slash several administrative positions, The Crimson reported at the time.

Her colleagues say that she was able to handle the situation with “compassion” and “strong leadership.”

“People feel confident that what she does is really done in the best interest of the institution, in the best interest of the Harvard community, of the students and faculty and of other employees who work here,” said Humanities Center Director Homi K. Bhabha, who is also senior advisor in the humanities at Radcliffe.

“She has always been very solicitous of the views and opinions of others,” says Schipper Professor of Law Bruce H. Mann, who was also on the faculty at Penn with Faust. “You can bring people much farther along if you persuade them to go with you than if you drag them.”

While Radcliffe is just a fraction of Harvard’s size, colleagues dismiss the notion that Faust’s candidacy is hurt by her lack of experience in leading a large institution.

“She has had to learn Harvard,” says Kerber. “And she has learned Harvard.”

—Staff writer Claire M. Guehenno can be reached at guehenno@fas.harvard.edu.