Harvard Chief Expected To Outline Broad Vision, Not Detailed Priorities

On the day she was appointed, University President Drew G. Faust made it clear that she was not ready to lay out the platform of initiatives that would define her tenure.

“Today is not about particular programs, or about a list of specific priorities or goals,” she said in February. “I have many, many people to talk with, much more to learn, and much thinking to do, before that day comes.”

Is today that day?

If the speeches and open letters she has delivered since she was named Harvard’s 28th president are any guide, Faust will probably appeal to the University’s 371-year history when she takes the stage for her installation today. She will probably note Harvard’s responsibility as a leader in higher education. And she will probably restate her commitment to breaking down barriers across the University.

But one thing she still won’t do is present a comprehensive agenda for her presidency.

“I think I would like to use the address less to present a laundry list...than to frame in a broad way the relationship between higher education, the world, and Harvard,” Faust said on her first day in office. “We’ll see how it turns out.”

THE BIG PICTURE

Faust spent the summer poring over more than a century’s worth of Harvard installation speeches. Many of her predecessors, including Lawrence H. Summers, proposed specific initiatives, in the style of the U.S. president’s annual State of the Union address. (See story here.)

Faculty members cautioned that such an approach puts undo pressure on the orator to deliver expedient results.

“It would be a fatal mistake for you to list a bill of particulars,” Plummer Professor of Christian Morals Peter J. Gomes said on Wednesday at his weekly tea. “A comparison of this address with the State of the Union is quite false, and all you’ll do is give your enemies a shopping list with which to do you in.”

Former Harvard President Neil L. Rudenstine said this week that naming specific priorities can be dangerous if they prove unworkable.

Rudenstine said the speech is a means of identifying some of the issues facing the university.

“Don’t be too clear, if you can help it, about what the solutions may turn out to be,” Rudenstine said.

Faust’s friends and colleagues expect that instead of emulating Summers’ speech, she will broaden her scope and focus on Harvard’s leadership role in higher education, and the responsibilities that come with it.

“I expect that since she is so much a part of the academy that this will be an inspirational talk where she probably will remind us of the unique value of higher education and institutions like ours,” said University Marshal Jackie A. O’Neill, who organized today’s festivities.

Rudenstine, who led Harvard from 1991 to 2001, said that universities are often criticized for elitism and the soaring costs of education.

The installation, he said, “is a time when someone can step back a little bit from what is absolutely current and try to reflect about the nature of these institutions and what some of their problems are, but also what some of their importance may be.”

One of Faust’s colleagues from her time as dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Homi K. Bhabha, said that she has the qualities to lead a critical self-evaluation of Harvard.

“I think the important thing is for the University to realize its own social role and be very stringent and self-critical, not to wait for other people to impose judgments on it,” said Bhabha, an English professor who directs the Humanities Center. “That’s the kind of tone Drew Faust will set for Harvard; that’s the kind of person she is.”

A VOICE OF HER OWN

O’Neill said that Faust’s approach to the installation speech fits with the way she has spent her first few months as president.

“Her style of operating is to involve people in shaping the priorities,” O’Neill said. “That’s probably one of the reasons that she’s not going to announce from on high what those priorities are.”

In her first few months in office, Faust has publicly identified a few broad themes that she will focus on, including uniting the University’s traditionally solipsistic units, improving relations with the greater Cambridge and Boston communities, and ensuring that Harvard continues to recruit students and professors of diverse backgrounds.

But so far, Faust has been cautious in naming specific initiatives that will help her achieve those goals.

“These are going to come one at a time as the issue is raised,” Faust said in an interview last month. “There will be a series of initiatives that will appear as appropriate and in the context of their own announcement.”

For now, though, all eyes will be on Faust, who, having spent the summer studying the rhetoric of presidents past, will today present a voice that is distinctly her own.

Despite providing inspiration through their own speeches, Rudenstine and former president Derek C. Bok both said this week that they were careful not to foist any advice upon Faust.

“It’s hard enough to write these speeches without having people either offering you advice or asking you where you are in the speech, or what you’re doing,” Rudenstine said.

“It will be a test of her own intellectual independence, as to what course she chooses to go,” Gomes said. “Oh she’s into bridges, and I think that’s fine—I wish her luck. But the Ponte Vecchio was not built in a day, just like Rome. It’s going to take a long time.”

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