Invoking History, President Sets 'Compass' To Steer University

“I stand honored by your trust, inspired by your charge,” Drew G. Faust told thousands of spectators as she took the podium for her installation as Harvard’s 28th president on Friday afternoon.

In a rainy and blustery Tercentenary Theatre, Faust turned to the past as she articulated a vision of Harvard’s future. Dressed in a robe modeled on the raiments of a Puritan minister, she invoked John Winthrop as she presented what she called a “compass to steer by,” a web of broadly conceived priorities for the University and higher education.

“The essence of a university is that it is uniquely accountable to the past and to the future—not simply or even primarily to the present,” Faust said. “A university is not about results in the next quarter; it is not even about who a student has become by graduation. It is about learning that molds a lifetime, learning that transmits the heritage of millennia, learning that shapes the future.”

As expected, Faust explicitly avoided sketching a specific road map for her tenure in her 30-minute speech, calling inaugural addresses “by definition pronouncements by individuals who don’t yet know what they are talking about.”

In an interview with The Crimson on the eve of her inauguration, Faust also said that naming a list of initiatives would have meant that “no single one of them can get the full attention that each one deserves.”

“When you half-explain things, which is the best you can hope for in a speech like this, you leave everyone with questions,” Faust told The Crimson. “If there are people who are going to doubt it or oppose it, they are in a position to say ‘What’s that about?’ before you really have a chance to explain yourself.”

She added: “This is a moment that is meant to encompass a whole presidency—a decade, say—of what I think is important and the values that are going to motivate me and shape every single thing I do.”

Faust’s priorities echoed those outlined by former president Lawrence H. Summers in his 2001 installation speech. Faust, like Summers, stressed the importance of internationalization, strengthening the sciences, and expanding financial aid to students.

But Faust’s speech was also distinctly her own, reflecting her years spent in academia as a historian of the Civil War.

Timothy P. McCarthy ’93, a lecturer on History and Literature and speechwriting specialist, noted the “subtlety” with which Faust distinguished herself from the tenure of Summers, who had been criticized for favoring the social and natural sciences. In her speech, Faust called universities “a place of philosophers as well as scientists.”

“She was clear that she had thought about the ways that Summers had alienated particularly humanities faculty,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy said he was not surprised by Faust’s decision to avoid specifics.

“She wanted to map out a kind of broad vision—more than a broad vision, a kind of philosophy of education and its role in social transformation,” said McCarthy.

Judith Block McLaughlin, a senior lecturer at the Graduate School of Education and a specialist on leadership transitions in higher education, said yesterday that she thought Faust’s speech was “exactly what an inauguration speech ought to be.”

“I see inauguration speeches not as the game plan, but as the pep rally—as the time when you talk about the values, and the vision, not in the terms of ‘I’m going to be doing this, that, and the other,’ but in terms of touching base with what matters to the institution and to the president,” McLaughlin said.

In her speech, Faust said making Harvard accessible to students of all backgrounds was a fundamental challenge facing the University, and she spoke of taking advantage of an increasingly global culture in which knowledge—a university’s stock in trade—is a universal currency.

“Just as we live in a time of narrowing distances between fields and disciplines, so we inhabit an increasingly transnational world in which knowledge itself is the most powerful connector,” Faust said.

Faust also criticized efforts to hold universities accountable simply on the basis of test scores, graduation rates, and admissions statistics.

“We need to define ourself and not simply let ourselves be defined by others,” Faust said in the interview.

Perhaps most telling was an anecdote Faust used to close her speech. She read from a recently unearthed time capsule from former Harvard president James B. Conant ’14 —a letter written 50 years ago and marked for the University President at the outset of the 21st century “and not before.”

Faust said in the interview that she approached the letter both as one of Conant’s successors and as a historian.

“This is my life. My life has been, as a historian, the voices across generations, the voices from the past that have spoken to me in primary sources,” Faust said. “To have something directed this way, to me, at this moment, seemed almost supernatural somehow.”

“It was addressed to ‘My dear Sir,’” Faust said in the speech, causing the audience to erupt into laughter and applause. “Conant wrote with a sense of imminent danger. He feared an impending World War III that would make, as he put it, ‘the destruction of our cities including Cambridge quite possible.’”

And while Conant, according to Faust, expressed confidence that Harvard would uphold the same core values if it continued to exist, Faust cited “a widespread lack of understanding and agreement about what universities ought to do and be,” arguing that the institutions are “at once celebrated and assailed.”

“We must recognize our accountability to the wider world,” Faust said, “for, as John Winthrop warned in 1630, ‘We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.’”

—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.