“‘It is the men,’ Hector tells Andromache in the sixth book of the Iliad, who ‘must see to the fighting,’” explains the Stanley I. Sheerr Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, in the opening of a breezy 1990 tract entitled “Altars of Sacrifice: Confederate Women and the Narratives of War.”
Today, 17 years later, it is the same author who must see to the fighting that has, of late, characterized the academic politics of our university. Drew Gilpin Faust, who has since migrated from her university chair in Philadelphia to keep house at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, will exemplify—as Harvard’s first woman president—those inversions of traditional gender roles that she is so fond of studying.
Along with her Radcliffe deanship, Faust boasts credentials as an expert in the intellectual history of the American South focusing on issues of gender. She is, so this page tells us, a “scientifically-literate” administrator, a “trouble-shooter,” an “academic jack-of-all-trades,” and “very solicitous of the views and opinions of others.”
Former University President Lawrence H. Summers’s critics, it seems, should be happily sated: Faust appears to be everything Summers was not. In the stead of a bold albeit tactless social scientist and a former cabinet secretary, Harvard has ensconced a career academic and mid-level administrator culled from the women’s studies henhouse. Where Summers elicited controversy, Faust brings consensus. Summers’ chauvinistic disregard for the humanities will be replaced by the interdisciplinary tolerance of Faust, who “knows people in just about every department on campus.”
But does the “low-profile” Faust, known for her “subtle skill” and “compassion,” have the requisite vision to steer this $30-billion ship, with its crew of cranky and coddled professors?
To fairly evaluate Faust’s qualifications, we should begin with her captaincy of Radcliffe, the basis by which most observers have adjudged her presidential fitness. The actual Institute lies in that nether-world between the Yard and the Quad, prompting me and similarly-ignorant classmates to ask: What, exactly, do these women do?
The offerings of Radcliffe’s fellows includes, “The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic,” “Homesickness for Things,” and “Weaving Christ’s Body: Clothing, Femininity, and Sexuality in the Marian Imagery of Byzantium”—this last one explores “the extensive use of spinning, weaving, and clothing as metaphors of Christ’s incarnation in Byzantine art and literature.” At Radcliffe, intellectual and administrative rigor is, apparently, not a prominent characteristic.
Indeed, Radcliffe dwells in its own little world of peripheral curiosities, its spat of fellows united only by their obsessive imposition of oftentimes-anachronistic “gendered” perspectives on their subject fields. Unlike many of the professional schools over which Faust will soon preside, the Radcliffe Institute is not on the cutting edge of scholarship or research.
Yet Radcliffe’s obscurantism does not alone sufficiently call into question Faust’s capacity to bridge the academic breadth of Harvard University. Radcliffe, one might argue, could have been her benefice of choice, to gain much-needed administrative experience while biding her time for a prestigious university presidency to open.
Sadly, though, that does not seem to be the case. Faust’s own background in fact made her a perfect choice to lead the Radcliffe Institute—and yet a patently imperfect one to govern a university.
Faust has carved out a niche for herself all-too-typical of the intellectual provincialism characteristic of many of this generation’s scholars, having fashioned a career scribbling about vacuous constructions of “gender” and “ritual” during a time period in which they had little acknowledged meaning.
A small sampling of Faust’s bibliography will unavoidably elicit snickers from those outside the confines of the Academy: “The Rhetoric and Ritual of Agriculture in Antebellum South Carolina,” “The Civil War Soldier and the Art of Dying,” and the above-mentioned “Altars of Sacrifice.”
Meanwhile, Larry Summers effectively administered the $11-billion budget of the Treasury Department.
In Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard has selected an academic indisputably well-qualified by the standards that govern today’s professional scholarship. But the Harvard President occupies a position more prominent than just that of a primer inter pares among the hundreds of professors.
With the 50-year Allston plan, the implementation of the new General Education program, and such endeavors as the Stem Cell Institute looming, what Harvard needed was a capable manager and an administrator—and not just an accomplished scholar previously confined to the intellectual fantasyland of “women’s studies.”
Perhaps Faust will serve quite capably and admirably in the new administration at Massachusetts Hall. Perhaps her academic specialties will perfectly prepare her to write a new chapter in gender relations on the college campus. Yet we should not get ahead of ourselves.
The greatest hope we can entertain is that the new president does not effect any drastic changes at the University. Indeed, to ensure that she not interpret her mandate too widely, Dr. Faust would do well to heed the lesson of the similarly-named character in Marlowe’s tragedy—and not “practice more than heavenly power permits.”
Christopher B. Lacaria ’09 is a history concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.