"I’m not the woman president of Harvard. I’m the president of Harvard." President-elect Drew Gilpin Faust felt the need to make this clarification for a distinct reason: Since her selection, and, indeed, during the entire selection process, most of the press coverage of Harvard’s presidential search has been viewed through a gendered lens.
While it is certainly exciting that Harvard has finally elected a woman president after over 371 years, gender should not be the main criteria for judging our new president. It is disappointing that the first debates about her election do not feature important issues about the University’s future direction, but rather whether or not she was elected solely based on the fact she is a woman.
Both in print and in conversation, the discussion of this huge event has veered away from substantive issues about Faust’s vision for the University; instead it has had a remarkably narrow focus: gender. Such dialogue neglects to address the momentous changes facing Harvard in the coming years—from the Harvard College Curricular Review to Allston and beyond.
Indicative of this gender-heavy focus is a recent column in The Crimson by Christopher B. Lacaria, "The Apotheosis of Doctor Faust," in which his attempt to evaluate Faust’s selection lingers solely on the gender issue. Lacaria suggests that Faust is somehow unqualified to lead the University because of her academic focus on women’s studies, comparing her obviously feminine position as head of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies to former President Lawrence H. Summers’ supposedly masculine post as Treasury Secretary. The column essentially pits masculinity against femininity, and, to no one’s surprise, masculinity wins. While Lacaria’s sexist column does not represent the views of the majority of the Harvard community, it does reflect the distinctly gendered tone of the campus conversation regarding Faust.
You can’t walk into a discussion about Faust without hearing the argument that the "Larry debacle" forced the appointment of a woman president. Given how few people were involved in the presidential search process, it is surprising that everyone on campus seems to have the inside scoop. In reality, with the exception of the committee members themselves, no one knows what factors—be it leadership skills, academic background, fundraising prowess, or even gender—swayed the committee.
To presume that gender was the decisive factor is inherently sexist. It is unfortunate that the selection of such a qualified individual falls in the shadow of the Summers’ statement about women in science, prompting these assumptions. However, we should not be fooled into engaging in this kind of meaningless drivel.
Rather, a critical examination of Faust’s qualifications reveals an extremely intelligent and capable individual. She has been deemed "clearly one of the most distinguished historians in the country" by Steven Hahn, a former colleague of Faust’s at the University of Pennsylvania. Indeed, she is the winner of the Southern Historical Association’s prize for the year’s best book, and she also has been awarded the Francis Parkman Prize, given to the best book in American history each year.
In addition to her academic prowess, Faust’s leadership of the Radcliffe Institute is a testament to her administrative and managerial abilities. The Institute advances graduate-level research in fields ranging from the humanities to the sciences, and for this reason is mimetic of the University at large. The Institute’s specialization in women’s scholarship, with its unparalleled resources on American women’s history at Schlesinger Library, is a remarkable quality that should garner respect, not derision. Once these attributes are discussed in a non-biased light, they provide a host of other possible—and much more legitimate—factors that could have influenced the committee’s decision.
Faust’s abundant qualifications have been clarified, as has her gender. Now is the time to stop talking about her womanhood and begin talking about her role as president. So we’ll start this new conversation: Faust has "emphasized her desire to lead Harvard’s expansion into Allston and to improve undergraduate education." The campus has yet to ask how. What are her plans? What is her vision? During the past week, these types of substantive question have remained largely unasked.
Instead, the gender debate, with its unacknowledged sexist undertones, continues to drone on. Sexism is akin to any other form of discrimination, and should not be tolerated. The greatest hope we can entertain is that Faust, by rising above this white noise, will effect positive change for the University and prove her detractors wrong.
Brigit M. Helgen ’08, a religion and government concentrator in Mather House, is president of the Harvard College Democrats. Giselle Barcia ’08, a crimson editorial editor, is an English and American literature and language concentrator in Mather House. Jillian K. Swencionis ’08, a social studies and psychology concentrator in Dunster House, is political chair of Harvard College Democrats.