After Three Centuries, a Woman

“Be careful that you don’t speak too soon,” minister Cotton Mather, Class of 1678, warned the women of Massachusetts. “And be careful that you don’t speak too much.”

Three-hundred and seventy-one years after Harvard was founded to train the men who would lead New England, a woman has been named the University’s 28th president.

With the selection of Radcliffe Dean Drew Gilpin Faust as Harvard’s next president, half of the Ivy League’s schools will now be led by women. If the Overseers approve Faust, she will join Shirley M. Tilghman of Princeton University, Ruth J. Simmons of Brown University, and Amy Gutmann ’71 of University of Pennsylvania.

“It’s hugely important,” Kay Kaufman Shelemay, the Watts Professor of Music and Professor of African and African American Studies, said in advance of the news.

“We are finally seeing Harvard taking steps that other institutions have taken a long time ago,” she added. “We’re behind the curve, and we’re finally catching up.”

As a woman in what has become the hot seat of higher education, Faust will have to cope with the legacy of former University President Lawrence H. Summers, who sparked a faculty firestorm over the place of women in academia when he suggested in 2005 that “intrinsic aptitude” might account for the scarcity of women on elite science faculties.

Faust, a noted Civil War historian, co-chaired the Task Force on Women in Science and Engineering, which was formed in response to the outrage over Summers’ remarks.

From the beginning, media speculation over the Harvard presidential search focused on the possibility that the nine-member search committee might select a female president—better yet, a female scientist—to serve in Summers’ wake.

But Faust’s supporters said they believed her gender had little to do with her selection as president.

“She’s terrifically qualified, and they chose her because she’s the best person for the job,” said Sheldon Hackney, a former president of the University of Pennsylvania, where Faust was a history professor and director of the university’s women’s studies program.

At Harvard, women’s advocates were eager to welcome a female Harvard president, but hoped her gender would not be a central issue in her tenure.

“At some point we’re going to have to break through this barrier so we can stop talking about it,” said Tracy E. Nowski ’07, a Women, Gender, and Sexuality concentrator.

But on the question of whether a female president will better address women’s issues, Nowski said, “You can’t draw conclusions on terms of how a female leader is going to prioritize her decision-making.”

A HISTORIAN MAKES HISTORY

Faust’s appointment will mark the end of what may be considered one of America’s most exclusive old-boys’ clubs.

Susan Marine, director of the Women’s Center, said a woman president would face the unique challenges “any ‘first’ in a leadership role must face.”

“She will undoubtedly listen to women, and that’s an important first step,” Marine wrote in an e-mail this week.

But even though Faust is set to make history at Harvard, the highest positions at other elite universities have welcomed women for decades.

Yale appointed Hanna M. Gray as an interim president in 1977. She went on to become the University of Chicago’s first female president in 1978.

And the University of Pennsylvania has had three women leaders in a row—first Claire M. Fagin as interim president in 1993, followed by Juith Rodin as the Ivy League’s first permanent female president in 1994. Gutmann, whose name appeared on a list of 30 candidates submitted by the search committee to the Harvard Board of Overseers in December, succeeded Rodin at Penn in 2004.

Nationwide, however, most major research universities are still led by men, according to Claire Van Ummersen, who supervises the office of women in higher education at the American Council on Education, a Washington-based advocacy group.

Faust’s appointment would mean that about 15 percent of major research universities have female leaders, Van Ummersen said. And the number of women presidents, she said, is barely higher across all American institutions of higher education—only about 23 percent overall.

A WOMAN’S TOUCH?

Faust’s leadership will no doubt be compared to that of her predecessor, who was often criticized as having an overly confrontational management style.

Former dean of the Kennedy School of Government Joseph S. Nye told The Crimson last month that women often have “an intuitive sense of soft power,” or the ability for leaders to persuade by “attraction rather than coercion.”

Nye also said that university presidents—unlike corporate executives or military leaders—do not have much “hard power,” such as the ability to hire and fire faculty members.

“Often, women’s style of leadership is more integrative and cooperative as opposed to commanding and controlling. There is empirical evidence that shows there is some relationship there.”

Lynn Hunt, a professor of history at UCLA and a former colleague of Faust at Penn, said Faust’s Southern upbringing shaped her sense of diplomacy.

“I think she grew up understanding what the virtues were of making people feel comfortable and creating a pleasant atmosphere for a discussion,” Hunt said.

“She isn’t afraid of conflict, but she doesn’t feel like you have to seek it out.”

—Staff writer Lois E. Beckett can be reached at lbeckett@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Katherine M. Gray can be reached at kmgray@fas.harvard.edu.