Drew Gilpin Faust’s expected election as the 28th President of Harvard College will spark a flurry of attention. Worldwide, headlines will herald Harvard’s first female leader in its 371-year history. But as the world takes note of Harvard’s milestone, it will likely ignore the far more significant crossroads at which Harvard finds itself today.
The new president will have to build consensus while making decisions bound to alienate, lead a 17th century institution facing 21st century problems, and respect Harvard’s traditions while simultaneously making bold changes for the future. Faust is a woman in a man’s world—both as a historian of the Civil War South and now as the lone woman in a succession of 27 men. She is a woman who makes her living studying the past but who now must look to the future.
Institutionally, Harvard’s president is the person best able to direct overarching changes and interdisciplinary initiatives, such as the nascent Harvard Stem Cell Institute. Such projects can require the president to act as a mediator between often-tribal faculty departments, bringing together, for example, scientists and philosophers to tackle the academic riddles of the future. Past presidents, from Lawrence H. Summers to Charles W. Eliot, Class of 1853, have adopted a confrontational management style, attempting to force through initiatives with a blunt stick. If we, as observers of Harvard University, learned anything from the rapid downfall of former University President Summers, it is that no man—now, no person—can push Harvard in his or her own direction as its leader.
One of the stickiest situations facing the new president will be redefining her office’s role in relation to the faculty. Harvard’s radically decentralized structure overly empowers its faculties and inhibits reform, encouraging wide disparities in funding among schools, and promoting internecine squabbling over major initiatives. Managing this entrenched academic sphere was the puzzle that cost Summers his job.
Harvard is, after all, in dire need of reform. The new president cannot afford to sit idle while undergraduate education slides into confusion under the watch of an indecisive Faculty. The most recent and final general education report outlines a range of new distribution requirements, but sorely lacks details for its implementation. After a curricular review process that has taken over four years and the release of a pedagogy report that risks being ignored, the onus is on Faust to ensure that no more time is wasted in fixing Harvard’s broken undergraduate experience.
Faust will also be Harvard’s helmswoman through one of the most dramatic changes in its history: the expansion in Allston. The 50-year Allston Master Plan, released last month, roughly outlines plans for the University’s great undertaking, but the success of the implementation to follow will largely depend on the effectiveness of Harvard’s new president and the leaders she appoints.
Four of Harvard’s schools, including the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, will rely on Faust’s judgment for their new deans, decisions which will be among the most important of her presidency. It is certainly far from easy to find leaders capable of motivating tenured professors, who live cloistered in their labs or offices. Combating this academic apathy is a challenging task, but one that Harvard’s new deans can achieve not through fiat, but by reaching out to critics and supporters alike. Harvard’s leaders cannot be the faculty’s handmaidens but neither can they be firebrands.
As president of Harvard, Faust will also have the opportunity to project her presence across the country and around the world. The early tenure of Nathan M. Pusey ’28 is emblematic of the power of the office, as Pusey used his newfound stature to become a leading national voice against McCarthy-era attacks on the academy.
It would be all too easy for Faust to become backseat president instead of following Pusey’s example. We hope that Faust, even in the face of adversity, will have the courage to defend the right decision even when it is unpopular and the wisdom to recognize when an unpopular decision is wrong.
Faust’s gender is undeniably significant as a historical fact, something that Faust herself, as one of the world’s leading historians on gender issues in 19th century America no doubt appreciates. Moreover, it is expected that Faust will approach her job with a much different outlook than her predecessors toward issues of women, gender, and sexuality; in her first interview with The Crimson in 2001, she politely referred to Harvard’s support for these topics as “not the strongest.” [See correction below]
We hope, however, that Faust does not arrive at the door of Massachusetts Hall with an unshakeable label as the “anti-Summers”: the woman, the historian, the life-long academic, the gentle administrator.
Two years ago, Faust gave a speech to the Harvard College Class of 2005. She told the graduates, “When you hear—in this most wonderfully tradition-bound institution—that something is because it always has been that way, take a moment to ask which of the past’s assumptions are embedded in that particular tradition.”
We hope that she has the fortitude to stand by her words.
Correction: Last Friday’s editorial "President Drew Gilpin Faust" mistakenly said that in a 2001 interview Faust said that Harvard’s support for issues of women, gender, and sexuality were "not the strongest." Faust, however, was speaking not of Harvard’s support for these issues but of the strength of the academic field of women, gender, and sexuality studies at Harvard. The Crimson regrets the error.