Faust’s Scientific Leadership

Six years ago, scientists didn’t come to Radcliffe. This void was not due to a lack of confidence regarding women’s aptitude in science—indeed, men and women alike were eligible to be among the annual 50 fellows—but rather that science did not have a prominent place in the institution.

Six years ago, Drew G. Faust was appointed dean of “Radcliffe.” The former women’s college had recently merged with Harvard College, and the new Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study was still searching for definition. Today, the Institute hosts a prestigious Fellows Program that fully incorporates the world of science. Faust’s leadership in bringing a successful science program to Radcliffe highlights the qualities that she will hopefully bring as Harvard University’s next president.

Science at Radcliffe was Faust’s vision. The Radcliffe Fellows Program has existed since 1960, but it wasn’t until 2002 that Radcliffe welcomed its first actual class of science fellows. Currently, one third of Radcliffe’s fellows are scientists, mathematicians, and engineers, and Radcliffe holds numerous science talks and semiannual symposia.

Faust hired a Dean of Science, Barbara J. Grosz, only months after assuming her new job. Some doubts, however, persisted as to whether Radcliffe could be home to a successful science program without research facilities of its own. In the Winter 2007 Radcliffe Quarterly, Faust described the initial hesitation she encountered: “No one was sure whether the new Radcliffe Institute could or should undertake a robust science program.”

The key to the now-successful science program, according to Maria T. Zuber, a geophysicist who was one of the first science fellows, is that Faust and Grosz were “smart enough not to make a one-size-fits-all” program. Instead, they listened to potential fellows’ concerns and worked hard to accommodate them individually. Zuber divided her time between the Radcliffe Fellows and the Harvard Department of Earth and Planetary Science.

One cluster of fellows did not need labs, according to its chair Salil P. Vadhan ’95, Thomas D. Cabot Associate Professor of Computer Science, but rather “needed a good environment for interaction and collaboration to have seminars and discuss research ideas.” Radcliffe planned for them to live together in Putnam House, an arrangement several cluster members described as ideal. Still other fellows were given funding to make trips back to their home labs. As a result, scientists, mathematicians, and engineers who are at the cutting edges of their fields found a place at Radcliffe.

Beyond comprehending and finding ways to accommodate the fellows’ specialized needs, Faust also demonstrated a profound understanding of their science. Grosz praised the clarity of her introductions to talks: “On more than one occasion, she has clearly explained (to scientists as well as lay audience members) the cutting edge of research of science fellows in a way that reflects a deep understanding of the subject matter.” Given her background as a historian, Faust’s scientific literacy is noteworthy; it demonstrates an interest in and commitment to learning the particulars of science, and is evidence that she listens carefully to the fellows.

Faust’s colleagues, in fact, frequently praise her as an excellent listener. Homi K. Bhabha, senior adviser in the humanities at Radcliffe and Rothenberg Professor of English and the Humanities, named her willingness to “democratically” listen “to a whole range of people” among the qualities that make her “eminently suited to leading, in particular, an academic community.” Fellows, including Zuber, similarly commented that Faust’s approach to problems is to listen, and that she is notably open to different viewpoints and encourages dissenting opinions.

When Faust is inaugurated this summer as Harvard’s 28th president, she will bring to the University her understanding of science and her talent for listening, both of which have been key to Radcliffe’s successful Fellows Program. With the science program in particular, Faust has demonstrated her ability to adhere to a bold vision not shared by those around her. Once she is at the head of the University, that strength will be essential for her to effectively lead Harvard. If Faust presents a bold vision for Harvard—which she hopefully will—she will certainly face opposition, and it will most likely be considerably more than the questioning alumnae she encountered at Radcliffe.

Given her reputation as an excellent listener, when that opposition arises, Faust may be able to avoid the antagonistic confrontations with the faculty that plagued her predecessor, Lawrence H. Summers. Listening well, however, is quite different from catering to the various wills of Harvard’s nine faculties and student body. Rather, that ability will hopefully serve her in the way that Bhabha said he expects: “If she takes a view that differs from some aspect of faculty opinion, it will be difficult to say she has not carefully listened to her colleagues.” By being a good listener, Faust may be able to earn enough trust from her colleagues to respectfully disagree with them without sparking controversy.

In implementing her vision for a science program at Radcliffe, Faust has offered a promising glimpse of her leadership style and capabilities. Certainly, the challenges of being president of Harvard will go beyond than those of being Dean of Radcliffe. But if Faust meets those challenges with a bold vision and willingness to listen to those around her without compromising her ideas, she may be able to accomplish as much for Harvard as she has for Radcliffe and its fellows and scientists.


Melissa Quino McCreery ’08 is a chemistry and physics concentrator in Quincy House.