The Ascension of Faust

A historian who didn’t let history stop her rise to Harvard’s presidency

On Super Bowl Sunday in early February, there was little Drew Gilpin Faust could do to lose. With her husband by her side and her mutt Clio on a leash, the business-suit-clad Faust strolled down Brattle Street, the historic Victorian way to the west of Harvard Yard. Outside the Garage complex on John F. Kennedy Street, she handed the leash to her husband and hopped into a waiting car headed for downtown Boston. There she would face and finally win over the nine-member group of lawyers, academics, and businessmen hunting for Harvard’s next president.

By Monday morning, Faust had no regrets: she was the committee’s choice for higher education’s highest perch.

Just weeks earlier, however, the appointment was far from certain. As late as January, several members of the search committee were unsure whether Faust, the founding dean of the the University’s smallest academic unit, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, was capable of leading an institution of Harvard’s size, according to three individuals close to the search process.

The committee had courted the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Thomas R. Cech, head of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, as a viable outside contender. The group expected to spend the end of January and February contemplating the choice between Cech and Faust, but their hopes of a relaxed deliberation came to an end on Jan. 31, just a few days before Faust’s final interview, when Cech stunned the search committee by announcing he was pulling his name out of the race to be Harvard’s next president.

“Clearly it’s one of the great positions in academic leadership in the United States,” he said of the Harvard presidency when he called The Crimson minutes after notifying the University of his decision. “I already have a great job.”

Cech’s withdrawal threw the search into clumsy acceleration, spurring a flurry of phone calls among committee members in the days that followed. With one of the top candidates out of the race, the committee encountered difficulty arriving at a quick unanimous decision, the three sources said.

To get the nod for Harvard’s highest post, she would have to convince the committee that she could lead an institution of 10 schools, nearly 2,200 faculty, some 20,000 students, and a budget approaching $3 billion.

On Feb. 11, three days after news of her selection first leaked out, Drew Faust took center stage underneath a bronze bust of John Harvard in the Barker Center’s Thompson Room.

“I love universities, and I love this one in particular,” she said at an afternoon news conference. “I can imagine no higher calling, no more exciting adventure, than to serve as the president of Harvard.”

She meant it.

Faust had turned down many alluring opportunities. She had said no to the University of Chicago, to the Mellon Foundation, and to the University of Pennsylvania. Now she had a chance to rise to a position she had come to covet.

To do that, Faust went back to what had brought her far in the first place: her scholarship. Faust became a student of the search, studying for hours to answer the questions of her toughest critics.

And so over the course of 20 meetings, taking place everywhere from Harvard’s Loeb House to the Citigroup compound in Armonk, N.Y., Faust’s candidacy seemingly beat the odds. A woman, a non-alum, and a low-profile dean became the first insider in 30 years to be named Harvard’s president.

THE KICKOFF

The search for Harvard’s 28th leader opened on Feb. 21, 2006, when Lawrence H. Summers was forced to resign after a drawn-out battle with professors in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. When Summers was named president in 2001, many believed the former Treasury secretary’s energy and reputation as an agent of change would make him one of Harvard’s greatest presidents. Instead, he left office after the shortest term of any Harvard president since the Civil War.

As in previous searches, Harvard wanted someone different from its last chief executive. Yet the committee also sought a leader who could continue many of the projects that Summers had undertaken during his five years in Mass. Hall.

Following Summers’ resignation, the six fellows of the Harvard Corporation, the University’s most powerful governing body, and three members of the alumni Board of Overseers were charged with finding a new leader. James R. Houghton ’58, the senior fellow of the Corporation and chairman of glassworks company Corning Inc., headed the presidential search committee, joined by former Vassar president Frances D. Fergusson, computer science professor Susan L. Graham ’64, former Duke and Wellesley president Nannerl O. Keohane, Georgetown Law professor Patricia A. King, Boston lawyer William F. Lee ’72, economist Robert D. Reischauer, University Treasurer James F. Rothenberg ’68, and Citigroup chairman Robert E. Rubin ’60, a former Treasury secretary and close friend of Summers.

With more than a decade of experience on the Corporation, Houghton was the only current member who had served on the committee that selected Summers in 2001. Though Keohane had spent little time at Harvard and had only been on the Corporation for two years, her broad-ranging knowledge of higher education quickly made her one of the most influential voices on the committee.

Search committee members and many candidates, including Faust, declined to comment for this article, and those close to the process who were willing to speak were granted anonymity in order to preserve their relations with University administrators and the candidates.

OPENING THE FIELD

The committee started with a list of 750 names. Over the summer, committee members were dispatched all over the country to speak with alumni while hundreds of letters of advice poured in to Loeb House, the headquarters of the search. For the first time in recent memory, faculty and student committees advised the search, a move aimed at placating critics of the closed-doors process that had produced Summers’ selection six years earlier.

Even before Commencement 2006, Faust had quietly gained early support from some committee members who admired her deft handling of budget cuts and administrative overhauls as she established a research institute at the site that once housed Radcliffe College. Privately, Houghton praised Faust’s ability to calm concerned Radcliffe alumnae during the transition, according to two individuals who discussed the matter with Houghton last spring. Unlike Summers, who consistently attracted controversy throughout his five years as president, Faust had largely kept a low profile as she rebuilt Radcliffe.

For now, however, Faust’s name remained just one of a few dozen thought to be realistically in contention for the Harvard presidency.

As the list dwindled, the search committee flirted with higher education’s top brass: John W. Etchemendy, provost of Stanford; Amy Gutmann ’71, the former Princeton provost who had taken the reins at the University of Pennsylvania; Alison F. Richard, a former Yale provost who now led one of England’s crown jewels, the University of Cambridge; and Shirley M. Tilghman, a molecular biologist who had led Princeton as president for a half-decade. (The committee seemed prepared to violate the unwritten rule against poaching leaders from fellow Ivies—if the right candidate came along.)

Inside Harvard, the committee most seriously considered two candidates in addition to Faust: Provost Steven E. Hyman, a neurobiologist, and Law School Dean Elena Kagan. Summers had appointed both. When Corporation members scrambled to find a replacement for Summers after his abrupt resignation last year, they passed over Hyman, whom many considered a natural candidate for the job, in favor of Derek C. Bok, who led Harvard from 1971 to 1991. The provost had a reputation for being overly talkative about sensitive topics, and some committee members had doubts about his ability to tackle large-scale projects, according to two individuals close to the search process.

Kagan had managed to push through a major curricular review and enjoyed significant popularity among students and faculty during her three years as dean, but committee members thought her management style might come to echo the brashness of the Summers era, the two sources said. She was also perceived as lacking the intellectual breadth and depth that would be needed to earn her the respect of humanists and scientists alike in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, according to the sources.

Faust emerged as the clear inside favorite as early as October, two individuals close to the search process said, moving Kagan and Hyman out of the top tier. They were still given chances to speak to the committee throughout the search.

NO-SHOWS AT HALFTIME

Convincing academic leaders outside Harvard to agree to speak with the committee proved nearly impossible. Throughout much of the fall, the search committee deliberately ignored the “no thank you’s” leading candidates had given the press.

By the end of 2006, several of the all-star candidates had unambiguously withdrawn, and many of them decided to throw their weight behind Faust. Sometime in the fall, Gutmann, who had taken the helm of Penn just two years earlier, told the committee in person that she was not interested, according to one of the sources. On a separate trip to Cambridge in early October, she met with Faust, an old friend, over lunch at Upstairs on the Square. Soon after, Gutmann told the committee she supported Faust, the source said.

Tilghman likewise withdrew as the committee’s list narrowed, denying requests to meet with the committee in the fall for fear that her commitment to Princeton would be questioned if word got out, according to an individual who spoke with a committee member. “She simply preferred the job she had,” said former Princeton President William G. Bowen, who provided unofficial counsel to Harvard search committee members. “She was just successful and happy in what she was doing.”

At a mid-December meeting, the committee presented a list of about 30 names to the Board of Overseers. But its own pool was significantly smaller.

In addition to Cech and Faust, two academics outside the Ivy League, Stanford’s Etchemendy and Cambridge’s Richard, seemed to be plausible contenders. And as Harvard looked to strengthen its science programs and make the Allston campus a center of scientific innovation, the committee eyed Harold E. Varmus, a former National Institutes of Health Director and 2000 Harvard presidential candidate, late in the search process, according to an individual familiar with Varmus’ activities. Varmus, 67, met with committee members several times for interviews as late as January, according to the source. On the sidelines, he drew support from former Brown President Vartan Gregorian, an individual in touch with the committee said.

Another scientist, Broad Institute Director Eric S. Lander, was considered seriously by the committee in December, according to two individuals close to committee members.

Etchemendy was admired by Harvard professors in particular for his smooth relations with Stanford’s faculty. But he made it clear to the committee in the early fall that he was not a candidate for the presidency, and was not asked by the committee to appear for an interview, according to an individual familiar with Etchemendy’s activities during the search. His lack of ties to Harvard concerned some committee members, but not enough to thwart his candidacy.

In public, he claimed he had “the best position in higher education,” privately telling friends that he did not have any desire to leave Stanford, an institution that he felt already led Harvard in its teaching and research efforts, the source said.

Richard brought a reputation as a cowboy-boots-wearing leader who had charmed Yale’s faculty, and at Cambridge she had proved to be an adroit financial manager as well. She told the search committee in the fall that she was not a candidate for Harvard’s top job, citing her prior pledge to remain at Cambridge through 2010 and her happiness at returning to her English roots, an individual in touch with Richard and the committee said. By all indications, the committee was disappointed. Members repeatedly attempted to persuade Richard to fly across the Atlantic for an interview, but she continued to refuse, the individual said.

Economist Lawrence S. Bacow, the president of Tufts, was also briefly considered for the post, but he declined to meet with the committee in private, according to an individual who spoke with Bacow.

The number of early denials didn’t seem to surprise people involved in the search.

“You can’t just go around and say we really want a very strong woman in a high position, therefore, ‘Condi Rice, give up your job and come be president of Harvard,’” said political scientist Sidney Verba ’53, chairman of the faculty committee advising the search.

Cech drew support from two heavy weights of higher education: Bowen, the former Princeton chief, and former University of Chicago President Hanna H. Gray, who chaired the Howard Hughes board of trustees. As a former member of the Harvard Corporation, Gray was one of the key backers of Larry Summers in the 2001 presidential search.

Among Faust’s supporters were Neil L. Rudenstine, who led Harvard as president from 1991 to 2001 and had made her the first dean of the Radcliffe Institute, the think tank on Garden Street. Rudenstine, who strongly urged the committee to pick Faust toward the end of the search, told the committee he believed Harvard would best be served by a candidate with significant experience in university administration.

“These days, you don’t take a major institution of any kind and put it into the hands of someone—however bright and however good—who’s never had a significant role in at least running part of a major university,” Rudenstine said. “That’s sort of like saying, ‘How would you like to try to fly this 747? I realize you’ve never really jumped into the air more than six feet, but why not give it a try?”

Even Faust, who had significant knowledge of university governance, faced tough questions about the transition from little Radcliffe to huge Harvard.

“The search committee asked me that in every possible guise in the course of my conversations with them,” she said on the day of her confirmation.

Nevertheless, it was a leap she was confident making.

HAIL DREW

As the committee wavered between Cech and Faust, it called upon its venerated interim leader for an outside perspective. Bok had deliberately stayed out of the search process from the beginning to focus on his other activities during his one-year term.

At one point the middle of the search, committee members had casually asked Bok whether he would consider staying on beyond June 30 in case the committee did not find a new president to take office by then, according to two individuals close to Bok and the committee. The interim president quickly shot down the idea, making it clear that extending his tenure was not in the cards, the sources said.

From time to time, Bok would offer informal advice or look over lists of potential candidates. In early January, the committee arranged for Cech to call Bok at his home.

“We had, I thought, a very nice chat,” Bok said in a recent interview, “but it certainly wasn’t enough for me to form an impression.”

Still, after speaking with Cech, Bok could not answer a key question facing the committee: would Cech be willing and able to commit himself to serious fundraising efforts? At Howard Hughes, Cech was blessed with a $16 billion endowment and few demands for heavy-duty fundraising.

Bok’s lack of assurance only confirmed doubts the search committee had about Cech’s ability to kick-start the University’s long-delayed capital campaign. In addition, the committee received word that several leading Harvard scientists were not enthusiastic about the prospect of a Cech presidency, according to two individuals close to the search process. Nevertheless, the committee indicated to Cech that he was a serious contender for the position before he flew off to Colorado for a week-long vacation with his wife at the end of January, the sources said.

A period of mutual anxiety followed. As the committee grew concerned about flaws in Cech’s candidacy, Cech also appeared to be becoming increasingly disenchanted with the idea of major fundraising and having to forfeit his lab work, the two individuals said. After a week of skiing and dining with friends, Cech called the University to announce he was out.

Cech declined to comment on his withdrawal through an aide. “He thinks the focus should be on Drew Faust,” a Howard Hughes spokeswoman said.

Gray, the former Corporation member, said that Cech’s decision came after he had contemplated his own “strengths and satisfactions” and determined that Howard Hughes was a better fit. In presidential searches, she said, candidates often don’t fully consider the demands of the position until they realize they have a real chance of landing the job.

“It has to seem somewhat real before you start thinking that way,” she said, adding that she did not believe the search committee had ever reached the negotiating stage with Cech.

It was not the first time Cech had pulled out of a search after last-minute reservations. When the University of Chicago considered him for its presidency last year, Cech withdrew from the race citing similar concerns, according to two individuals close to the Harvard search. (As it happened, the Chicago search committee would decide that Drew Faust was its candidate, even flying to Cambridge to try to convince a reluctant Faust to accept the offer, the sources said.)

Through January, Harvard search committee members were not especially concerned about Cech’s decision to pull out of the Chicago search, since most other candidates—including Faust—had previously withdrawn from other searches as well, according to two sources close to the committee.

Faust’s sought-after status may have ultimately assured skeptical committee members that she was more than just an accomplished insider. However, just days before her final interview, some committee members still had doubts. Cech’s public exit left University leaders shocked and uncertain about how to proceed. If Faust, the only remaining serious candidate, were to be named president so soon after Cech’s public withdrawal, committee members worried she might appear to be a second choice, the sources said. On the other hand, reopening the search and coming back to Faust could have also weakened her appeal, even if she was the committee’s top choice.

Faust herself worked hard to make her interest in and readiness for the job clear. A student of the search process, she spent hours preparing for interviews. By the time she walked into the final interview at the downtown Boston office of WilmerHale, the workplace of search committee member Lee, that strategy had paid off: few skeptics sat around the table.

“Over the years, Drew Faust had been involved in many search processes, understood their intricacies and complexities, and took this one very seriously,” Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education Howard E. Gardner ’65 said.

Rubin, a personal friend of Summers who initially expressed support for an external candidate with an assertive leadership style, was one of the most vocal questioners in the room. Lee, who had grown to be one of Faust’s most ardent supporters toward the end of the search, also actively grilled his candidate, the sources said.

Rudenstine said that throughout the process, the committee gathered a “steady, increasing, and deeper appreciation” of Faust.

“She doesn’t walk into a room and try to overpower you,” Rudenstine said. “It’s only when you have enough questions asked and enough thoughtful questions answered that you get a cumulative sense of how much wisdom is there.”

And at its 20th and final meeting on Super Bowl Sunday, the committee’s cumulative knowledge of Faust was finally enough. They had asked enough questions. And by the next morning, it was Faust’s turn to hear the answer she wanted.

—Stephanie S. Garlow contributed to the reporting of this story.
—Staff writer Javier C. Hernandez can be reached at jhernand@fas.harvard.edu.
—Staff writer Daniel J. T. Schuker can be reached at dschuker@fas.harvard.edu.