When University President Drew G. Faust landed in China in March 2008, the self-professed connoisseur of ethnic foods had already made up her mind to sample the explosion of exotic flavors that characterizes local Chinese cuisine.
Instead, her most memorable dining experience was marked by a live fish leaping out of a large tray and flopping helplessly on the floor near her table.
“It was unexpected,” she says in retrospect.
The shock of someone’s dinner protesting its fate is only one of the many surprises—some more pleasant than others—Faust has experienced during her trips abroad.
This year, Faust has resumed her travels at a greater intensity than she did during her first year in office, seeking to promote Harvard’s brand and partnerships overseas while also taking time to visit girls’ high schools abroad.
“I think it’s very important for university presidents in this international day and age to reach out beyond their own country and their own campus,” Faust says.
A FIRST FOR FAUST
Over Thanksgiving weekend, Faust added another item to her list of “firsts”: taking a whirlwind tour of South Africa and Botswana. With her visit to the African continent, Faust became the second Harvard president to travel to Africa. Landing in Johannesburg after 24 hours in transit, Faust took a fleeting overview of the University’s expanding presence in the continent—several HIV/AIDS research partnerships, a long-standing fellowship program, and a pool of about 1,000 alumni in South Africa to schmooze.
The University took advantage of Faust’s visit to build new relationships in the region, as well as to cultivate existing ties. Faust chose to deliver her keynote address at the Soweto Campus of the University of Johannesburg, located in a former segregated neighborhood—and a far cry from gentrified Cambridge. A senior Harvard administrator was sent to scope out the area beforehand as an “advance man.”
Once the neighborhood was deemed safe enough to visit, Faust’s trip itinerary featured the campus—and it was there that she announced last month that Harvard and the University of Johannesburg would embark upon a new initiative to train school principals for some of the poorest areas of the country. With collaboration between the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the University of Johannesburg’s Faculty of Education, the program would seek to attract innovators in education to Soweto, the site of a major student protest during the struggle against apartheid.
“School principals are running classrooms in fields and abandoned school buses and shipping containers, sometimes risking their lives to serve students who want to become doctors and civil engineers,” Faust said in her speech.
Faust also attended meetings with administrators at other universities and groups of Harvard alumni in South Africa, participating in broad conversations about higher education and the changes that the nation has undergone in the past two decades. Education is viewed as crucial to the “transformation” of South Africa into a democratic state in a post-apartheid era, Faust says.
“The most powerful part of the experience was seeing this society which had been involved in such an oppressive system and way of life working so assiduously to build democracy, to build racial justice,” she says, describing her conversations with alumni involved in the anti-apartheid struggle as a “window into life” as South African society evolved.
In Botswana, Faust toured an HIV/AIDS prevention initiative led by Harvard School of Public Health professor Myron “Max” Essex, meeting young children who had been born HIV-free to HIV-positive mothers.
“There was a sense of camaraderie among health care professionals and patients, a sense of shared achievement,” Faust says. “Especially when you saw these adorable children.”