In a public seminar at the Harvard School of Public Health on Monday afternoon, University President Drew G. Faust said that she has come to embrace her role as Harvard’s first female president in the years after her appointment in 2007.
“It’s really important that I inhabit this role,” she said. “[My appointment] has an important symbolic force within American life, American higher education, and even around the world.”
Faust said that when she was first named University president, she wanted to avoid being put into a “special box” because she is a woman.
“I’m not the woman president of Harvard. I’m the president of Harvard,” Faust famously said during a press conference in 2007 regarding her appointment.
At the time, Faust said during the discussion at HSPH, she wanted to avoid whatever “debility or identity” accompanied focusing on her gender immediately after she assumed her position.
“I just thought it was so important to say, I’m going to be the president of Harvard, and kind of, get used to it,” she said.
Numerous people have since then contacted Faust to tell her that she has served as a role model for their daughters. Their outreach, Faust said, made her realize the importance of being Harvard’s first female president.
Faust said that she makes a point of visiting all-girls’ schools whenever she travels internationally in order to speak with young women about their aspirations and the future of higher education.
Faust is one of several women at the helms of Ivy League institutions. Amy Gutman ’71 and Shirley M. Tilghman are the current presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University, respectively. Economist Christina H. Paxson succeeded Ruth J. Simmons as president of Brown University this past March.
Faust said she thinks the nature of higher education leadership positions uniquely allows for women to succeed in such roles.
“Presidencies come pretty late in career. University presidents don’t tend to be very young because they have to do so many things first,” she said. “And I think that is a relief in the sense that I don’t feel that I’m short-changing my child. She’s already grown.”
Faust said women currently hoping to pursue careers in academia enter a very different environment from the one she did when she graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 1968.
“I came at a time for women when nothing was expected of me. It seemed a miracle that I would graduate from college, it seemed even more of a miracle that I would get a Ph.D,” she said.
Faust acknowledged that with expanded opportunities for women come a greater pressure to succeed.
“Don’t be imprisoned by the expectations that I never had to deal with,” she said.
—Staff writer Hana N. Rouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.