W hen University President Drew G. Faust got word this April that students were blocking the entrances to Massachusetts Hall, she found another place to work without much of a thought.
The demonstrators, members of the activist group Divest Harvard, were demanding that the University divest its $35.9 billion endowment from fossil fuels, a charge that Faust had already refused. But as the protesters attempted to escalate the debate, Faust did not respond for five days. When she did, she tendered an offer that the protesters had already refused during a previous demonstration: a meeting with the president, but on the condition that the protest end. Divest Harvard once again declined, but still ended its blockade the next evening. For Faust, business as usual returned—if it had ever even left.
The academic year 2014-2015 featured a number of public, campus-based challenges to Faust’s leadership. Students blocked her from her office, faculty responded negatively to a newly centralized sexual assault policy, and an even larger group of professors challenged the decision to modify their health benefits plans.
Each of these issues has presented Faust with an opportunity to make headlines, but Harvard’s president of eight years has instead chosen, more often than not, a calculated policy of public non-engagement. When campus news has surfaced, deputies like Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 and Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana have often made initial statements to constituents and the press, while Faust has skipped the bully pulpit and engaged behind the scenes.
It is an approach that Faust has adopted intentionally, and one that has allowed her to skate above certain campus issues in the public eye, delighting her supporters and frustrating many of those seeking a response.
The president of Harvard, with all the historical power and prestige of the office, has a voice that people want to hear.
“Every time Harvard sneezes there is a national attention, focus on that issue,” said former Princeton president Shirley M. Tilghman.
It is a reality that Faust seems to internalize.
In 2007, Faust put her philosophy more succinctly. Referencing Harvard Business School professor Michael E. Porter, Faust told the New York Times that she often considers the mantra “strategy is what you don’t do.”
Perhaps the most visible manifestation of this approach is Faust’s fraught relationship with the Divest Harvard protesters, who have staged four Massachusetts Hall protests in the last 13 months, each aimed at disrupting University business and generating a public presidential response. Those responses have been few and far between.
“I think it’s extremely disrespectful,” Divest Harvard co-coordinator Talia K. Rothstein ’17 said this month. “We want to talk about the people who are being affected, and she won’t go near them because she won’t go near us.”
Protesters have increasingly targeted Faust and her office this year, but unlike predecessor Neil L. Rudenstine, who went to work in Mass. Hall as two-dozen protesters occupied it demanding higher wages for Harvard staff members, Faust gave the demonstrators little face time. And while the living wage protesters of 2001 spent three weeks in Mass. Hall, during the 2015 sit-in, the Harvard University Police Department quickly shut down bathroom access, making an extended stay difficult. The sit-in lasted 24 hours.
It was a strategy of limited engagement: While Faust did not give the protesters the public meeting they requested, Rothstein said no participants have faced discipline for breaking University rules.
Still, the lack of presidential attention has bothered some. Bill Jaeger, director of Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, questioned the tactic.
“As someone who has been on campus on a long time, it's interesting how dismissive or hard-edged the current administration has been,” Jaeger said. “I think there have been other moments at Harvard where there has been much more of a tendency to bring protesters cookies or hot chocolate.”
Student protests are nothing new for Harvard presidents. “1969 was a tough year. What was so tough about this year?” remarked one prominent alumnus, Paul J. Zofnass ’69, in a recent interview.
Still, Faust this year faced challeanges from higher and potentially more potent places. In the fall, dozens of Harvard Law School professors publicly blasted Harvard’s new University-wide sexual assault policy and procedures in an open letter in the Boston Globe. Targeting an initiative championed by Faust, the professors charged that the new procedures lacked adequate fairness and due process standards.
Publicly, Faust was quiet about the criticism. But behind the scenes, she went to work, engaging with the Law School and directing University General Counsel Robert W. Iuliano ’83 to reach “an agreement that would work for everybody.”
In December, the Law School formally stepped out, launching a new set of procedures that broke with Faust’s University-wide approach. Some viewed the move as a challenge to Faust’s central administration; others saw the situation as an example of careful, effective leadership.
“Very few complicated issues are solved by someone putting their foot down and saying, ‘I'm not moving an inch,’” said William F. Lee ’72, the senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing body. “To get to the resolution that the University had with the Law School...required a lot of one-on-one conversation, small group conversations.”
Faust also stayed quiet, at first, when members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences unanimously voted to ask her and the Harvard Corporation to reverse controversial changes to the health benefits plans for non-union employees. Amidst the controversy, Faust simply said she planned on “replying in due course.”
One week later, Faust announced a fund that would compensate faculty members who were affected the most, but said the plans would remain in place for the year.
“One of the things about my job is there's so many parts of it, and people have so much autonomy,” Faust said this month. “I don't control much around here in terms of what students are going to get upset about or what's going on in the world at large that is going to be reflected in the University or faculty issues…. There are always things happening, and that is one of the defining aspects of this job, and you can't get stressed by it.”
“A lot of this year was bringing things along that we had begun in one way or another, initiatives that I had introduced as early as the very beginning of my presidency, things like the Common Spaces with the Smith Center, things like the arts initiative with the museum opening,” Faust said in May.
But even in advocating for those initiatives, like a new undergraduate concentration in Theater, Dance, and Media, Faust has embraced a quieter leadership style than predecessor Lawrence H. Summers. It was during Summers’s fall from grace in 2005 and 2006 that Faust, then the dean of the fledgling Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, gained increased stature and recognition within the faculty as an authority on the status of women within Harvard.
In 2007, Faust moved into Mass. Hall as Summers’s replacement and Harvard’s first female president. With Summers’s missteps in her rear view mirror, Faust has stayed away from controversy and focused on seeing through a long-term plan.
The strategy of continuation is different from that of Summers, who favored identifying annual priorities, articulating them publicly, and advocating for them behind the scenes.
“She doesn't come and say, ‘I have one big idea each year,’” Lee said. “She has a series of ideas that are for Harvard in the long term. And they include integrating the University as ‘One Harvard’ where it should be.”
In “One Harvard,” Faust has embraced an initiative that Summers pushed into motion. The concept of centralization has manifested most prominently in Harvard’s first fully University-wide capital campaign. Faust has traveled around the world, from Beijing to Seattle, to meet with donors and host events to promote the fundraising drive that has raised at least $5 billion of its $6.5 billion goal.
Major gifts this academic year, such as Gerald L. Chan’s $350 million pledge to the School of Public Health in September—the largest single donation in Harvard’s history—have shown her to be an adept fundraiser. Chan’s gift made history in more ways than one: In exchange for the money, Faust—the president viewed by one observer as “a cautious pick"—and the Corporation agreed to rename the school in honor of Chan’s late father.
But some, including Summers, have urged Harvard to be bolder, not necessarily with naming rights but with a forward-thinking policy direction. In a 2011 Boston Globe op-ed marking the University’s 375th anniversary, Summers wrote that Harvard would have to “risk disruptive change” lest it “cede its preeminence to those with less distinguished histories but a clearer field, a cleaner canvas on which to paint boldly.” Asked about the 2011 op-ed this month, Summers indicated that he worries Harvard might be losing ground, particularly to Stanford, which has posted lower undergraduate acceptance rates than Harvard in the last two years while recruiting a stable of top faculty.
“In the last few years as I have visited Stanford and observed Harvard, the concerns I expressed in the Globe have increased. I hope the pace of change at Harvard will greatly accelerate in the years ahead,” Summers, now a University professor, wrote in an email.
Eight years is not a short time for the modern University president. Summers lasted five. Neil L. Rudenstine led Harvard, a school known for its proud, occasionally capricious faculty, for 10. But as Faust completes her eighth year, she is showing strong support in many of the right places, particularly with alumni, top donors, and members of Harvard’s governing boards.
“Unfortunately it's true that any president will begin to have difficulties with the faculty after certain years,” said former Overseer Peter L. Malkin ’55. “I think that hers have been less than most. So I think that she's done a good job of that.”
Other Harvard supporters have come across as nothing short of gushing.
“I think President Faust is one of the best leaders I've ever seen in a long career of writing biographies and doing journalism,” said author Walter S. Isaacson ’74, an Overseer who has catalogued the lives of Steve Jobs, Benjamin Franklin, and Albert Einstein. “She’s very calm and insightful when she addresses a problem because she knows how to listen and find a commonsense solution.”
"When I publicly engage on an issue, it elevates it," University President Drew G. Faust said this month. "So I want to be very careful of how I use my voice."
Overseers, Corporation members, and alumni alike credit Faust for her ability to listen and to engage often polar constituencies. Faust’s supporters say these qualities, together with her public patience, have kept small problems contained.
“One of her attributes is her capacity to be disagreeable, sometimes vehemently, but to not have it be personal,” said Overseer Kenji Yoshino ’91. “You realize this is someone who you can disagree with, who welcomes debate. Even if you are on the wrong side of the debate, you are never on the wrong side of her.”
With trust from Harvard’s governing boards and a fundraising apparatus that is plowing ahead, Faust looks forward to completing a campaign that has its sights set on a higher education record, seeing through the University’s Title IX framework, and launching a new undergraduate concentration in the fall.
It is clear that, for Harvard’s veteran president, the support is there and the wheels are turning. But Faust herself acknowledges that “every year has its challenges,” many of them unpredictable. And while Faust’s policy of public non-engagement has served her well, some would like her to take a larger public role.
“I would like her to [use] the bully pulpit of the Harvard presidency to speak out more on national issues, particularly on education and related to problems of K-12 and throughout the country,” Malkin said. “But I think she's trying to lead by example. And I think we need a little more public statement and a little more leadership in the public arena.”
For now, though, Faust is happy with her performance. Asked by The Crimson this month about how she might improve as a leader, she seemed surprised by the question.
“Is this my end-of-the-year performance review?” she asked, jokingly. “How would I answer that?”
—Staff writer Theodore R. Delwiche can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @trdelwic.
—Staff writer Mariel A. Klein can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @mariel_klein.