Scattered across the country on summer vacation Wednesday, Harvard students and newly minted graduates checked their emails, opened text messages, or clicked on attention-grabbing headlines to learn the news—University President Drew G. Faust will step down in June 2018.
A few said they were shocked. Others said they were indifferent.
But many stopped what they were doing—commuting to a summer internship, waiting for a flight, relaxing at home—to reflect on the decade-long career and legacy of Harvard’s first female president.
Some students and alumni said they had strong, knee-jerk reactions to the news. Savannah N. Fritz ’17, who graduated just weeks ago, immediately looked to the selection of the University’s next president.
Fritz said she had only one thought: “God, I hope they find a woman.”
“I hope they find another woman because it was pretty historic having her as the first woman president—the same with President Obama, being a pioneer after all this white male leadership,” she added.
Adam E. Harper ’20, a member of the Undergraduate Council, said he immediately wanted to know why Faust plans to resign.
He said he wondered whether “there is a reason behind” her decision to step down. Harper asked himself if the College’s rollout of a controversial policy targeting single-gender social clubs—a policy poorly received by some faculty and students—could have factored into Faust’s decision.
In an email sent to Harvard affiliates Wednesday announcing her departure and titled “Future Plans,” Faust wrote that she is timing her departure to coincide with the end of Harvard’s capital campaign, which has raised more than $8 billion. She called this “the right time for the transition to Harvard’s next chapter, led by a new president.”
Some current and former students particularly praised Faust’s ability to raise money. Under her guidance, the University’s capital campaign surpassed its $6.5 billion goal two years ahead of schedule, shattering higher education fundraising records in the process.
Kyle Kwong ’17, who was at the airport when he found out Faust planned to step down, wrote in a text message that he thought Faust’s success with the capital campaign was “impressive.” Kwong, a former Crimson editor, wrote that his earliest memory of Faust dates to the announcement of the fundraising campaign back in 2013, when he was a freshman at the College.
“I just remember thinking, ‘Who in the world thinks Harvard needs more money, and how is she going to convince anyone to donate?’” Kwong wrote. “And then she did. I'd say that's pretty impressive.”
Others pointed to what they called Faust’s steady leadership under intense pressure and a glaring national spotlight. Riding home from work on the subway, Matthew J. Vegari ’17 said he thought Faust led Harvard through a “pivotal era,” steering the University past the turmoil of the 2008 economic downturn. Harper agreed, but applauded Faust’s guidance during more recent crises.
“She’s most of all done a good job maintaining the reputation of Harvard on a national stage at a time when we were under a lot of scrutiny,” Harper said, referring to several “high-profile incidents” including Faust’s decision to cancel the men’s soccer team’s season after The Crimson reported the men rated their female counterparts based on perceived sexual appeal and physical appearance.
But for some, including Jonathan S. Roberts ’17 and Jessica R. Fournier ’17, Faust’s “stable” leadership style proved a drawback. Roberts and Fournier—both of whom were involved with campus activist groups while undergraduates—said they thought that Faust largely worked to ensure Harvard stayed the same, ignoring calls for change from students, faculty, and some outsiders.
Roberts and Fournier said they were especially disappointed by Faust’s repeated refusals to divest Harvard’s $35.7 billion endowment from fossil fuels. Fournier said she thought actions like these demonstrated Faust’s willingness to “toe the line.” Roberts called Faust’s legacy “one of continuity.”
“For me, Drew Faust represents the epitome of the status quo,” Roberts said. “That is certainly for the worse, because we are living in a time now where it is very difficult not to take sides. If you are not on the side of protecting certain communities, then it is very difficult to say you are not harming them.”
Both Roberts and Fournier said they felt largely indifferent to Faust’s impending departure. Among surveyed members of the Class of 2017, 35 percent reported viewing Faust favorably, while 41 percent reported having no opinion.
Although Jake H. Hummer ’17 said he also did not have “strong feelings” about the news, Faust’s announcement led him to reflect on a personal memory of the president. He said he ran into Faust in Harvard Yard by chance on move-in day his freshman year, and again four years later during his graduation. Both times, he took a picture with her.
“So I took a selfie with Drew Faust on my first week on campus and my last week on campus,” Hummer said, adding he thought the photos were “pretty cool.”
His one regret: wearing a “cringeworthy Mythbusters t-shirt” in the first selfie.
—Staff writer Hannah Natanson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @hannah_natanson.