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Around the World with Faust

Faust resumes major international trips, promoting Harvard in Africa and Asia

By Athena Y. Jiang and June Q. Wu, Crimson Staff Writers

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.


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.”


Even in financially challenging times, University administrators emphasize the importance of sending the president on trips to distant lands, though it may be necessary to modify specific travel plans. Faust’s trip to Africa was postponed and scaled back from the original itinerary scheduled for spring break this year, which fell in the midst of the drawn-out budgeting process.

In that turbulent economic climate, a trip timed to coincide with a major global alumni conference in Africa and involving an entourage of deans and other staff would have appeared extravagant, not to mention a distraction from tasks at home. Instead, Faust met with smaller groups of alumni and research programs in Africa over a shorter period of time, cutting both financial and personnel demands.

But the presence of the president overseas benefits the University’s relationship with foreign governments and universities in ways that are difficult to quantify, officials say. As much as Faust may learn about the University’s research projects from touring laboratories, for instance, the spotlight shone upon the research centers themselves during her visit alone helps them to thrive.

“Our stature, our status, and the success of our satellite offices depend on high-level attention,” University Provost Steven E. Hyman says.

A gesture of recognition from Faust works wonders to develop relationships with foreign governments, especially in East Asia, says Vice Provost for International Affairs Jorge I. Dominguez. After a successful trip there in March 2008, Faust will return to Asia over spring break, making her way through Japan via bullet train before attending the opening of the Harvard Shanghai Center, a major satellite office in China’s largest city.

In contrast to the relative anonymity enjoyed by a university president in the United States, Harvard presidents often meet with a slew of high-ranking government officials when abroad—including, but not limited to, those who work to promote education. In Botswana, for instance, Faust dined with two former presidents, as well as the Minister of Health.

Outside the country, the Harvard brand remains an undiminished symbol of intellectual achievement, and the president’s interest in international University partnerships serves as part subtle flattery and part a sign of commitment and respect. Faust’s international presence evinces that the University’s top echelons take Harvard’s overseas projects seriously.

“I hope our presence would be a sign of good faith on our part of our engagement,” Faust says.

Obligations at home place natural limits on Faust’s global presence, especially as she says she prefers to travel when classes are not in session. But independent of time constraints, she has expressed a willingness to journey to the four corners of the world, often spontaneously exclaiming during meetings with donors, alumni, and visitors how much she would enjoy a trip to their homeland.

For its part, the overseas Harvard community has responded enthusiastically to her visits. Dominguez describes Faust as a “rock star” who is easily able to attract alumni audiences 10 times larger than the attendance at his events. Hyman, too, says that Faust is in much higher demand than himself—since “no one knows what a provost is.”

Faust may downplay her personal symbolic power, but her identity as both the first female president as well as the president of Harvard lends her an additional cachet. Audiences are eager to hear her perspective on a wide range of issues that combine the personal and professional aspects of her life—fielding the types of questions that may not have been posed to male presidents. Faust has been asked about subjects ranging from girls’ education to the balance between family and career—all increasingly global concerns.

”At Tsinghua University, she gets the sort of question no Harvard male president was ever asked: ‘How do you combine family and career?’” Dominguez recounts. “She gave a very thoughtful answer, began with a laugh, and said, ‘My private life has vanished. I’m living in a fishbowl.’”

Faust’s visits also help to build alumni communities abroad. Through the University’s international connections, faculty in Cambridge have more opportunities to collaborate with foreign universities, students receive exposure to research and internship opportunities abroad, and international alumni remain involved with the University.

Harvard alumni based abroad often feel “very isolated” from their alma mater, Hyman says. Even in Europe, which boasts sizable alumni networks in cities such as London, it is important for the University to make an effort to reach out to graduates.

“She represents the University in ways no one else can,” Dominguez says. “When she travels, there’s really no comparison to anything I would do or anyone else would do.”


Before jetting off to a different time zone, Faust follows a multi-step regimen in preparation for her trips abroad.

A detective fiction aficionado who finds time to read every day, Faust makes a point of soliciting literary recommendations from faculty members and students with ties to countries on her trip itinerary. Books topping her list range from Nelson Mandela’s 700-page autobiography and South African politics writer Leonard Thompson’s “History of South Africa,” to the “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” novel series set in Gaborone, Botswana.

“I used to be a scholar—I’m used to reading in my field all the time,” the Civil War historian says, gesturing to a pile of books stacked on her Mass. Hall office desk. Faust had left the remaining books on the list at her home in Elmwood, Harvard’s presidential mansion. “These trips provide the occasion for some intellectual input.”

To support her intellectual and cultural immersion efforts, her brother sent her several CDs featuring South African music for her birthday back in September. The strains of gospel and reggae now serenade her at the gym and in the car, she says.

The president’s trips abroad are often packed with meetings, alumni events, and press conferences for 16 hours a day, leaving little room to see the country.

“Her schedule is a killer. I saw her kind of roll her eyes only once,” Dominguez recalls of the time an aide presented her with another meeting request. “It was the equivalent of ‘Give me a break. I agreed to do the schedule, I’m going to do it, but don’t then ask me to do something else. I’m going to collapse the next day—I’m going to be useless.’”

Though sightseeing opportunities are limited to peering out the car window while being chauffeured from meeting to meeting, Faust—generally very low maintenance, aides say—often insists on a museum visit and some downtime to venture to local restaurants for ethnic cuisine.

But many of the catered meals in China, for example, feature continental breakfast items or filet mignon rather than traditional foods, she reflects.


When Faust ascended to the presidency in October 2007, letters of admiration and hope from young women around the world congratulating her on her achievement poured into Mass. Hall.

“I thought to myself, ‘My goodness, I have an obligation to these young women,’” Faust says. “‘I ought to reach out to these young women when traveling.’”

And she has. On every extended trip, Faust schedules a visit to a local girls’ high school, where she meets with school officials and—in the case of Shanghai No. 3 Girls High School—a group of preselected, well-behaved schoolgirls in uniform. Faust says she was particularly impressed by the student musicians in a traditional Chinese music class she visited.

“I liked the drum section,” she says.

The fledgling tradition reflects Faust’s personal experiences attending girls’ schools and how that shaped “the way I saw the world.” Just before her thirteenth birthday, Faust, who grew up in Virginia, was shipped off to Concord Academy, which was an all-girls boarding school in Massachusetts at the time.

“It was intellectually rigorous and took girls seriously,” Faust says of Concord Academy. “It gave me a kind of purposefulness that just wasn’t available in the Virginia environment.”

Bryn Mawr, her alma mater, offered a similar experience, as the women’s liberal arts college boasted its faculty, Faust says.

Meeting with girls at schools abroad often sheds light on differences between education in the U.S. and in other countries, Faust says.

“They’re very ambitious intellectually and educationally—they were worried about balancing a career and family,” Faust says of the girls in Shanghai. “I talked about how important it was for me, being in a girls’ school, and how that had been a significant part of believing in myself.”

—Staff writer Athena Y. Jiang can be reached at

—Staff writer June Q. Wu can be reached at

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction.


The Dec. 18, 2009 article "Around the World with Faust" incorrectly stated that University President Drew G. Faust was the first Harvard president to visit the African continent. In fact, former University President Derek C. Bok first visited Africa on a trip in 1975.

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