At Commencement, in stark contrast to faculty and students clad in academic regalia, University President Drew G. Faust will don the ancient and spartan black robes of Puritan clergy—traditional attire that harkens back to an earlier age, before the modern era of the Harvard presidency.
Since the 17th century, the position of the president of Harvard has undergone vast changes. In particular, the modernization of the American university—and the accompanying changes in role and structure—over the past half-century have led to the imposition of various constraints on the powers of the president, presenting new and ever-changing challenges for the man or woman who has occupied that position. Despite the changes, University President Drew G. Faust has been at the cutting edge of meeting these new challenges and of juggling the various responsibilities of the presidency.
According to Stephen P. Shoemaker, who teaches a course called Harvard’s History and Evolving Religious Identity, Harvard presidents once were tasked with upholding religious orthodoxy in a time when Harvard’s principal objective was training clergymen. But in the 19th century, Harvard began its move away from focusing on religious education in earnest with the appointment of its second lay president, Josiah Quincy, in 1829.
This shift away from religious training was solidified during Charles W. Eliot’s 40-year presidency from 1869-1909, which marked the greatest turning point toward the modern Harvard presidency. In a debate with Princeton President James McCosh, Eliot broke with precedent and argued that Harvard should not be associated with a particular religious denomination, much to the chagrin of McCosh, who said that Harvard should change its motto to, “All knowledge imparted here except religious.” Though the presidency and the University have remained firmly secular since Eliot’s reign, both have undergone dramatic changes in the intervening century.
Previous Harvard presidents have served as strong drivers of academic progress both on campus and nationally—a mantle that is no longer possible. In an interview with The Crimson, Faust argued that the additional power claimed by the faculty has forced a change in the president’s academic responsibilities.
In part to prevent the poaching of faculty members by rival institutions of higher education, the University granted ever-increasing degrees of freedom and power to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences—a wise shift, since the faculty must execute the curriculum. Nevertheless, a more powerful FAS leaves the president with less prerogative to control the curriculum. Instead, for Faust, the president’s role is one of persuasion and leadership, but not the overt control exercised by her predecessors. This is a promising shift for the presidency’s future.
In other areas, the presidency’s responsibilities have grown more significantly. Perhaps the most obvious change has been in fundraising. Though the president has had to coordinate and raise money for the whole University even from the beginning of former University President Derek C. Bok’s first term in 1971, the development apparatus of the University has grown exponentially since then.
At the beginning of Bok’s first term, the University employed fewer than ten fundraising professionals; when Bok returned in 2006, he was asked to address a group of development officers large enough to fill a small theater. While the role of a university president at most other institutions across the nation has long been chiefly focused on fundraising—with academic responsibilities often delegated to a provost—this has not been the case at Harvard, where the president has always had final say on all faculty tenure decisions.
Going forward, the fundraising responsibilities of the Harvard president must not come at the expense of his or her ability to provide academic leadership for the University. In her time as president, Faust has done an admirable job of balancing these competing roles as an academic and as a fundraiser, even as the current needs of the University have increased her presence as the public face of Harvard.
This focus will surely become much more prominent in the coming months when the faculty beings to address perceived failings in the General Education Program. In her role as chair of the meetings of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences that will ultimately decide what this program will look like going forward, Faust has an opportunity to cement her legacy of academic leadership at Harvard.
After all, the legacy of every Harvard president is eventually condensed into a short blurb—a few paragraphs published by the University detailing his or her major accomplishments as president of Harvard. Presidents like Eliot and Lowell are remembered by history for their ability to shape the future of undergraduate education. While the office has changed significantly in the past hundred years, Faust has the unique opportunity to use the General Education debate to show the University and the world that the Harvard presidency is still an academic office at its heart.
And while it is true that Faust’s predecessor, Derek Bok, played a different, more proactive role in formulating the Program in General Education during the 2006-07 school year, the unusual circumstances of Bok’s interim year dictated that assertiveness. In addition to believing the debate needed to be settled as quickly as possible, Bok had published a book on undergraduate education, entitled “Our Underachieving Colleges,” only a year before being unexpectedly recalled to the presidency and thrust into the middle of the curriculum debate.
Given the differing situations, it would be impossible and unrealistic to expect Faust to dictate the terms of the upcoming curricular reforms. By clearly setting her objectives and working with the faculty to achieve them, Faust has the potential to exercise the type of visionary presidential leadership that works in the 21st century.
In truth, there can be no doubt that the role of the president remains a position for someone who has a vision—and smart, novel ideas about improving the University and its constituent schools—even if there is no have a place for a single-minded, idealistic innovator.
The advancements in affordability and inclusivity in recent years are a testament to President Faust’s vision. Under her tenure, Harvard has expanded the financial aid program, reinstated the Navy Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program, and spearheaded the House Renewal project. In the context of a 21st century research institution, the ability to conceive and enact decisive changes with faculty cooperation and involvement is crucial—it is the pinnacle of modern presidential leadership.
Just as the University itself has undergone tremendous changes since its founding nearly 400 years ago, its presidency has also taken on a vastly different set of responsibilities and roles. Unlike in past years, the modern president must contend with the tremendous size in population, geography, and spirit of the University and its schools and faculties, and the corresponding bureaucratic complexities. The president must balance competing responsibilities to fundraise, administrate, educate, lead, and persuade. In short, it is a more difficult, fluid, and complicated office than ever before.
In President Faust, we have a leader who is well suited to juggling these tasks. Going forward, even as fundraising and administrative burdens grow, the Harvard presidency should retain the core attributes that set it apart. And, if all goes well, the presidency will remain in the hands of an idealistic academic who cherishes the role he or she must play in defining and continually improving the Harvard undergraduate experience.