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Faust’s Fence

By Cristian D. Pleters, Contributing Writer

University President Drew G. Faust may be a historian by trade, but she maneuvers like a politician—one who avoids displeasing anyone by pleasing no one. This profitable strategy of running hot and cold throws into high relief the disastrous attempts at appeasement made by other administrators confronted with controversial campus protests. While Faust faces the same dilemma of addressing student concerns, unlike other Ivy League bosses, she has successfully avoided becoming mired in the activism that begets them.

The tight-lipped Faust has generally avoided taking substantial public positions on the third-rail issues of campus politics. But when she does speak up, it is nearly impossible to tell what she really means. Faust the academic appears unwilling to sacrifice history for comfort, having stated that “Harvard should not begin renaming its buildings or titles en masse.” As she told The Crimson, sanitizing the past makes it hard for us to learn from our mistakes.

But Faust the tactician knows when to make concessions. And her dithering statements and positions make it hard to determine exactly what she thinks about the key issues that drive campus activism and protests—but that’s exactly the point. For instance, while she has expressed discomfort with changing names, she supported scrapping the “House Master” title, despite its specious connection to slavery.

Her peers have not been so shrewd. For the presidents of Princeton University, Brown University, and the University of Pennsylvania, the chickens are coming home to roost. The Ivy League trio has learned the hard way that placating student protesters with strong words and symbolic actions does not silence them—it only validates their protests and encourages them to make more demands.

In December 2014, Christopher Eisgruber of Princeton applauded nascent social justice movements, stating that “Protests across the country and on our own campus testify eloquently to the anguish caused by the unfairness that persists within American society.” Almost a year later, he found his office occupied by fulminating social justice protesters armed with a lengthy list of demands. Having painted himself into a corner, Eisgruber had little choice but to accede.

Around the same time Eisgruber was lauding campus protest, University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann literally prostrated herself before a group of protesters who crashed her Christmas party. She was no more lucky than Eisgruber. A year after Gutmann’s painfully symbolic capitulation, she was handed her own list of demands by protesters.

Christina Paxson, the president of Brown, paid the highest price for her obsequious support of student protesters on her campus. In November of 2015, a Latino student visiting the school from Dartmouth reported that he was assaulted by a police officer on campus. Paxson hosted—or tried to host—a public forum to address student outcry in the wake of the incident, but ended up being used as a punching bag by student activists more interested in blowing off steam than having a dialogue.

Paxson, likely fearing more rebuke, subsequently issued an apology for the alleged assault to the Presidents of the Ivy League universities, as if she had committed it herself. The following January, a contrite Paxson announced a whopping $100 million initiative to battle racism on Brown’s campus.

While Faust has been the subject of student protest, she has avoided confrontation with the contemporary brand of student activism that has embroiled her peers. Massachusetts Hall, home to her office, was occupied by protesters last year, but it was an environmentalist group (Divest Harvard), not a social justice protest, that did the occupying.

Even in the face of that protest, Faust’s tendency to stay mum shielded her from the brunt of student reproach. She refused to meet with the protesters inside Mass Hall, so they gave up. There were no harangues or ultimatums. She won.

There is good reason why Faust, unlike other wilting Ivy League Presidents, has not been verbally assaulted or forced to sign a laundry list of demands. By toeing a fine line between submitting to student activists and appearing aloof to their demands, she has avoided entanglement in contentious student issues altogether. If the angry masses don’t know what you think, they can’t use it against you.

So Faust’s approach of how to engage each side of the social justice battle on campus becomes clear: Stay opaque, but make small gestures every now and then to show you kind of, sort of agree. In a startlingly noncommittal letter, she announced her support for dumping the Law School’s 80-year-old seal, but in the next breath cautioned the school not to “erase” its past. This tepid statement, of course, came after she spent months officially undecided on the issue.

Faust’s most recent gesture—installing a plaque commemorating slaves who worked and lived at Harvard and reflecting on the University’s unfortunate connection with slavery— is about as safe a move she could possibly make. When it comes to social issues on campus, she is happy to throw a bone, but refuses to stoke the flames.

Faust plays her cards close to her chest. Unlike her colleague, Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow—whose hand was tragically tipped by her social justice C.V.—and unlike her Ivy League peers who capitulated so soon to protesters, Faust can credibly stay neutral and avoid the maelstrom of campus revolt altogether.

It sure does pay to sit on the fence.


Cristian D. Pleters, a Crimson Editorial comper, lives in Holworthy Hall.

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