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Academic Ambassadors

By Melissa C. Rodman and William C. Skinner, Crimson Staff Writers

Beijing. Boston. London. Los Angeles. New York. Mexico City.

Over the past two years, University President Drew G. Faust visited those cities and others as she traveled the globe, raising funds for Harvard’s record-breaking capital campaign, describing research at the University, and meeting with alumni and potential donors.

On those trips, Faust does not travel without experts. Faculty members from across Harvard accompany her to discuss their research, pitch their projects to donors, and help Faust navigate the foreign countries they study.

Faust personally selects the faculty members who accompany her around the world. Many trips fall under the Alumni Association’s “Your Harvard” series, which convenes alumni and potential donors to hear Faust speak about the University and to attend presentations from these carefully chosen faculty members.

“It’s always interesting to do these ‘Your Harvard’ events because one of the things they do is bring together faculty from across the University,” said Harvard Business School professor Michael I. Norton, who traveled with Faust to London in January 2014, just months after Harvard kicked off its public fundraising drive. “When we’re reaching out to alumni we really want to represent all facets of the school.”

An Academic Approach

Many faculty members say they play an integral role in Faust’s trips, even before she leaves Cambridge.

Government professor Jorge I. Domínguez—who was Harvard’s Vice Provost for International Affairs at the time of Faust’s Mexico trip in October 2014—helped with the preparation stages of that trip because his own scholarship focuses on Mexico.

Jorge I. Domínguez PhD ’72 accompanied President Drew G. Faust on a Your Harvard trip in Mexico City in 2014. Dominguez is the Antonio Madero Professor for the Study of Mexico
Jorge I. Domínguez PhD ’72 accompanied President Drew G. Faust on a Your Harvard trip in Mexico City in 2014. Dominguez is the Antonio Madero Professor for the Study of Mexico By Lauren A. Sierra

Domínguez added that, beyond advocating for a trip to Mexico, he emphasized to Faust how trips abroad should factor into her presidency.

“It was some years ago decided that a presidential trip, a presidential trip outside the United States in particular, was a big hassle,” he said. “That, you know, there’s jetlag, it interrupts all the other things she’s doing. It’s not like a trip to New York. New York, she can go in the morning and be home in the evening. And so, she agreed that she would do, I’d say on average, one per semester… trip abroad during her presidency.”

Several faculty members said that, ahead of trips, Faust meets with professors who work on the particular country. She also meets with students from that country, Domínguez said.

When Faust traveled to Beijing in March 2015, she reached out to Chinese history professor Mark C. Elliott, then-director of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies who recently took over for Domínguez as vice provost for international affairs.

An expert on China, Elliott said he wanted to ensure Faust could speak to current events in the country during her visit. Just two weeks prior to the “Your Harvard” alumni event in Beijing, for example, Chinese independent journalist Chai Jing released “Under the Dome,” a documentary that criticized the Chinese government about the failures of pollution regulations in the country. Hundreds of millions of viewers saw the film before government censors took it down.

Mark C. Eliott, Vice Provost for International Affairs, discusses President Faust's international aims with the capital campaign.
Mark C. Eliott, Vice Provost for International Affairs, discusses President Faust's international aims with the capital campaign. By Lauren A. Sierra

“There was never any question of self-censorship, and I advised that she should mention it in her speech,” Elliott said. “In an address by the President of Harvard about the environment and climate change in Beijing, not to have referenced that documentary at that time would have been read as sending a certain type of signal, and that was not the signal we wanted to send.”

“This was a chance for her to express in a forceful way—but, at the same time, in a diplomatic way—the important role that universities have to play in finding solutions in addressing all the sorts of issues we see in protecting the environment,” Elliott added.

Faculty are also briefed ahead of each trip. Some professors said that representatives from Faust’s office meet with them to discuss the theme of specific “Your Harvard” events and the people slated to attend panels and receptions.

Music professor Thomas F. Kelly, who spoke at the February 2015 “Your Harvard” event in Seattle, emphasized the role that event organizers, especially “Your Harvard” panel designer Susan Olsen, played in preparing the professors before the event.

“There was an awful amount of concern that everything goes very, very smoothly, which means that there was a whole lot of choreography and meetings with me and then insisting that we all get together and talk through how this is all going to be the evening before the event,” Kelly said. “It may be that not everybody seems as comfortable in public situations as I do, but I would imagine that most Harvard faculty are used to talking before crowds, “ he said.

Kelly added: “It seemed to be a bit overkill.”

Faculty Fundraising

Government professor Danielle S. Allen, who is also the director of the Safra Center for Ethics, described her rationale for sitting on the “Your Harvard” Boston panel about bioethics in simple terms: “If you can do something when the President personally asks you, you try to.”

Still, professors say they often can use national and global trips to advance personal projects. While some travel with Faust in order to raise money for their ongoing research, others said they focus on developing academic or working relationships with Harvard alumni.

Chemistry professor Daniel G. Nocera, who said Harvard recruited him three years ago to address the global energy crisis, uses the trips to fundraise for his research.

“I’ve been going on those trips because I’m trying to generate enthusiasm among the graduates of Harvard—that it should be their moral imperative to address the energy problem,” Nocera said. “I’ve had so-so success with that. It’s been hard for me to convince the alumni that’s something that they should be doing.”

Paul L. Choi ’86, president of the Harvard Alumni Association, emphasized how crucial faculty engagement is in creating events for Harvard alumni.

“When we ask alumni, ‘What do you want to learn about Harvard, what do you want to learn from the Alumni Association?’ One of the strongest responses that we get in our surveys and in talking to alumni is a strong desire on the part of the alumni to remain connected to the intellectual wealth of the University,” Choi said.

Sometimes, though, professors downplay the role that fundraising plays in their trips. Instead, they emphasize the networking climate that such events foster.

For economics professor Sendhil Mullainathan, who traveled with Faust and several other professors to a “Your Harvard” event in New York, forming alumni connections also took precedence over raising money for the University.

“I don’t know whether there was money involved in this. Like to me, it was just fun, because afterwards, after you give your talk, we just have conversations,” Mullainathan said. “People want to know, want to share their stories, and that was really interesting. To say, ‘I found this interesting… This idea resonates, or this idea feels wrong.’”

Jonathan L. Walton, the Pusey Minister of Memorial Church, similarly said his participation at the November 2015 “Your Harvard” event in Atlanta was not geared toward fundraising for the capital campaign, which recently surpassed its overall goal.

“I was glad to participate in ‘Your Harvard’ Atlanta because it is an example of a space where people from so many walks of life are able to come together, and that’s what I see as the role of the Memorial Church,” Walton, who is a native of Atlanta, said. “To me, I felt like I was at the Memorial Church South.”

“Your Harvard” trips often coincide with larger announcements at the University.

On the heels of the College’s unveiling a concentration in Theater, Dance, and Media in 2014, American Repertory Theater Artistic Director Diane M. Paulus ’88 attended a “Your Harvard” event in Dallas as a panelist.

“Of course, it is connected to the campaign, but I think [it is also] engaging with alumni and bringing them up to speed to what’s happening right now at Harvard in terms of the A.R.T. and arts—not what the alumni think is happening from their experience 10, 20, 30 years ago, but really where we are now,” Paulus said.

Another year and a half of Harvard’s capital campaign means Faust’s travel is far from over. The Alumni Association already has set the travel agenda for the next leg of her worldwide tour: Berlin in October; Miami in February 2017; Singapore in March 2017; and Minneapolis in June 2017, with more stops pending. And, if the pattern holds, faculty will be along for the ride.

—Staff writer Melissa C. Rodman can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @melissa_rodman.

—Staff writer William C. Skinner can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @wskinner.

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