As the Dean of the Radcliffe Institute at the turn of the 21st century, University President Drew G. Faust faced a delicate task: navigate the merger of the historically separate female school into the much larger, much older, and much more male-dominated University.
When the class of 2000—the first in which men and women graduated with identical diplomas—fully integrated into the rest of Harvard, there were fears that Radcliffe’s independent history and identity would be lost in the mix of Harvard lore.
So when then-Dean of the Faculty Arts of and Sciences Jeremy R. Knowles wanted to stop playing the Radcliffe hymn at commencement ceremonies, Faust put her foot down.
“I said, ‘you're going to have all these little ladies out there, you know, the class of 1920 sitting there and their college is gone,’” Faust said in an interview earlier this month. “Let’s keep some of the symbols of the past to make that transition to something new easier.”
For Faust, a historian of the American South, the preservation and recognition of Radcliffe’s separate past was essential to its identity at the University. And while her career has progressed further and further away from her days of scholarship, Faust’s acute sense of institutional history has only sharpened.
Only a few years later, as Faust took the stage in Tercentenary Theatre to accept her installation as the president of the oldest university in the country, she charted a vision that has become a theme of her time at Harvard.
“A university looks both backwards and forwards in ways that must—that even ought to—conflict with a public’s immediate concerns or demands,” she said in her inaugural address.
This past year, Faust has rooted her decision-making rationales in history—both Harvard’s and her own—to pick which pieces of the past should be carried into the future.
She accepted a Law School committee’s recommendation to shed the school’s controversial seal, dedicated a plaque to enslaved persons who lived and worked at Harvard in the 18th century, and welcomed the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps back to campus after decades of absence.
And in May, breaking decades of precedent, Faust announced a series of sanctions for students in single-gender social organizations, including final clubs, challenging some of the institutions that have helped define Harvard undergraduate life for more than 100 years.
In each case, as Faust waded into some of the most charged discourses on college campuses across the country, she turned to a familiar tool as she sought to justify the University’s future course: historical analysis and argument. A prize-winning historian herself, Faust has, in the past year, repeatedly reviewed Harvard’s historical record with an academic’s eye and decided which legacies and structures are deserving of recognition in the year’s to come—even, or especially, when it rankles the “public’s immediate concerns or demands.”
Her acts have met no shortage of criticism, either, from those who assert that Faust’s reverence of history is narrow and overly political to those who say she has not done enough to combat the persistent vestiges of racism, sexism, and inequality at Harvard.
“I often wonder if I became a historian because of the way I approach the world or if I approach the world the way I do because I am a historian,” Faust said in May.
Faust’s own origin story has been told and retold so many times it now nearly resembles a historical narrative itself.
Catharine Drew Gilpin, the daughter of a horse breeder and a socialite, grew up in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley in the segregated South. She attended the then-all-female Concord Academy and then Bryn Mawr, where she marched for civil rights in Selma as a freshman and graduated magna cum laude. After college, she moved to the University of Pennsylvania, where she would complete her master’s and doctorate. She stayed on as a faculty member in American Studies, and eventually rose to a prominent professorship, teaching and studying the history of the antebellum South.
“She joined a whole lot of people at the time who were more and more interested in the history of the South because of the burgeoning civil rights movement,” said Steven Hahn, a history professor at Penn who has known Faust for decades. “Whereas Southern history had been sort of the province of Southern white men, it became much more diverse.”
Faust’s writing, even in the crowded field of Civil War scholarship, stood out for its unconventional feminist bent; in one controversial paper, she concluded that "It may well have been because of its women that the South lost the Civil War.”
In 2000, Faust was named the first dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, formed after Harvard-Radcliffe merger. There, she took charge of shaping the fledgling institute’s mission, striving to reconcile its past as an institution for women and its future as a co-educational research institute.
About six years later, after then-University President Lawrence H. Summers’s turbulent tenure came to a premature end, the more mild-mannered Radcliffe dean made the shortlist for his replacement.
And so, charged with unifying a divided faculty and returning stability to the shaken university, Faust became Harvard’s first female president before a windswept Tercentenary Theatre in 2007.
To her new red-walled office in Massachusetts Hall, according to Law Professor Bruce H. Mann, Faust brought a historian’s keen sense of legacy and temporality.
“Historians are trained to need to see context, to see texture, to see nuance, to take a long view,” Mann said. “They’re also trying to sift through the mounds of often confusing evidence and accounts to get at what some approximation of historical truth, to confront it directly and then turn around and explain it both to the present and to the future.”
Amid recent calls to rename and remove slavery-tainted symbols, Faust has indeed tended to take the historian’s conservative long view, warning against erasing the past and feeling superior to generations prior.
“I think if you erase the whole past, it’s too easy to feel innocent. It’s too easy to not learn from it and to think that you’re not going to make any mistakes in the present—you’re better than those mistakes. We’re not better than those mistakes,” she said last year.
Over the past year, there has been no shortage of opportunities for Faust to decide what merits active revision.
In October, a group of two dozen Law School students calling themselves “Royall Must Fall” gathered to call for the removal of the school’s seal, which they criticized for its historical ties to slavery. Isaac Royall, Jr., whose family owned slaves in the 18th century, endowed Harvard’s first professorship of Law, and the school’s seal was the Royall family crest.
At first just a student protest, the groups’ claims picked up steam as the academic year progressed, culminating with Faust and the Corporation’s decision in March to allow the school to change its seal, over the concern of some alumni and donors who cautioned against the change.
Mann, who also chaired the Law School committee that initially recommended the seal change, said the committee rooted its recommendation in historical scholarship.
“As we made our arguments, we recognized that the president of the University is also a historian,” Mann said. “Since we were writing as historians, we knew that at least part of our audience would understand how we were proceeding.”
But throughout the conversation about the Law School’s seal, Faust was careful to draw a distinction: Harvard would not rewrite its historical connections to slavery.
“We accepted the recommendation of the Mann committee and the dean because we thought it was correct, but she was very clear in the letter that we sent back to the dean that we thought this was the right decision on this particular issue, but it shouldn’t be reflective of a belief that you can somehow erase history,” said William F. Lee ’72, the senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation who also wrote the letter approving the seal change with Faust.
Still, at least one committee member—historian Annette Gordon-Reed—cautioned in her dissent that removing the Royall seal would constitute an erasure of history and a failure to be “ unrelentingly frank and open with the whole world, now and into the future, about an important thing that went into making this institution.”
While Faust and the Corporation still accepted the committee’s majority recommendation to remove the seal, concerns about forgetting history seem to have resonated with Faust.
Just weeks after approving the seal change, Faust announced in op-ed in The Crimson that Harvard would dedicate a plaque to honor four slaves who lived and worked at Harvard’s Wadsworth House.
“The past never dies or disappears. It continues to shape us in ways we should not try to erase or ignore. We must never forget,” Faust said at the ceremony to commemorate the plaque. In addition to the Wadsworth House plaque, Faust has also tasked a committee with examining other campus sites connected with slavery and considering future memorials.
The Wadsworth House plaque, according to University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76, is a textbook example of how Faust’s training as a historian colors her cautious but critical approach to Harvard’s checkered past.
In the case of the plaque, he said, “she used history as a way to make a statement about how we are as a University and who we aspire to be.”
But while Faust is wary of renaming buildings and removing symbols, she has been willing to engage with some historical vestiges that still loom large on campus. Her latest history lesson arrived in a short, unassuming email: two paragraphs, two links.
The first link, authored by Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana put forth a set of sanctions for members of final clubs and Greek organizations. But the second was signature Faust—a letter accepting the recommendations, and detailing the historical justification behind them.
Unlike her cautious stance on changing tainted symbols and names, Faust’s email endorsed a definitive break with Harvard tradition; this part of the past she would reject wholeheartedly. The sanctions would be the first significant strike against the all-male final clubs since 1984, when they disaffiliated from the University under pressure to accept women.
“Tradition is important, especially to an institution with our long reach into the past, but we must measure it against the contemporary needs of a dynamic, modern academic community,” Faust wrote.
In this case, Faust’s historical review of the clubs’ place on campus had not resulted in any kind of plaque or memorial; instead, the future of the centuries-old organizations was in peril.
Many alumni, distressed at the possible dissolution of their old stomping grounds, were quick to accuse Khurana and Faust—neither of whom attended Harvard—of selectively editing Harvard’s history to fit a particular political agenda. Faust’s fealty to a vision for the future of Harvard undergraduate life left those more familiar with its past upset.
Gerard J. Cassedy ’61, a Delphic Club member, was among them.
“If I could sit in front of President Faust and explain, I think she would at least be open to the idea of culture and tradition of institutions that are hundreds of years old,” Cassedy said. “Tell me what is foul, what is so odious, about these clubs?”
Graduate president of the Fly Club Richard T. Porteus Jr. ’78, who has publicly disparaged administrative involvement in campus social life, also questioned Faust’s understanding of the clubs.
“I think that President Faust, in opportunistically linking gender issues with sexual assault, is suggesting that sexual assault will go away if gender neutrality is at all times, in all places, for all people the rule,” Porteus said. “That’s an incredibly ahistorical point of view.”
But Linda K. Kerber, Faust’s longtime friend and former colleague, said she believes Faust’s strong public stance against single-gender clubs is less an attack on Harvard tradition than an unearthing of its darker corners. In particular, Kerber said, Faust’s years attending women-only schools and leading a historically female institute may be motivating her unusual level of involvement in undergraduate social life.
“The final clubs are a piece of the larger question of how do we shape an institution, a co-ed institution, that will be as welcoming to women as it is to men?” Kerber said. “Drew’s still in the business of, will Harvard actually sustain its women students as well as Concord Academy and Bryn Mawr?”
Director of the Mahindra Humanities Center Homi K. Bhabha, who was a faculty advisor to Faust at Radcliffe, said Faust’s decision on the clubs was in line with her “very emancipatory and progressive ideas on women and gender.”
“What she's trying to do in the finals clubs is completely consistent with how she has thought about equality and creating community,” Bhabha said.
Lee, however, said Faust’s denigration of the clubs has less to do with her personal history than her unequivocal belief that discrimination on the basis of gender ought to be left in the past.
“Whether she was the first woman president of Harvard or the 10th woman president, she would have made the same decision, because she thought it was the right decision,” Lee said.
Stephen P. Shoemaker, a religion professor who teaches a course on Harvard’s past leaders, said Faust’s commandeering of the bully pulpit to advance a historian’s agenda is well within the bounds set by previous presidents.
“Not only were they interested in using that pulpit to address a national audience, but they’re interested in having Harvard take a national role,” Shoemaker said. “In that way, she’s absolutely following in their footsteps.”
While, under Faust, Harvard has turned on the final clubs, the University is welcoming back another relic from Harvard’s past: the Reserve Officer Training Corps. For several decades, military training was one of the largest student activities on campus.
But in the 1960s, widespread student protest of Harvard’s relationship with the military eventually pushed the program away from the University. The two institutions—Harvard and the United States military—would remain divorced for the rest of the 20th century and into the 21st.
“We started the ball rolling under President Summers and we didn’t lose ground under President Faust,” said Paul E. Mawn ’63, the chairman of Advocates for Harvard ROTC, an alumni group. “President Summers took it down into the red zone and finally with President Faust we got our toe over the line.”
After recognizing Navy ROTC and Army ROTC in 2011 and 2012, respectively, Faust signed an agreement with Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, formally welcoming back the third ROTC branch of the military.
At the recognition ceremony, Faust—herself a descendent of a number of soldiers—traced the history of Harvard’s relationship with the military.
“These silent reminders connect us to the past. But ROTC is, of course, about the future. About the preparation of soldier-scholars who will lead on behalf of their generation and those that follow,” Faust said at the April ceremony.
But the symbolic reconciliation may not be enough to restore Harvard’s historically close relationship with the military, Mawn said. Harvard’s ROTC programs are still much smaller than they used to be, he said, and the real test going forward will be if Harvard’s program can grow.
“A beachhead has been established at Harvard but the mission is not complete,” Mawn said. “The key issue is not the recognition but the glaring lack of participation in ROTC among Harvard undergraduates.”
With Faust now nearly a decade into her presidency, some have their sights on the legacy she will leave.
Hahn, who followed in Faust’s footsteps at Penn, said she departs from past leaders by placing intellectual inquiry—not “business models”—at the center of her presidential philosophy. He predicted that his predecessor would strive to make faculty, students, and staff “more historically conscious” of the university where they live, work, and study.
“My sense is that she would like to leave an institution that looked different than the one she came to, both at Radcliffe and as president of Harvard, and try to sort of rearrange and loosen some of the hierarchies that she found,” Hahn added.
Mann, however, said he thinks Faust has little interest in constructing her own historical narrative.
“I honestly don’t think that she thinks in terms of her legacy, because none of this is about her,” Mann said. “What it is about is is her personal, professional desire to assure that Harvard lives up to the highest values that institutions such as Harvard can aspire to.”
A. Clayton Spencer, Harvard’s former vice president for policy, characterized Faust as a storyteller-in-chief with a powerful but “quiet leadership style.”
“It’s not history that teaches you something, it’s historians,” Spencer said. “A big part of leadership is shaping a motivating narrative that people at the institution see as the right way forward for the future, and they see themselves a part of.”
Famed biographer Walter S. Isaacson ’74, a Harvard Overseer, said he thinks Faust will be remembered for bringing historically marginalized groups back into the campus fold.
“President Faust’s background as a historian makes her understand well that the arc of American history has, as one of its main themes great inclusivity,” Isaacson said. “That’s an extraordinarily important concept in the world we live in today. It’s been a theme of her historical writing on the Civil War, and I think a theme of her presidency at Harvard.”
But in this present moment, Faust doesn’t seem to be concerned with the way she’ll go down in the history books. For now, she’s looking back—at past injustices, questionable symbols, and entrenched inequalities—to move Harvard forward.
“I’ve often talked about history a lot as a way of thinking about where we are now, and what is the momentum towards where we want to be,” Faust said.
—Staff writers C. Ramsey Fahs and William C. Skinner contributed to the reporting of this story.