Harvard’s Madame President, Fit to Season

In the May-June 2003 issue of Harvard magazine, Drew Gilpin Faust wrote an article titled “Living History,” detailing her personal investigation into a letter she wrote to President Eisenhower as a nine-year-old girl some 45 years earlier. This would go on to become a defining moment in Faust’s self-construction. “Fashioned out of memories,” she wrote, “our stories become our identities.”

Dr. Faust’s story goes something like this. As a young, precocious and abnormally conscious child, her life revolved around the customs and mannerisms that largely defined her privileged Southern heritage. Yet she could not understand the yawning gap between the ideals of America — and the ideals of Christianity as set forth in the Bible and taught to her at Sunday school — so she began to question. Why were some people treated differently than others? Why did our Southern manners dictate separate rules of interaction with black as opposed to white people? And why did the local ministers have nothing to say about it?

Beyond writing an idealistic missive to the very president of the United States, these burning questions would lead the young Faust to pursue a career first as an activist during the civil rights movement, and finally as an academic studying the history that lay behind what she experienced as a young Southern child. Once she fell into her niche at the University of Pennsylvania, she would find little reason to venture south of the Mason-Dixon Line again.

A compelling story, especially when it’s capped with “President of Harvard University” at the top. The woman who defied all Southern expectations of success would follow the man who doubted whether females had the aptitude to compete at all, at least at the high extremes.

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Despite how satisfying this narrative may be, even Dr. Faust would acknowledge that it’s not the only one through which one should chronicle her ascent as leader of the most prestigious and powerful academic institution in the world. Most media coverage stuck primarily to the one narrative they could easily obtain: that of Dr. Faust herself, courtesy of her autobiographical essay. But there are many such narratives, all offering complementary (or even competing) ways to view her rise.

One is the Hillary Clinton narrative. The title of Faust’s 2003 piece was either prescient or just serendipitous: that issue of Harvard hit the presses just as Clinton’s memoir of the same name was topping the bestseller lists, anticipating proclamations about breaking the glass ceiling of a different presidency.

Drew Gilpin Faust — or, as she was once known, Catharine Drew Gilpin — didn’t exactly ride on the coattails of her man to sweep into office. (She did keep her first husband’s last name, a still-unexplained choice that may have to do with her academic title.) But both women are distinguished by the very fact of their gender, by the novelty of their achievements (or expected achievements). Part of Clinton’s appeal to women is probably the fact that she’s female. No one could possibly deny that the same is true for Faust: Following a high-profile ouster precipitated in part by Lawrence Summers’ controversial comments about gender and aptitude, who wouldn’t expect a woman — especially one whose expertise includes women’s studies — to take his place? It’s about time, people say, for Harvard to appoint a female president. Call it the Hillary effect.

But then, there’s the Harriet Miers narrative. This is the one we’re accustomed to from the classics: A high-profile adviser to the king steps in and takes his place at the opportune moment. This isn’t exactly what happened with Miers, of course, and things ended a bit differently. But, already dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Dr. Faust was the one Summers chose to help recruit and retain women on the faculty as part of his public atonement.

Then there’s the “white liberal” narrative. Writing in the Jan. 29 New Republic, Nicholas Lemann slyly suggests of this illustrious group: “Southern white liberals of the civil rights era are admirable people — they endured social opprobrium often, economic reprisals sometimes, and violence in a few cases — but they tend toward self-congratulation.”

The “Southern white liberals of the civil rights era” Lemann describes seems to include the younger Faust, based on her own stated self-conception. But is his conclusion true? And if so, does it carry any implications for the future president of Harvard? If it suggests that Dr. Faust may carry a chip on her shoulder, an air of superiority, then most comments by her colleagues would dispute that. By all accounts, she is open to differing points of view and doesn’t shy away from making hard decisions. Perhaps some narratives are more persuasive than others.

But Dr. Faust’s rise is part of a larger narrative — one of the changing role of university presidents and their power relative to that of faculties. According to a recent American Council on Education survey, the top uses of time for a private university president are fundraising and budgeting. But are these skills big-name presidents are adept at? Did Drew Gilpin Faust’s fundraising ability impress the hiring committee? For that matter, did Larry Summers’?

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This question is an interesting one, because while the role of college president becomes more and more narrowly tailored toward finances, high-profile appointments have more to do with politics (faculty and otherwise) and name recognition. A feminist historian succeeding the miserly, divisive patriarch? Great story. A poster child for affirmative action becoming president of Cornell? Poetic justice.

In other cases — recently, the embarrassing resignation of Cornell University’s President Jeffrey S. Lehman after a mere two years in office — the results of these crisscrossing trends have been disastrous. Some presidents, it seems, simply can’t handle the incredible burden of managing a large, diverse institution and its various fiefdoms. Running the Radcliffe Institute can’t possibly be adequate preparation for the job of running Harvard, no matter how much of a microcosm it might be. For Lehman, even the deanship of Michigan’s law school wasn’t, it seems, enough preparation for a large, sprawling university.

Yet this narrative, too, leaves something to be desired. Dr. Faust was arguably the driving force behind turning Radcliffe into a world-renowned interdisciplinary clearinghouse, an exercise that inevitably pitted her against the entrenched interests of faculty members. She came out on top, earning the nickname “Chainsaw Drew” along the way.

Harvard is a school with its own formidable problems. Its faculty is restless, there’s a massive expansion in the works, and the state of its undergraduate education is in flux. If anyone can take on the increasingly powerful faculty in making the right decisions, perhaps Dr. Faust is, in the end, the right choice. It just depends on the narrative you choose to believe.

Andrew Guess is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

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