Drew Gilpin Faust has been elected president of Harvard University. This would hardly be noteworthy were it not for the tumultuous and abruptly terminated tenure of her predecessor, Lawrence Summers. The rationale for Summers’s election was that Harvard was in need of at least a mild reform, or redirection, to put it more nicely. His efforts in this regard proved disastrous. The faculty revolted, and Summers resigned. One might think that this would be taken as an indication that Harvard was in worse shape than was previously thought. Harvard has apparently concluded otherwise. If there is nothing at all the matter with Harvard except that it badly needs more women, and particularly in the sciences, then Faust is the perfect choice for president.
Summers lasted only five years as Harvard’s president. It was the faculty of the arts and sciences that forced him out. The confrontation was complex, but can be simplified as follows: Summers thought that the university’s commitment to the pursuit of truth was in need of being reasserted, and that the strength of the faculty’s commitment to this pursuit would make bearable to them the unpleasantries involved in such a reform. He was right about the first, wrong about the second.
Summers was particularly bad about the unpleasantries, and he did numerous things that were sure to enrage various segments of the faculty. He offended Cornel West, Harvard’s star professor of African-American studies, by asking him whether recording rap albums and advising Al Sharpton’s presidential campaign were pursuits worthy of so distinguished a scholar. West left for Princeton University in a huff.
Even better, Summers famously wondered whether the scarcity of women professors at the highest levels of science was due to their innate capacities for such work. His wonderings were based on research suggesting as much, yet even Summers realised that this would not necessarily keep his proposition from provoking dismay. So, in an attempt at tact, he made explicit his hopes that his hypothesis was false. It was a marvellous illustration of Summers’s naïveté. Nancy Hopkins, a professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was present when Summers made his notorious speculation. She had to leave the room. “I just couldn’t breathe because this kind of bias makes me physically ill. I would’ve either blacked out or thrown up.”
Faust expects to last somewhat longer than Summers. In an interview with the Crimson, Harvard’s undergraduate-run daily, she said: “I can’t say at this point how long I’m going to serve. I’ll just say I expect to have a long and successful term. But I also think it’s important for leadership at Harvard to change from time to time, so I think [I] would be thinking more in terms of decades than centuries.”
Even in the event that Faust’s tenure does not last for centuries, she should have no trouble surpassing Lawrence Summers’s five years. The simple reason for this is that Faust will not offend the faculty as Summers did. It is not only a matter of personality. If Summers was especially gruff, it was in part because he thought that the faculty needed to be challenged. Here is Faust, in 2005, on the challenges facing Harvard: “When you hear–in this most wonderfully tradition-bound place–that something is because it has always been that way, take a moment to ask which of the past’s assumptions are embedded in this particular tradition. If men and women are to be truly equal at Harvard, not all traditions can be.” Professor Hopkins will not lose her lunch over that.
News reports on Faust’s election have invariably harped on the fact that she is a woman, and thus has shattered Harvard’s 371-year-old, utterly neglected, glass ceiling. The way in which women have entered public life over the last few decades is remarkable. It is not remarkable that a woman would be elected president of Harvard University in 2007.
This has not stopped Faust from delighting in her accomplishment. Of course, she cannot imply in any way that her election has anything to do with her sex, and so she protests, “I’m not the woman president of Harvard. I’m the president of Harvard.” But she would not leave it at that. Faust is a professor, and this is a teaching moment. So she elaborates on the importance of the event. “It symbolises important changes in the place of women in higher education. I’m the symbol, but the reality that lies behind me is much broader than Harvard, or me, or even higher education.”
This is only what we should expect from Faust, whose life reads like a narrative of the feminist movement. She grew up in the American South, in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, where her family was wealthy and prominent, and where girls like her were not raised with the expectation that they would work. Faust herself recounts how her mother would often tell her, “It’s a man’s world, sweetie, and the sooner you learn that the better off you’ll be.” But Faust went to boarding school, and then to college, and then to graduate school, and she did quite well in the man’s world.
In the wake of her election, Faust stated numerous times that she is an historian. Her professorial career began at the University of Pennsylvania. If her primary area of research is the American Civil War, her primary narrative of interest is women in society. At the University of Pennsylvania, Faust was eventually made director of the Women’s Studies program. She wrote a book, probably her most noteworthy, on the plight of slave-holding Southern women during the Civil War. In 2001, she became dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. She spent the subsequent six years building up an institute that awards fellowships to academics, especially those who are interested in studying women, gender, and society.
After Lawrence Summers made his infamous comments about women in science, he desperately tried to placate the infuriated faculty, and particularly the feminists. He overflowed with obsequious apologies, but to no avail. So he tried a bribe. He established a Task Force on Women Faculty, to which he pledged $50 million, and he appointed Faust to head the committee. Faust took the money, and then she took his job. So much for the man’s world.
Asked by the Crimson what she thought of Summers’s suggestion, Faust responded, “I’d be happy to answer that one. I think women have the aptitude to do anything, and that includes being president of Harvard.” If she has no studies to support her claims, her triumph is a defence enough.
Maximilian Pakaluk (Harvard ’05, magna cum laude in philosophy) is an associate editor at National Review Online.