A quiet revolution at Harvard

Spring has not yet greened the lawns of historic Harvard Yard, but there is an unmistakable vibrancy in the air. It is seven months since the new president, Drew Faust, was inaugurated on October 12. Apart from symbolising a revolution as the university’s first woman leader in its 372-year history, her mission is to transform it into a more modern, cohesive and accessible institution while enhancing its elite status and honouring tradition.

This is a fairly obvious, if challenging, brief at a time of existential doubt and fierce competition in higher education across the United States, and one not very different from that set her predecessor, Lawrence Summers. But her first task was more urgent. She had to calm the waters of a Harvard that was tossed into unprecedented tumult by Summers’s rancorous reign.

In the middle of trying to rewrite the undergraduate curriculum and improve teaching, expand science, dismantle fiefdoms and encourage diversity, Summers was fired in 2006 after making a sexist remark that capped a tenure so abrasive that his working relationship with key deans and professors had irretrievably broken down.

After an interim period and a selection process, historian, feminist (more academic than activist), University of Pennsylvania star professor and Harvard mover-and-shaker Faust (61) took the helm.

“I thought we would see a woman in the White House before we would see a woman president of Harvard. Just 15 years ago we could not have imagined a woman leading Princeton or Harvard or MIT,” said geneticist Professor Nancy Hopkins of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which now also has a woman president, with four of the eight Ivy League universities — Harvard, Penn, Princeton and Brown.

Hopkins prompted a major review at MIT in the 1990s after producing a report proving widespread discrimination against women professors and publicly trashed Summers for his remarks.

Back when Faust, a native of Virginia, was applying for university herself, women were not even allowed to study at Princeton, where the men in her family had traditionally graduated. Now the lines between old school and new school are increasingly blurred and Faust has been described as “a historian with her eye on the future”.

Ensconced in her office in Massachusetts Hall, Harvard’s oldest standing building, Faust is disinclined to give any set-piece interviews about her presidency in these early months, but the change in style is evident. Summers used to sign dollar bills for students (as ex-secretary of the treasury under Bill Clinton).

He organised barbecues for undergrads, with whom he was popular, even if some staff complained he was abrasive and tactless. Faust is much more understated, less charismatic perhaps, but said to be hugely charming and quite magnetic. Unlike Summers, she made a point in her inauguration speech of not setting out a laundry list of specific goals.

Outside an undergraduate is playing frisbee between lectures. “I’m having the time of my life,” says Alex Hugon (18), a Massachusetts local taking computer studies.

What does he think of longstanding grumbles that Harvard is so stuffed with superstar professors on astronomical pay, buried in their research, that undergraduate teaching suffers? “I don’t agree. I got a lot of one-on-one attention in high school and it’s very refreshing to have lectures now as well as smaller classes — and the biggest ones, with up to 350 students, are the ones taught by the most famous professors, and they’re top notch,” he says.

One of Faust’s tasks is to engineer better incentives for good teaching and better cooperation between faculties. “Students are still dissatisfied with the over-reliance on postgraduates teaching undergraduates, rather than tenured professors [permanent lecturers]. Everyone here has had a few amazing professors, but also a handful of teachers who are awful — where you feel you had better teaching in high school,” says Paras Bhayani, managing editor of the student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson.

Faust has been under enormous pressure to produce solutions for all her tasks that will pass scrutiny from right and left, progressive and traditional, internal and external; to fill posts in ways that seem both wise and radical and to modernise the curriculum and the faculties neither too brusquely nor too timidly.

Her friend and former colleague at the University of Pennsylvania, Penn president Amy Gutmann, believes she has a knack: “She is both collaborative and decisive. She’s a good listener and she makes the hard decisions while convincing people that something is not just her goal, it’s their goal, too.”

So far she has struck an interesting balance with appointments. She named Mike Smith to the university’s premier professorial post of dean of the faculty of arts and sciences — her academic right-hand man. Smith is seen as respected, amicable, perhaps unremarkable — a safe pair of hands.

Conversely, she has just made Evelynn Hammonds, who was senior vice-provost for faculty development and diversity, the new dean of Harvard College — essentially in charge of undergraduate programmes. She is not only the first African-American women to hold this venerable post, but she was also not the obvious choice as she was less steeped in undergraduate matters than many of her peers.

And, just as audacious, Faust appointed Jane Mendillo as the first woman chief executive of Harvard’s $35-billion endowment fund — the world’s largest academic honeypot.

“These are bold appointments. Some women, even when they become as powerful as an Ivy League president, are wary of promoting other women, so I hope we will see Drew do more of this,” says one senior professor.

But on some of the big centralising academic and management reforms needed on campus, some ask if Faust is being too slow and collaborative. “I think the honeymoon is lasting a bit long and we need to see quicker results,” says one insider.

One of the most exciting parts of Faust’s mission is to steer the $1-billion plan to develop a huge, world-class science and biotech complex, including the flagship Harvard Stem Cell Institute.

New York University’s president, John Sexton, says the new science flagship is essential for Harvard’s future.

He says Faust’s biggest challenge is to modernise not only internally, but also in response to the increasing global fluidity in talent and ideas — while at the same time resisting the influence of a federal government obsessed with “short-termism”. “This is a strong woman and she has a clearheaded view of things — her style fits very nicely with the need,” says Sexton.

Her test is whether she can adapt her success in reinventing Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, with its budget of $17-million, to reinvigorate the whole university, with its budget of $4-billion.

Radcliffe was an “annexe” college for women for 100 years. Faust became its dean in 2001 and engineered its radical metamorphosis into an elite postgraduate research centre.

“It was not an easy task: she had to get rid of a lot of people and she did. She took it from obsolete to brilliant by consultation and diplomacy, but also with vision and assertion. Harvard is so much bigger, but it is hoped her style can continue to translate,” says one senior colleague.

After the Summers debacle it seemed inevitable that a woman would be chosen as president. But Gutmann says Faust is no token. “None of us would want the jobs we have other than on the basis of thinking we are eminently capable,” she says. In other words, the best? “You could say that. I couldn’t,” she says.

Does Faust have the potential to be an unprecedented president of Harvard? “Yes,” Gutmann says, without a pause. — Â

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