"Crossing Boundaries"

Historian Drew Gilpin Faust, founding dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, will become Harvard’s twenty-eighth president on July 1. She was elected by the Corporation, Harvard’s senior governing board, with the consent of the Board of Overseers, during a joint meeting at Loeb House in Cambridge on Sunday, February 11. Their decision concludes a search begun last March, following the resignation of President Lawrence H. Summers. When Faust moves from Radcliffe Yard to the president’s office in Massachusetts Hall, she will succeed Derek Bok, who returned to service to lead the University on an interim basis.

Photograph by Stu Rosner
President-elect Drew Gilpin Faust at the February 11 news conference announcing her appointment. The Crimson scored a coup on line on February 8, and in print the next day (see below).

James R. Houghton ’58, M.B.A. ’62, Senior Fellow of the Corporation and chair of the search committee, began a news conference at 4:10 p.m. in Barker Center by hailing “a great and a historic day for Harvard.” He characterized Faust as “an inspiring and accomplished leader, a superb scholar, a dedicated teacher, and a wonderful human being.” Faust “combines a powerful, broad-ranging intellect with a demonstrated capacity for strong leadership and a talent for stimulating people to do their best work.” He stressed that “She knows Harvard. She knows higher education. She has interests that extend to the whole of the University, across the arts and sciences and the professions.” As dean, Houghton continued, Faust proved capable of articulating a “creative, forward-looking agenda of institutional change—and then making it happen.” Houghton closed by saluting Bok for having “totally unselfishly” led Harvard during the transition period.

Bok in turn saluted the search committee for their careful work. Returning to Massachusetts Hall after 15 years as president emeritus, he said, had reminded him of how special Harvard is. The president’s task, he asserted, is to create an environment where all members of the community can achieve up to the “fullness” of their capabilities. Faust, he said, approached that responsibility with a “very special array of qualities,” including her “intuitive” sense of how to “inspirit” people indirectly in an institution where ordering them around is not productive—and her values, moral fiber, and character.

The Overseers’ president, Susan L. Graham ’64, Chen Distinguished Professor of electrical engineering and computer science emerita at Berkeley, said that as a historian, Faust looks to the past, but “as a leader, she looks to the future.” At Radcliffe, she said, Faust had brought people together intellectually to pursue interdisciplinary work; she had been especially impressed by Faust’s role in building up science at the new institute, and was “particularly in awe” of Faust’s ability to work with others to set and achieve shared goals.

Faust began her remarks by adjusting the microphone upward; the president-elect stands tall. She then recalled her acceptance of the Radcliffe deanship seven years ago as “the most exciting job in higher education,” little knowing she would have “all the more reason to say those same words” on this new occasion. “I am deeply honored by the trust the Governing Boards have placed in me,” Faust said. “I will work with all my heart, together with colleagues across the University and the broader community, to reward that trust.”

“No university in the country, perhaps the world,” she said, “has as remarkable a past as this one. And now our shared enterprise is to make Harvard’s future even more remarkable than its past.” Doing so means “recognizing and building on what we already do well. It will also mean recognizing what we don’t do as well as we should—and not being content until we find ways to do better.”

Without listing specifics, Faust spoke about “affirming the idea, and the ideals, of a university, of its transformative purposes of teaching, learning, and research. American higher education is hailed as the best in the world, and attacked as falling short. Americans sacrifice and struggle to get their children into college or university, yet mock those same institutions as self-indulgent, hidebound, badly managed. American universities were throughout the twentieth century the sites of the nation’s most significant scientific enterprise….Yet we find ourselves wondering in 2007 whether we…have the resources, the organizational capacity, the relentlessness, and the leadership to generate continuing excellence and innovation in the sciences and across the spectrum of knowledge.

“What Harvard does in this next decade will…help to define the character and meaning of universities for the twenty-first century—whether they can be supple enough, enterprising enough, ambitious enough to accomplish all that is expected of them—and no less important, whether they can do so while preserving their unique culture of inquiry and debate in a world that seems increasingly polarized into unassailable certainties.”

Then, her voice breaking, Faust concluded, “I love universities and I love this one in particular. I can imagine no higher calling, no more exciting adventure than to serve as the president of Harvard.”


Some hints of the University’s priorities did come through. The news release announcing Faust’s appointment highlighted Radcliffe’s distinctive focus on multidisciplinary research; its success in convening academicians to address new issues in science; and the involvement of undergraduates with Radcliffe Fellows’ work as “research partners.” The release also underscored Faust’s work on faculty development as director of the 2005 task forces on women faculty and on women in science and engineering; and her engagement with students as a member of a 2004 Allston task force on undergraduate life—and as the teacher of an undergraduate seminar.

An expanded version of this article appears in our breaking news area.

Faust chose to highlight teaching and learning as first orders of business: “We are on the verge of a new College curriculum that has already deeply engaged the faculty and that promises more coherence, more choice, and more excitement in undergraduate education. We have just received a faculty report calling for renewed and enhanced dedication to teaching. A new advising system has been launched. We have just created a cross-University structure to assure Harvard’s place at the forefront of scientific discovery. We are beginning an expansion into Allston that will provide the space in which to make new connections….We have dedicated ourselves as well to a dramatic expansion of access to Harvard’s academic community…with the undergraduate low-income initiative, with the commitment to bring women and minorities into science and into the professoriate more broadly, and with our efflorts to make the professional schools more afflordable. I hope that my own appointment can be one symbol of an opening of opportunities that would have been inconceivable even a generation ago.”

But, she cautioned, “[I]f we at Harvard are to accomplish all we intend, we need to…break down barriers that inhibit collaboration among schools or among disciplines, barriers that divide the sciences and the humanities…barriers that lead us to identify ourselves as from one or the other ‘side of the river.’” (Her full remarks appear here.)

Faust said in response to a query that she wants to move promptly to fill the “three deanships that are empty—four now, with me.” Those are the deanships of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, held on an interim basis by Jeremy R. Knowles; of Harvard Medical School and the Graduate School of Design, whose leaders are stepping down; and now of Radcliffe. Bok has begun to identify candidates for Faust’s review. She hopes to have her team in place by July 1.


Faust grew up, by her account, “in a privileged family in the rural Shenandoah Valley” of Virginia. In “Living History” (see May-June 2003, page 38), she described becoming aware of segregation in the 1950s after Brown v. Board of Education. She wrote, “I was the only daughter in a family of four children,” a rebel who went by “Drew” instead of “Catharine.” “Did my sense of the privileges allotted my brothers—who did not have to wear scratchy organdy dresses or lace underwear, sit decorously, curtsy, or accept innumerable other constraints on freedom—make me attuned to other sorts of injustice?” Probably: later she marched for civil rights and against the Vietnam War.

Faust attended Concord Academy in Massachusetts. She earned a bachelor’s degree, magna cum laude, from Bryn Mawr in 1968, and was awarded master’s and doctoral degrees in American civilization from the University of Pennsylvania, concluding her graduate studies in 1975, and then serving on the faculty until her Radcliffe appointment.

In welcoming her to Cambridge in 2000 (Faust and her husband, Charles Rosenberg, a historian of science, had declined tenure offlers from Harvard in 1989), President Neil L. Rudenstine cited her “interdisciplinary instincts” and her “open, candid, and winning style.” Faust said then that bringing young and more established scholars and artists together held particular promise.

If those characteristics and that vision brought Faust to the Radcliffe Institute, her performance there brought her to the Harvard presidency.

From her very first messages about the new institute, Faust emphasized “Radcliffe’s potential to create interest and engagement across the University.” She realized that potential in a variety of ways. The one-year Radcliffe Fellowships for advanced study have brought scholars together across disciplines. Clusters of fellows in fields such as astrophysics or immigration have convened from separate departments to work on common problems. Men and international scholars in the fellows’ ranks have extended Radcliffe’s reach.

Institute forums have seeded new work: a conference on computational biology drew 150 participants, the first such gathering on campus. Radcliffe-funded seminars, initiated by ladder faculty, have joined scholars from Harvard and beyond to address new problems, ranging from malaria to debt relief in Africa, spawning intellectual relationships among departments and schools across the University.

Advisers from the School of Public Health, the Humanities Center, and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences all help shape the institute’s programs, building bridges to the rest of the University. Higgins professor of natural sciences Barbara J. Grosz, of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, has provided powerful links to that entire realm of research as Radcliffe’s dean of science.

In this basic intellectual sense, Faust has written, “Crossing boundaries is fundamental to the Radcliffe experience.” Efflective administration has been fundamental, too. Faust has:

  • transferred former Radcliffe training courses to other institutions, closed programs that no longer fit the new institute’s mission, and reduced staffing and costs significantly;
  • directed a comprehensive campus plan and completed renovations of the Schlesinger Library, the former Radcliffe Gym, and, soon, Byerly Hall; and
  • undertaken significant fundraising, drawing on revived relationships with Radcliffe alumnae and advised by a Dean’s Council whose members include several leading supporters of the University.

In early 2005, President Summers appointed Faust to direct two University task forces, on women faculty, and on women in science and engineering (see “Engineering Equity,” July-August 2005, page 55). That experience—and the Radcliffe Institute’s role in assessing the intellectual work of scholars in all fields—have given her a much broader overview of faculty members’ work than would be typical for arts-and-sciences professors. Moreover, the 2005 task forces and Radcliffe’s role in nurturing younger faculty members both involve extensive exposure to what may be the University’s central challenge: creating the conditions for the next generation of professors to advance in the academy.

Faust hinted at her leadership style and academic vision in 2001, when she unveiled an advisory group’s ideas for the reconstituted Radcliffe. Of the suggestion that she create a permanent advisory board, she said, “I’d want to choose people who will give me some trouble.” As for the fellows program, she said, “We are trying hard to bring the fellows together physically….Why not just send the fellows a check and let them stay home and do their work? One answer: we feel certain that human interactions yield intellectual activities.”

Faust addressed the characteristics of Harvard leadership at length when she was one of the speakers at the unveiling of Rudenstine’s official portrait last May 1 (see “Presidential Portrait,” July-August 2006, page 60). She extracted from his speeches phrases that she felt expressed his values—among them “mutuality in conversation and human relations” and “engagement balanced by…wise skepticism.”

In her remarks on February 11, Faust expressed her thanks to “my predecessors—Neil Rudenstine, who brought me here as dean of the Radcliffe Institute, Larry Summers, whose powerful thinking and impatience for results cleared the way for important new initiatives, and Derek Bok, whose steady hand has kept us on course during this past year.” Asked about “rifts” in the faculty, Faust said the separate faculties and the University as a whole “need to think of collaborative ways of working together” fruitfully. Bok had imparted “tremendous positive energy,” and she sensed that members of the community were in an “upbeat frame of mind.”


A Crimson reporter asked how the leader of an institute with $17 million in expenses and 80 staffl members could run a $3-billion enterprise with thousands of employees. Faust replied that her Radcliffe experience had involved her with schools across Harvard, so she knew people throughout the University. The institute’s scale required her to have a “granular engagement with a number of aspects of how organizations are run,” including the management of human resources and facilities. But, she observed, she had a lot to learn, and many people available to help her do so.

Referring to Faust’s comment about the opening of opportunities, a USA Today reporter wondered whether she had been thinking of her gender or of her status as the first Harvard president since 1672 to serve without attending the University. (Faust and Rosenberg’s summa cum laude daughter Jessica ’04 provides some cover.) Faust responded simply, “I’m not the woman president of Harvard. I’m the president of Harvard.”

She continued, “But I also want to say…I’ve been inundated with e-mails and comments,…and young women have come up to me and said, ‘This is really an inspiration.’ So I think it would be wrong not to acknowledge that this has tremendous symbolic importance. And it’s not about me, Drew Faust, it’s about a particular moment and an unparalleled institution, and we need to acknowledge that.”

As Faust wrote in the preface to Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War (1996), she had “continued confrontations” with her own mother “about the requirements of what she usually called ‘femininity.’ ‘It’s a man’s world, sweetie, and the sooner you learn that the better offl you’ll be,’ she warned. I have been luckier than she in that I have lived in a time when my society and culture have supported me in proving that statement wrong.”

Drew Gilpin Faust told the Harvard College class of 2005, just months after she arrived in Cambridge, “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.” She was speaking then about the College, and the remaking of Radcliffe College, not anticipating February 2007. But now, in the University’s 371st year, and in the 400th anniversary of John Harvard’s birth, another boundary has been crossed.

You might also like

Using the Law for Good

2024 Radcliffe Medalist Sonia Sotomayor on civic engagement and optimism

Equality and Justice

A Radcliffe Day panel discusses pluralism and progress. 

Close Call

Ending a tumultuous year, Harvard tradition is served in the 373rd Commencement—with plenty of thunder from the stage.

Most popular

Close Call

Ending a tumultuous year, Harvard tradition is served in the 373rd Commencement—with plenty of thunder from the stage.

Harvard Corporation Rules Thirteen Students Cannot Graduate

Faculty of Arts and Sciences May 20 vote on protestors’ status does not confer “good standing.”

Orators Three

Harvard’s student Commencement speakers 2024

More to explore

Bernini’s Model Masterpieces at the Harvard Art Museums

Thirteen sculptures from Gian Lorenzo Bernini at Harvard Art Museums.

Private Equity in Medicine and the Quality of Care

Hundreds of U.S. hospitals are owned by private equity firms—does monetizing medicine affect the quality of care?

Sasha the Harvard Police Dog

Sasha, the police dog of Harvard University