Twenty-eighth, and First

Photograph by Jim Harrison

Honored historian, seasoned scholar steeped in universities’ distinctive role, adept academic administrator—Drew Gilpin Faust forcefully took possession of her Harvard presidency during inaugural celebrations and a formal installation ceremony on October 11 and 12. She did so in striking language and imagery, telling the crowd in Tercentenary Theatre—their spirits unchilled by blustery rain showers—“Like a congregation at a wedding, you signify by your presence a pledge of support for this marriage of a new president to a venerable institution.”

Although this was also a personal occasion (Faust said she was “a little stunned to see almost every person in the world that I am related to sitting here in the first few rows”), she focused on the most institutional of purposes. In the presence of nine of her former teachers, from elementary through graduate school, and more than 200 representatives of higher education from around the world, she defined the essence of the university as being “uniquely accountable to the past and to the future—not simply, or even primarily, to the present. A university is not about results in the next quarter; it is not even about who a student has become by graduation.” Rather, she said, “A university looks both backwards and forwards in ways that must—and even ought to—conflict with a public’s immediate concerns and demands.” As “stewards of living tradition,” she said, universities “make commitments to the timeless,” endeavors pursued “because they define what has, over centuries, made us human, not because they can enhance our global competitiveness.” As agents of uncomfortable change, accountable to the future, “universities nurture a culture of restlessness and even unruliness.…transforming individuals as they learn, transforming the world as our inquiries alter our understanding of it, transforming societies as we see our knowledge translated into policies” and new therapies. And she arranged three times—in her own address (see “Knitt Together...As One”), and twice in readings by relatives—to invoke the most deeply rooted American beliefs in community and in progress, to enlist engaged, energetic, and accountable membership in the Harvard community.

Photograph by Jim Harrison

The twenty-eighth president—deemed a “rebellious daughter of the South” and "Harvard’s president of reinvention” by Amy Gutmann—receives applause from (left to right) University Treasurer James F. Rothenberg; Frances D. Fergusson, President of the Board of Overseers; James R. Houghton, Senior Fellow of the Harvard Corporation; and Marc Goodheart, Secretary of the University.

For the most part, it was others who pointed out how extraordinary the installation of the University’s twenty-eighth president was. Amy Gutmann ’71, Ph.D. ’76, now president of the University of Pennsylvania, extended greetings from academia to Faust, who earned her master’s and doctoral degrees from Penn. “For the first time in 371 years, Harvard has chosen as its president…a Southerner,” she said, with perfect timing, to laughter and cheers, “and a woman”—a development in which “Cotton Mather, Harvard class of 1678, would surely see Satan’s hand.” Faust subsequently acknowledged the obvious (“My presence here today—and indeed that of many others on this platform—would have been unimaginable even a few short years ago”), but promptly used her individual status to punctuate her point about the institution (“Those who charge that universities are unable to change should take note of this transformation, of how different we are from universities even of the mid twentieth century”). Although Faust chose to focus on academia generally, Gutmann limned Harvard’s distinctive role and alluded to Al Gore Jr. ’69, LL.D. ’94, who hours earlier had been named co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Listen to President Faust's inaugural address.

Speaking for the faculty, Sidney Verba, Pforzheimer University Professor and director of the Harvard University Library emeritus, pointed to the practical challenge of running the place, given that “somehow the disparate and independent parts of the University must be made to constitute a whole.” Perhaps alluding to the turbulent presidency of Lawrence H. Summers, which had ended 16 months before, Verba said Harvard’s leader must be able “to work with, listen to, appreciate, and understand the many voices that are raised [here]. To persuade, rather than to command….” Among University constituencies, he said, the faculty is “the most varied in its views.… But I doubt that I have ever seen the faculty as united as it is in welcoming President Faust.”

For her part, in service of today and the future, Faust mined deeper history. Among the readings she chose for the Service of Thanksgiving for a New President, conducted Friday morning in Memorial Church, was the conclusion of “A New Modell of Christian Charity,” Governor John Winthrop’s 1630 instruction to the settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, composed aboard the Arbella. The paragraphs, read by her cousin Jack Gilpin ’73, famously proclaim the new settlement “as a city upon a hill.” Crucially, then as now, Winthrop defined this enterprise as “work we have undertaken,” the success of which required its members, voluntarily associated, to “entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience, and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own…always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.” In an abbreviated way, Faust summoned that spirit in her own address, twice quoting from the same passage Winthrop’s call to the settlers to be “knitt together, in this work, as one….”

Lest any doubt linger about the aims of this community, as opposed to Winthrop’s, Faust’s stepdaughter, Leah Rosenberg, read the final paragraph of Abraham Lincoln’s Address before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, on September 30, 1859—then, as now, at the harvest time of year. It ends: “Let us hope…that by the best cultivation of the physical world, beneath us and around us; and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social, and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward, and which, while the earth endures, shall not pass away.”

Like any ritual, of course, an inauguration is not all spinach. Alongside the rhetoric there is rigmarole. Substance is addressed head on, but also symbolized.

Before Faust heard Verba’s sober advice, she had help of a different sort. During the Musical Prelude to an Inauguration, held on Thursday evening in Sanders Theatre, John Lithgow ’67, Ar.D. ’05, introduced “a primer on the finer points of leadership”—from Hollywood. Jeffrey Melvoin ’75 confected a pastiche of film clips, billed as an Illegitimi Non Carborundum Production, offering suggestions from the likes of Groucho Marx (on sustaining college athletics) and on topics such as supporting the arts (soothing Frankenstein’s primal rage with violin music). The next morning, sixth- and second-graders Lili and Tyson Gilpin (the president’s nieces) charmed the Memorial Church audience; the girls, supported by their father, Lawrence Gilpin, and Jessica Rosenberg ’04 (the daughter of President Faust and her husband, Charles Rosenberg, Monrad professor of the social sciences), declaimed from Oh, the Places You’ll Go! The Dr. Seuss classic warns, “You’ll get mixed up, of course,/as you already know./ You’ll get mixed up/with many strange birds as you go” and wisely counsels, “Just never forget to be dexterous and deft./And never mix up your right foot with your left.” Earlier in the week, opening an archival exhibition on Harvard presidents, University Library director Robert Darnton quoted Edward Holyoke’s 1769 deathbed comment, “If any man wishes to be humbled and mortified, let him become president of Harvard College”—and assured Faust, “These remarks do not apply to women.”

Self-deprecating Harvard humor was in vogue. During the concert, Alison Brown ’84 recalled that she was a Hist and Lit concentrator and noted, “You can imagine how excited my parents were when I told them I wanted to be a professional banjo player.” Talking about herself and Pink Martini founder and fellow member Thomas M. Lauderdale ’92, singer China Forbes ’92 said if she seemed nervous, it was because “the last time I was in this room, I was failing Ec 10.” (The next afternoon, Faust characterized inaugural speeches as “pronouncements by individuals who don’t yet know what they are talking about,” or “expressions of hope unchastened by the rod of experience.”)

Further tweaking the pomp in these circumstances, Karen MacDonald, lecturer on dramatic arts, of the American Repertory Theatre, burst into the Sanders proceedings in the role of Gertrude, an implacable Cambridge meter maid outraged by an illegally parked car. Informed that it was the president’s, she loudly queried about the missing “1636” license plate (recently reassigned to a Harvard van; the black presidential Lincoln is no longer seen) and expressed astonishment that the incumbent was now a woman—before wading into the audience to honor Faust with her first parking ticket in her august new office.

There were sly references to the new president’s preferred manner of dress. Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, Litt.D. ’89, who gave a reading from a work “very, very, very much in progress” on Thursday afternoon, remembered when women could not wear pants to work; “This seems like a triumph,” she said. An early clip in Melvoin’s video featured a rebellious Southern girl at the breakfast table, protesting at having to wear a “darn old dress.”

Other signs that this was the twenty-first century abounded. The design of the installation invitations featured the Charter of 1650, befitting an historian president, but they were printed on “100% post-consumer waste paper with soy inks.” Visitors to the exhibition of Kara Walker’s Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) at the Fogg Art Museum (Faust will give a gallery talk on November 2) are invited to comment at a group. Complementing the webcast of the installation exercises, the proceedings were available, reported the News Office, by downlink from Satellite Galaxy 17, transponder 6, using frequency 11820.0000 and “vertical polarization.”

As for symbols, Faust made a major statement about the University by inviting each of her living predecessors—Derek Bok (1971-1991, 2006-2007), Neil L. Ruden-stine (1991-2001), and Summers (2001-2006)—to be seated at center stage, and set a precedent by having them confer some of the symbols of office. In a “We Three Kings” moment, Bok handed forth two silver keys, Rudenstine the earliest College record book, Summers the Harvard seals. Then Frances D. Fergusson, president of the Board of Overseers, and Senior Fellow of the Harvard Corporation James R. Houghton formally invested her in the office, Houghton presenting the final symbol, a replica of the Charter of 1650. The Overseers and Corporation members, minus Robert E. Rubin, looked on from the stage.

Faust set a further precedent by inviting a University staff member to present one of the formal greetings. (As chair of a Committee on University Life at Penn in the 1980s, she had criticized the “incivility” of students and faculty toward staff members.) Beverly Blake Sullivan, associate director of the Harvard Alumni Association Board of Directors, with 38 years of University service, spoke of the nearly 13,000 staff members as an “exceptionally talented group of people” who “seek knowledge and look for solutions. We are proactive, and daily we strive to maintain the highest standards to help Harvard realize its transformative potential.”

And at the end of the day’s work, a color guard of Harvard ROTC cadets led the recessional.

But unmistakably the farthest-reaching symbolism sprang from Faust’s own experience growing up in the segregated South, as a participant in the civil-rights movement, and as a scholar of the disfiguring wounds of racial division in America. Beyond Toni Morrison’s reading—about a slave girl enmeshed in the mounting witch terrors of 1690—and Kara Walker’s unsettling prints, the Sanders Theatre concert began with the rousing Kuumba Singers and ended with saxophonist Joshua Redman ’91 (and three Harvard sidemen) filling the hall with jazz of sonic-boom intensity. Carla Ann Harris ’84, M.B.A. ’87, of Morgan Stanley and Harlem’s St. Charles Gospelites choir, sang “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” in Memorial Church Friday morning. For the afternoon exercises, the exuberant Harvard College Pan-African Dance and Music Ensemble escorted Faust and her presidential party into Tercentenary Theatre. The penultimate song, before the throng gave voice to “Fair Harvard,” was a rendition of “Amazing Grace” by Simon Estes.

book coverThe first individual Faust identified in her speech was John Hope Franklin, Ph.D. ’41, LL.D. ’81, the pioneering historian of race in America. In his autobiography, Mirror to America (2005), Franklin wrote about Arthur M. Schlesinger and Paul H. Buck, the faculty members who championed his studies at Harvard—but also of the segregated housing available to him, the waiters who refused dinner service, the teaching assignments that never came, and the crude anti-Semitism visited on fellow-student Oscar Handlin. In his own remarks, Franklin said, “One cannot read Drew Faust’s Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War without appreciating not merely her talents as a first-rate historian, but her enormous gifts as a close student of the human condition and her deep commitment to its radical improvement. One cannot read her similar biography of James Henry Hammond, the pro-slavery firebrand, without gaining a fresh view of the fickleness, fragility, and hopelessness of the slave society itself, and beyond that, the impossibility even of attempting to build a strong society out of the false and phony relationships that characterized it.”

“Often inaugural addresses contain lists—of a new president’s specific goals or programs,” Faust observed, but on October 12, she found such lists “too constraining.” Nonetheless, in the events surrounding the installation exercises, and by her actions since assuming office on July 1, she has in fact given many signs of her substantive agenda.

In five faculty symposia on Friday morning, Harvard scholars wrestled with issues of intellectual moment and of focused interest to the president and the wider institution. At “The Arts of Interpretation: Whose Meaning Is It Anyway?” Homi K. Bhabha, Rothenberg professor of the humanities, moderated a discussion on the ways we extract meaning from texts, maps, music, and art works—and the ambiguities that doing so entails. Using ob- jects ranging from a 1540s Mexican codex to a contemporary photograph, the panelists explored the problems of teasing apart myth and history in an old painting, works’ political subtexts, and the varied ways in which a perceiver “completes” an art work.

In “Decisions, Decisions: Health, Wealth, Happiness, and Neurobiology,” scholars in business, economics, medicine, psychology, and public health examined rationality, emotion, and the cognitive components of making complex decisions—and the implications for training doctors, investing for retirement, or waging war. “Innovation and Impact: Science and Engineering Today and Tomorrow” brought together experts in life sciences, physics, and infectious diseases. Among their common concerns, articulated by Cabot professor of the natural sciences Douglas Melton, was the need for Harvard to become as good in teaching science to undergraduates as it is in conducting scientific research.

During the discussion on “Inequality and Justice in the Twenty-First Century,” led by Gottlieb professor of law Elizabeth Warren, associate professor of education and economics Bridget Terry Long said universities, as society’s gatekeepers, have to “acknowledge our own role in creating inequality.” Prescriptions ranged from fostering direct service, such as in healthcare, to crafting policies through which society “can have less [inequality] than there is now,” according to Christopher Jencks, Wiener professor of social policy.

In the panel on “War and Truth”—of great moment, and the subject of Faust’s forthcoming book on death in the Civil War—MacArthur Fellow Jonathan Shay ’63, a psychiatrist who treats combat veterans with severe psychological trauma, said torturers are produced by training in which they are themselves tortured. Though some participants proposed that news trans- mitted by the Internet would counter the prevalence of atrocity, Tisch professor of history Niall Ferguson cautioned that humans seem to have an innate capacity for violence—and that young men in many parts of the world were avid consumers of “warography.”

Such urgent and interdis-ciplinary conversations are the very stuff of the freewheel-ing, creative work that has come to characterize the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, of which Faust was founding dean prior to being chosen as president. In a letter sent to the University community at the beginning of the academic year, she wrote of “opportunities not just to advance our efforts in discrete fields, but to work to become a university known more for bridges and less for walls,” and described her decanal appointees as “all shar[ing] a commitment…not only to the success of their own faculties and schools, but to the future of Harvard as a whole.” John Winthrop would approve. On September 20, at the launch of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Faust spoke of engineers as builders of bridges; she envisioned bridges between basic and applied science, among technology and ethics and public policy, and among Harvard’s schools and industry and the larger world.

In his remarks welcoming Faust to her presidency, Massachusetts governor Deval L. Patrick ’78, J.D. ’82, urged her to “lean forward.” That she will certainly do, soon, enlisting faculty members and others in efforts to think broadly about Harvard’s opportunities in the arts and performance; to build connections among social scientists, much like the new Harvard University Science and Engineering Committee; and to establish the University’s relationships with its local communities on a new footing. Those initiatives must meld with academic planning, Allston physical and construction planning, visions for use of the University’s financial resources, and ambitions that require future fundraising.

How all those ventures unfold depends, in part, on the Harvard community’s determination to “knitt together” with each other and with the new president. In an unexpected ending to her installation address, Faust reached into history a final time, to suggest the way to the academic future.

“Last week,” she said, “I was given a brown manila envelope that had been entrusted to the University Archives in 1951 by James B. Conant, Harvard’s twenty-third president. He left instructions that it should be opened by the Harvard president at the outset of the next century ‘and not before.’” Within she found “a remarkable letter from my predecessor. It was addressed to ‘My dear Sir.’ Conant wrote with a sense of imminent danger. He feared an impending World War III that would make, as he put it, ‘the destruction of our cities including Cambridge quite possible.’…But as he imagined Harvard’s future, Conant shifted from foreboding to faith. If the ‘prophets of doom’ proved wrong, if there was a Harvard president alive to read his let-ter, Conant was confident about what the University would be. He wrote, ‘You will receive this note and be in charge of a more prosperous and significant institution than the one over which I have the honor to preside.…That…[Harvard] will maintain the traditions of academic freedom, of tolerance for heresy, I feel sure,’” Faust read. “We must dedicate ourselves to making certain he continues to be right; we must share and sustain his faith.”

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