How Harvard’s First Woman President Quietly Changed an Institution Older Than America

August 2, 2017

by Celan Bryant

Drew Faust, Harvard’s 28th president, will step down on June 30, 2018. Faust is an acclaimed author and historian of the Civil War and the American South, and the first woman to lead the University. I was at Harvard when she became President amidst the backdrop of the turmoil created by her predecessor Larry Summers. Her quiet and steadfast leadership style settled an administration in turmoil and focused all resources on the success of Harvard’s legacy — the students.


In June 2017, Drew Faust, Harvard’s first woman president announced that she would be stepping down.

I write today to let you know that at the end of the coming academic year, I will conclude my service as president. On June 30, 2018, I will complete my eleventh year, and the Harvard Campaign will reach its conclusion. It will be the right time for the transition to Harvard’s next chapter, led by a new president.

The announcement was met with mixed emotion. Some administrators were sad to see Faust go, but not all. Faust made enemies when her vision translated into budget cuts for faculty and staff, but she held steadfast in her conviction that inclusion was paramount to the needs of the institution and the future of its student body. This kind of steadfastness can seem easy until juxtaposed against the political events of today.

Founded in 1636 (140 years before the founding of America), Harvard University continues to do something very few organizations have been able to do – survive and thrive. As the Harvard Gazette put it,

Harvard  College and the University’s graduate schools, centers, and institutes  have long stood tall in their respective fields. Increasingly, though,  they also are coming together to share students, programs, and  facilities, tapping each other’s singular strengths to thrive in a  rapidly interweaving world. As such, they’re becoming a whole that is  greater than the sum of its thriving parts.

Harvard is indeed more than the sum of its parts, the degree to which is due to the institution’s leadership and to a larger extent, how that leadership decides to invest in the student body.

Innate Differences In Leadership

After 20 years of leadership, Derek Bok resigned as Harvard’s President in 1991. Bok was known for expanding central administration’s capacity thereby making the institution flatter and more transparent. Decision making was slow, but the outcome was well received by all. Among his successors was the controversial Larry H. Summers. Summers was known for quite the opposite. Governance styles between Bok and Summers could not have been more diametrically opposed. Bok was inclusionary, Summers was exclusionary. Bok was empathetic, Summers was estranged. Not surprisingly, Bok was at Harvard for two decades, while Summers barely lasted five years.

Summers’ presidency will always be marked by the now infamous “innate differences” luncheon. At the luncheon, Summers referred to a study that, according to a Harvard Clemson article, found “women make up 35 percent of faculty at universities across the country, but only 20 percent of professors in science and engineering.” According to the article, “Summers suggested that behavioral genetics could partially explain this phenomenon”.  The same article relates how MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins felt physically ill after hearing him speak.

In addition to his provocative comments about women, Summers was also known for ignoring central administrators and faced widespread criticism from faculty following reports that only four of 32 tenure offers were made to women in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.  Not surprisingly, Summers’ reign ended prematurely with his resignation in 2006.

Leadership Transition Leads To Turmoil

I entered Harvard on the heels of Summers’ resignation. In 2007, I was awarded an administrative fellowship. Bok returned to serve as the interim President (without pay) while a secret committee searched for a replacement for Summers.  I had the good fortune of meeting Bok on two occasions. The first was a casual conversation across Harvard Yard.

Bok and I were both on our way to a forum for Harvard’s administrators. He was the main speaker. The man had no clue who I was. I didn’t know who he was either, but we talked like old friends. In his sneakers and slacks, he asked me about my experience at Harvard and even told me to stop by his office before the fellowship was over. It wasn’t until he sat down on the stage that I made the connection.

This was largely my experience at Harvard. I found it to be something of a living anachronism – steeped in humility, etiquette and all things civil. So, in a period that some administrators compared to the Vietnam-era — in particular, there was a call for improved governance through increased transparency and inclusion at Harvard’s highest levels — everything had the appearance of serenity.

Drew Gilpin Faust & The Civil War

This is the backdrop for Drew Gilpin Faust’s entrance as Harvard’s 28th president. As the first women to lead Harvard, she was also the founding dean of Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. The author of six books, including This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (2008), which won the Bancroft Prize and was named one of the “10 Best Books of 2008” by The New York Times, Faust is best known for her research on the Civil War. Perhaps this is the ideal background for the person who would be capable of restoring Harvard to its former glory.

In 2009, just after the beginning of the Great Recession, Harvard faced a 27% drop in the value of the endowment, but Faust remained committed to providing financing for students. As a result, student aid increased every year of her leadership, from $339 million in 2007 to $539 million in 2016. In a FastCompany interview, Faust told the interviewer:

We made major cuts in budgets across the university. We did not cut financial aid. In fact, we increased it, because we found so many families coming in midyear, saying, “This package I got no longer works, because my dad just got fired,” or whatever it might be.

At the end of 2016, more than 75% of the 2016 graduating class graduated debt free. Faust saw accessibility as a key source of Harvard’s success and she felt this access should govern its selection and tuition process as well as its internal administrative processes. This approach did more than open doors for students, it also increased the number of women faculty by 25%. In the same interview Faust goes on to provide insight into how these changes were implemented:

We always ask the review faculty, “What women in this field did you consider? Did you cast the net as widely as possible to make sure that everybody of talent was considered?” We have developed elaborate training processes for people on search committees: how to cast a net widely, how to avoid using gendered language in letters, how to read recommendation letters with a sophisticated eye. A generation ago, a major professor would call the other major professors in his cohort and say, “Who’ve you got?” And that would be it. That never happens now.

Among Faust’s many initiatives of inclusion was One Harvard. The goal of One Harvard was to incentive collaboration and interdisciplinary studies. In addition to the Harvard Innovation Lab, the initiative continues to expand Harvard’s reach, both socioeconomically and culturally, through broad-based research at home and abroad. Faust has taken the definition of diversity to an entirely new level and the University’s student population is more competitive because of it.

Looking Forward: The First Woman President

“If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – African Proverb

Diversity and inclusion are more than speaking points, they provide the best organizations with a competitive edge. Looking forward, the Harvard of 2050 will most likely be even more diverse than it is today – that definition will be extended and challenged in every possible way. Its faculty, like the world, will have an increasingly interdisciplinary focus. As the world grows into a technological amalgam, the leaders of the new world will likely rely more on access than ownership. They will be expert in collaboration more so than exclusion. In the new age, commerce will be important, but collaboration will be critical.

I went to Harvard to study its business model for sustainability, its funding mechanism in particular. What I found was a platform for sustainability that relied on funding and a brand of leadership that is able to stay focused on the future. Faust demanded a certain level of maturity and sacrifice out of her faculty and administration that has transformed the institution at its core and made it more competitive and sustainable than ever.

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