Woman Chosen to Lead Harvard
Saturday, February 10, 2007
Harvard University is about to name its first woman president since its founding in 1636, tapping a Civil War historian to succeed Lawrence Summers, whose tumultuous tenure was marked by controversial remarks about women and clashes with faculty members.
Drew Gilpin Faust, 59, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and a leading historian on the American South, will be formally appointed president as early as this weekend, according to a source with knowledge of the decision.
With Faust's selection, half of the eight Ivy League schools will be run by women: Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University and Brown University.
Faust, a popular figure on campus known for her collegiality, will succeed the blunt Summers, an economist and former U.S. treasury secretary whose combative five-year tenure as president ended last year. His departure followed a faculty revolt after he suggested that the shortage of elite female scientists may stem in part from "innate" differences between men and women.
Many educators said Harvard's decision would send a message to other major research universities in the country -- 14 percent of which are headed by women.
"Harvard is making a statement at a critical time when we are seeing student bodies [at many schools] that are well over 50 percent women," said Claire van Ummersen, director of the Office of Women in Higher Education at the American Council on Education. "We see women faculty increasing in number, and the place where we have lagged most is in research institutions having women at the executive level. . . . Hopefully, this will have some influence on boards of trustees or overseers of other institutions."
Faust's selection comes as Harvard moves to modernize its more than 30-year-old undergraduate curriculum, a step that is being closely watched by other schools and could serve as a model for U.S. higher education.
Especially delighted by the choice of Faust were undergraduates, who said the new president and curriculum would place a long-sought focus on their education at the university, which has historically used graduate assistants to teach many undergraduate classes, for example.
"Everybody is really excited," said Ryan Anthony Petersen, president of Harvard's Undergraduate Council. "She is a teacher and has the ability to bring people together and put the focus here on teaching and undergraduates, which hasn't been true for 50 years."
Faust faces big challenges, including keeping up the frantic pace of fundraising that helped Harvard increase its endowment to $29.2 billion in 2006 -- more than the gross national product of many nations.
She also must work with the university's strong schools and colleges, which are famously decentralized; indeed, the powerful faculty of the College of Arts and Sciences drove the opposition to Summers.
Harvard's affairs are of interest in higher education because it occupies a unique space in academia. Seven U.S. presidents were graduates, and the faculty has produced more than 40 Nobel laureates in a range of fields. Its age, wealth and visibility place it at the top of a group of highly prestigious and influential institutions.