By Valerie Strauss and Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writers
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.
Faust will end the succession of 27 white men who have held the president's title at America's oldest institution of higher education. She will take the reins from Derek Bok, 75, a former 20-year Harvard president who took over as interim leader when Summers left.
"And it has only taken them 371 years," said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women. "Larry Summers, we couldn't have done it without you."
Faust became dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in 2001 and taught history and African American studies there. Before coming to Radcliffe, she taught for two decades at the University of Pennsylvania -- where she earned her doctorate in American civilization in 1975 -- and served as director of the Women's Studies Program. She is the author of five books.
Sheldon Hackney, who was president of Penn from 1981 to 1993 while Faust was a teacher there, said Faust was not only a great educator but always displayed sound judgment and was well-respected by her peers.
"She will be really good for Harvard," he said. "There is no big significant change that you can make in the university for which you don't need faculty support, and she will be able to get that."
Some educators said the choice of Faust was a surprise because she does not have extensive administrative experience. That was probably a plus, said George Washington University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg.
"They didn't want anybody with administrative experience," he said. "They wanted an inspirational leader, a political symbol, a decent person that everybody could feel good about to help them do what the presidents do best."
The decision is expected to be formalized at a special meeting of the university's Board of Overseers tomorrow, according to the Harvard Crimson student newspaper, which broke the story in yesterday's editions, along with the Boston Globe.