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‘More open and diverse’: Harvard’s outgoing president on a decade of change

Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust, center, congratulates students after they received degrees at the school’s 2017 commencement. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
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She made history when she took office in July 2007 as the first female president of Harvard University. But many other milestones marked Drew Gilpin Faust’s tenure as leader of the nation’s oldest institution of higher learning.

Among the most challenging: the abrupt loss of $1.8 billion in operating cash and a major shrinkage of Harvard’s endowment after the 2008 financial crisis. In June 2009, the endowment stood at $26 billion, down nearly 30 percent from the year before. It took about a decade for the endowment to return to its nominal pre-crash level (not adjusted for inflation). As of June 2017, it stood at $37.1 billion.

Faust’s presidency is winding down as Lawrence S. Bacow, former president of Tufts University, prepares to succeed her July 1. There was much more to her tenure than financial crisis and recovery. But grappling with the fallout of the crisis meant scrutiny of the university’s workings and where they may have failed. One key outcome, Faust said, was the first change in governance for Harvard since 1650. The governing board known as the Harvard Corp. nearly doubled in size, from seven members to 13 (including the president) under an overhaul announced in 2010. In addition, term limits were set, and new committees were established to strengthen the board’s financial oversight.

All of which is arcane but significant for a school founded in 1636, more than 150 years before the Constitutional Convention.

“The very small fiduciary group of six plus me was simply not large enough to encompass the different kinds of perspectives and expertise that running a giant university required,” Faust said in a recent visit to The Washington Post. The corporation is the smaller and more powerful of two governing bodies at Harvard. The other is the Board of Overseers.

“We put in place good-governance things like term limits and committees and just strengthened the ability of the governing boards to mobilize knowledge and insight,” Faust said.

Faust, 70, Harvard’s 28th president, is a historian of the Civil War and the American South who was dean of the university’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She was chosen to lead Harvard after Lawrence H. Summers resigned as president in 2006 amid controversy. Summers had drawn criticism for, among other things, remarks he made about whether “innate” differences between men and women could help explain a shortage of women in top academic positions in science.

Faust is ever mindful of the barrier she broke, pointing out that when she was starting college as a teenager in the 1960s, she would not have been able, as a woman, to enter Harvard’s Lamont Library for undergraduates. But she emphasized from the outset of her term that she was the president of the university — “not the woman president of Harvard.”

Restoring order to Harvard’s finances was essential for Faust to carry out other parts of her agenda. On her watch, the university undertook a major expansion of financial aid for middle-income families and eliminated loans from aid packages. Student aid rose from $339 million in 2007 to $539 million in 2016. That enabled the university to recruit students from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. “It’s more open and diverse,” Faust said.

Undergraduate admissions have grown more competitive. Harvard accepts about 1 in 20 applicants. But the share of admitted students with enough financial need to qualify for federal Pell Grants climbed to 20 percent in 2018, Harvard said, up several percentage points from the level a few years ago. In addition, the university has more international students (more than 10 percent of enrollment in the undergraduate college) and more first-generation college students (about 17 percent of those admitted this year).

“That’s a real demographic shift, with implications for how we teach,” Faust said. An urgent question, she said, is how the university can help underprivileged students who may be passionate about science, for example, but come from high schools with minimal laboratories. “How do we make sure that they can take fullest advantage of the opportunities at Harvard?” she said. “What are the ways we make these people feel they’re not just marginal but are really part of the campus?”

In addition, Harvard has expanded its global reach online over the past six years through the platform called edX. Harvard teamed with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2012 to launch the nonprofit venture. The website, offering courses from Harvard, MIT and other big-name colleges and universities, has drawn millions of participants who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to experience studying at those elite schools.

“We’ve learned so much from this,” Faust said. “One of the things we’re really proud of is how many learners we’ve reached all over the world.” She said the university has discovered that many of the online learners are teachers. “So you get a sense of the exponential impact of sharing Harvard’s resources more broadly,” Faust said.

Even as Harvard boasts of opening up more to the world, Faust acknowledged its undergraduate admissions remains ultra-selective. She declined to answer questions about a pending federal lawsuit in which a group called Students for Fair Admissions alleges that the university discriminates against qualified Asian American applicants. Harvard denies wrongdoing and defends its use of race as one factor among many in what is known as a “holistic” admissions review. The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld race-conscious college admissions policies.

Some top-tier schools in recent years, including rival Yale University, have expanded incoming classes. Asked whether Harvard might do the same with its undergraduate college, which has about 6,700 students, Faust said such decisions are likely to wait until the university finishes renovating student housing. “This has been a massive project,” she said. “To provide adequate facilities and upgrade the facilities for the undergraduates we have now has really prevented focusing our attention on building new facilities for additional students.”

Faust has dealt in her term with controversies over sexual assault, sexual harassment, cheating and single-gender student clubs. She also has overseen major growth in engineering since the university’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences was established in 2007. And she steered a fundraising campaign that generated more than $8 billion.

In recent years, Faust has sought to draw attention to an issue that extends far beyond her campus in Cambridge, Mass.: She wants to make the case that more young people should consider going to college. She said she worries about survey data showing a rising number of Republicans are skeptical.

“When this drumbeat of attacks on American higher education gains strength,” she said, “it’s a huge disservice to young people who may take these attacks seriously and defer their own plans or deviate from their own plans — because this will undermine their opportunities in life.”

Recently, the Republican-led Congress approved a tax on the endowments of Harvard and certain other wealthy institutions, an action that Faust and others are pushing to reverse. These schools note that endowments help support financial aid for students from low-income families.

Faust said the image problem colleges face is complicated. “Even people who are attacking us as a sector still want their children to go to Harvard and other peer institutions, still love the institutions from which they graduated and are very loyal and engaged with those institutions,” she said. “So it’s a bit of a contradiction.”

She said one solution is for Harvard and other schools to spend more time across the country — in cities, towns and rural areas — working on real-world problems such as the opioid crisis. “We have a school of public health, a fabulous school,” she said. “How can we be on the ground in ways that do more? … We need to both explain better what we already are doing — and do more.”

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