Right Person Right Time
The appointment of Harvard University’s first female president was a historic moment for the nation’s oldest university. But some critics call it the result of political correctness gone too far.
By David Pluviose
The appointment of Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust, the first woman named president of Harvard University, marks a diversity high point in the storied history of the nation’s oldest college. At age 9, she famously wrote to U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower calling for an end to segregation. And in her current status as a noted historian of the Civil War and Black culture, Faust has shown a profound understanding of the dynamics of race in America. Currently dean of Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Faust earned a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania and worked her way through the faculty ranks before moving on to Harvard.
Faust’s appointment means that half of the presidents of Ivy League universities are women. Nevertheless, Dr. Amy Gutmann, Penn’s president and an ardent supporter of Faust, says the Ivy League has a long way to go when it comes to promoting diversity across the board.
“None of us imagined that, in our lifetimes, four out of eight Ivy League presidents would be women, let alone considered that those presidents would be us,” she says. “Now it is all the more important that this expansion of opportunity be demonstrable for members of other groups who have been discriminated against throughout history.”
Faust’s appointment comes as a relief to many critics of her predecessor, Dr. Lawrence Summers. His detractors point to several incidents during his five-year reign at Harvard that they say demonstrated his disdain for diverse scholarship. Early on, Summers permanently marred his relationship with much of the arts and science faculty after a verbal confrontation with Dr. Cornel West, then a noted professor of Black studies at the university. During the heated exchange, Summers questioned the quality of West’s academic work, criticizing him for recording a spoken-word CD. Summers also raised the ire of a number of faculty members by rejecting two separate proposals to launch a Hispanic studies institute in the mold of the university’s renowned W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African-American Research.
However, the final straw came in January 2005, when Summers questioned whether “intrinsic aptitude” may be to blame for the lack of female representation in science and engineering disciplines.
The comments sparked a national uproar, prompting Summers to create several task forces designed to assess gender equity at Harvard. He tapped Faust to be a leading member of those task forces, and devoted $50 million of university resources to address the deficiencies the groups reported. But, for many members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Summers’ efforts were too little, too late. FAS passed a no-confidence vote against Summers on March 15, 2005, paving the way for his resignation about three months later.
Many of Summers’ critics applaud Faust’s ascension to the presidency, saying the decision is proof that Harvard is interested in doing more than just talking about gender equity.
Dr. James E. Samels, CEO of the higher education consulting firm Education Alliance and author of Presidential Transition in Higher Education: Managing Leadership Change, calls Faust’s appointment “Poetic justice, in the sense that Harvard got the best woman available for the job. I think that it was unfortunate that [Summers] had fallen prey to a lack of homework on women’s aptitude in science, and I think that it’s not lost on anybody that it’s poetic justice that [Faust] should have the first presidency held by a woman of Harvard in its 350 years of venerable heritage and mission.”
Many of Summers’ supporters, however, contend that a vocal minority of overly politically correct FAS members pushed Summers out for exercising his rights of free speech. Dr. Stephen H. Balch, president of the National Association of Scholars, is among a group of academics who view Faust as an underqualified feminist who was handed the presidency to mollify the university’s critics.
Balch says Faust’s ascension “bears all the hallmarks of a penitential act. Dr. Faust comes to the presidency of the world’s most distinguished university out of a career whose foremost characteristic has been its strong feminist bent, rather than executive experience.
“Since Larry Summers’ forced departure, Harvard has been anguishing over its imagined sins against women,” he continues. Faust’s appointment “comes after Summers’ departure for having sort of verbally sinned against gender consciousness. So it’s a penitential act.”
Not surprisingly, Balch’s view has its opponents. Harvard’s Dr. Kay K. Shelemay, a professor of music and African and African-American studies, says she would “detach any discussion of the naming of Dr. Faust from anything having to do with former president Summers. It’s simply not relevant.” She says Faust is “very well qualified, a wonderful scholar, a wonderful administrator” who has “a wonderful grasp of the issues and challenges of present day academia.”
Additionally, many scholars who know Faust personally, as Balch admittedly doesn’t, dismiss the idea that Faust will bring a feminist agenda to the president’s office.
Dr. Caroline M. Hoxby, a professor of economics at Harvard, calls the concerns over Faust’s supposed leftist feminism “very unfair to her. It’s essentially not a reaction to Drew Faust as Drew Faust, it’s a rebound reaction to Larry Summers — it really has nothing to do with her.” Faust “is a very level-headed, sensible person. If you had asked me when I didn’t know she was going to be appointed president, ‘Is Drew Faust an ardent feminist,’ I think I would have said no. She just strikes me as being right in the middle of the road. There were some people that felt very attached to Larry Summers and his particular points of view and, therefore, she is getting the rebound from that. But I don’t actually think that’s a reflection of her or her personality.”
A Question of QualificationAmong Balch’s arguments against Faust is that her accomplishments don’t measure up to past Harvard presidents.
Dr. Neil L. Rudenstine, for example, was executive vice president of the Mellon Foundation and was provost of Princeton University. Derek C. Bok, who served as president from 1971 to 1991 and most recently as interim president, had been dean of Harvard Law School, which Balch says is “certainly bigger than the Radcliffe Institute.”
Summers, for example, had been secretary of the Treasury,” Balch adds. “He’d run this huge department of government in addition to having been a professor ofeconomics earlier.”
Nevertheless, many say Summers’ executive experience didn’t help him once he assumed the presidency, and they suggest that more faculty leadership experience could have helped him quell the FAS insurrection that ultimately led to his resignation.
“I think that many of the greatest college presidents of the United States are people who have been on a faculty for a long time, and they have shown their leadership by being a leader among the faculty,” says Hoxby. “[In a corporation,] they promote somebody who was the vice president or they promote someone who has come up from within the organization who had been tested in that organization’s environment. I think that many of the great university presidents come about exactly that way.”
Penn’s Gutmann, a trailblazing female Ivy League president, vouches for Faust’s presidential credentials.
“Drew’s qualifications for the Harvard presidency are impeccable. I think that she is an absolute natural, a person with superb judgment, clear vision and absolute commitment to furthering the highest values of higher education,” she says. “Her appointment as Harvard’s next president sends a strong message of expanding equality of opportunity for women based on talent and achievement.”
Dr. Donna Burns Phillips, director of the Office of Women in Higher Education at the American Council on Education, calls the criticism baseless. She says it’s likely that all women and minorities have had to face that kind of criticism, especially coming on the heels of “some kind of uproar over racism or sexism.”
But Phillips does concede that Faust’s background in higher education leadership is not as deep as the background of someone like Lee C. Bollinger, who came in second to Summers during Harvard’s last presidential search and is now president of Columbia University. Nevertheless, Phillips adds that Faust “had all of the qualities and all of the talents that are right for Harvard at this particular time in its evolution.”
Phillips gives credit to Summers for — intentionally or not — debunking the idea that racial and gender equity is a reality in American academia.
“In many ways, I’m very grateful to Larry Summers because there is always the danger when you have high-profile appointments — as we have had with Ruth Simmons at Brown and Shirley Tilghman at Princeton — to draw the conclusion that ‘The problem is solved,’” Phillips says. “The problem of sexism and racism are far from solved. President Summers, whatever his motivation for saying what he did, had the effect of reminding everybody, yet again, how far we are.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com
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