Drew Faust: What Harvard’s Choice Means





The night before Drew Gilpin Faust was formally named president of Harvard University, women involved in efforts to promote female leaders in academe happened to be gathering in Washington for workshops and networking sessions held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the American Council on Education. During a fund-raising pitch at a dinner, women were reminded that the programs they support might just help someone who could become “the next president of Harvard.”

While Faust wasn’t present in a literal sense, she was very much a presence, given that news of her appointment had leaked a day earlier. One female president at a state university, who had been traveling that day and not seen the morning papers, let out a literal yelp of joy when told the news. She has never met Faust, she said, but that didn’t matter.

At a reception, Marie C. Wilson, director of the White House Project and founder of Take Our Daughters to Work Day, said that she was on the phone earlier last week, being asked about a prospective candidate for a presidency other than Harvard. Wilson laughed in hindsight at what she said of this candidate: “She’s a Drew Faust kind of leader.” To Wilson, and to many here, Faust’s selection is significant on many levels, and that she’s a woman is just one of them.

Hundreds of women attend events at the ACE meeting organized by the state networks that the council has set up to promote female advancement in the administrative ranks. Rooms full of presidents, of the provosts, vice chancellors and deans who want to become presidents, and of the assistant deans who aspire to be deans — were analyzing Faust from all kinds of angles. Some focused on her managerial style and some on her scholarship. Others considered how much a Harvard selection would influence the way presidents and trustees would see them, while still others said that the selection raised anew the question of what it means to be a female president.

The mood was decidedly upbeat; references to Faust led to loud applause at Saturday night’s events. But many women expressed fear that all the references to half of the Ivy League being led by women would convey a false impression that gender equity in higher education had been “solved,” while they consider that decidedly not to be the case.

“Harvard is incredibly significant symbolically,” said Carol S. Hollenshead, director of the Center for the Education of Women at the University of Michigan. “This is a very important step.”...

Several women at the meeting — while delighting in Harvard’s choice — said it bothered them that Harvard was getting attention for doing something other institutions did years ago (decades ago actually). In 1978, Hanna Holborn Gray became president of the University of Chicago, the first woman to be permanent president of a top research university. Prior to being named, she was acting president of Yale University, where she was also provost. It was 10 years before another woman became head of a major research university: Donna E. Shalala at the University of Wisconsin at Madison (currently the president of the University of Miami). In the Ivy League, Judith Rodin was the first woman to be named president when she was selected at the University of Pennsylvania in 1994. Rodin is now president of the Rockefeller Foundation and when she left Penn, she was succeeded by Amy Gutmann.

Six of the Big 10 universities either have or have had female presidents; women have led huge state university systems (Molly Broad at the University of North Carolina; W. Ann Reynolds at California State University and the City University of New York). Susan Hockfield was named president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2004. And abroad, Alison Richard is vice chancellor (the top position) at the University of Cambridge. (Richard, Hockfield, Rodin and Gray all served as provost at Yale before getting the top job elsewhere.)

Despite all of those appointments, and steady increases in the number of women in the administrative ranks, many women here said that the reason the Faust appointment meant so much was that — after all these years — many women in academe are still attending meeting after meeting with only men.

“It’s always evident that you are the woman in meetings,” said Beatriz G. Robinson, vice president for university planning at St. Thomas University, in Florida. “It’s still very solitary.”...


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