Drew Gilpin Faust: Quick Ascent Offers a Snapshot of a New Harvard

Historians in the News

The ascent of Drew Gilpin Faust to the presidency of Harvard University culminates the rapid climb of someone who had no ties to the institution when she arrived six years ago. Ms. Faust is founding dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She is the only one of the 10 members of the Council of Deans who represents an academic department without a full-time student body or faculty.

It is highly unusual for Harvard to choose such an "outsider." She is the first Harvard president since 1672 who doesn't hold a degree from the institution. In demonstration of how quickly Harvard has changed, when she was appointed, she was the only woman among the deans.

Many who know her had wondered if she would ever leave her previous home, the University of Pennsylvania, where she taught history for more than 25 years. She earned her master's degree and Ph.D. from Penn in American civilization. Harvard had asked her to join its faculty, as did the Johns Hopkins University and Yale University. But it wasn't until Neil L. Rudenstine, then Harvard's president, offered her the job at the Radcliffe Institute that she packed her bags. She said at the time that shifting into academic administration "has been a move I've resisted for a long time, and one I didn't think I ever wanted to make."

Since then, her skills as an administrator have received wide notice. According to news reports, for example, she was widely considered to be a candidate for the presidency of the University of Chicago during its search, which concluded last March.

"She could have been president of any number of institutions by now," said Lynn Hunt, a professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles, who worked with Ms. Faust for 11 years at Penn. "She decided not to do that because she thought it was better to be at a place she knew."

Ms. Faust was Annenberg professor of history at Penn for her last 12 years there. She was also director of women's studies from 1996 to 2000. She is an expert in Civil War history, and has specialized in writing humanist studies of the South. Her most recent book is Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 1996). She also wrote four other published books, including a biography of a plantation owner and a study of the dilemmas faced by intellectuals in the slave-holding era. She has a sixth book, "This Republic of Suffering," scheduled for publication in 2008....
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