A New Era at Harvard University

This past Sunday, Drew Gilpin Faust was named the 28th president of Harvard University. All indications are that Faust, who will be the first woman to head Harvard, will be more supportive of black opportunities in higher education than her predecessor, Lawrence Summers. Summers was slow to show his support for affirmative action in higher education, he had no interest in black studies, and his public dispute with African-American studies professor Cornel West drove the black scholar to Princeton University.

Faust is a historian who has written extensively on the Civil War and the American South. She has taught black studies courses at Harvard. She grew up in Jim Crow Virginia and her family employed black servants. But she rejected the lifestyle of a “southern belle.” At age 9 she wrote a letter to President Eisenhower calling for an end to racial segregation in the United States. As an undergraduate college student she was active in the civil rights protest movement.

Faust is a graduate of Concord Academy in Massachusetts and Bryn Mawr College. She holds a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in American civilization from the University of Pennsylvania. She served on the faculty at Penn for 25 years before coming to Harvard in 2001 as the founding dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

In a recent tribute to former Harvard presidents Derek Bok and Neil Rudenstine, who recruited Faust to come to Cambridge, Faust was sending clear signals that, unlike the confrontational management style of Lawrence Summers, she would be more skilled in working closely with the faculty and moving Harvard forward. Faust quoted Nelson Mandela who said that “a leader is like a shepherd, straying behind the flock, letting the most nimble go ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing all along that they are being directed from behind.” This is a view that Harvard has not seen since the administrations of Bok and Rudenstine. All of this bodes well for Harvard leadership in expanding educational opportunities for African Americans.