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First Female Harvard President Discusses Priorities and Goals

February 12, 2007 at 6:36 PM EST
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TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: Now, a conversation with the next president of Harvard University. Drew Gilpin Faust was selected this weekend to become the first woman to lead Harvard in its 371-year history.

She’s a Civil War historian, former professor at the University of Pennsylvania, now the dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She will take over as president of Harvard in July. And she joins us tonight from Cambridge.

Dr. Faust, first, welcome and congratulations.

DREW GILPIN FAUST, Dean, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study: Thank you very much.

JIM LEHRER: Just on a personal level, how important is it to you to become president of Harvard University?

DREW GILPIN FAUST: Well, it’s an enormous thrill for me. It represents a chance to contribute to higher education, which has been my whole adult life, in a new and extraordinarily important way. And I’m very excited at the prospect.

JIM LEHRER: Does it matter that you’re the first woman to be president of Harvard?

DREW GILPIN FAUST: Well, I think — I want to say two things about that. One thing I said yesterday, when I was announced and someone asked me a similar question, I think it’s important that I’m the president of Harvard, not the woman president of Harvard.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

DREW GILPIN FAUST: On the other hand, I’ve just been overwhelmed by people’s responses, e-mails, phone calls, messages, from women and men, really all over the world, saying how much this means, young women saying you’re an inspiration, people bringing their little girls to come shake my hand.

I think it has enormous symbolic meaning that there is now a woman president of Harvard or will be on July 1.

JIM LEHRER: But it’s only symbolic, you think?

DREW GILPIN FAUST: No, I think it symbolizes important changes in the place of women in higher education, the place of women in public life, the place of women in America, and the world more generally.

But it’s more than me. I mean, I’m the symbol. But the reality that lies behind it is much broader than Harvard, or me, or even higher education.

The previous president

Drew Gilpin Faust
President-elect, Harvard University
I think I was chosen clearly on the merits, and I wish to operate as president on the merits.

JIM LEHRER: Much has been said, as you know, in the last few days about the connection between your being chosen for this job and your predecessor, Lawrence Summers, who got into some problems, some trouble over some things he said about women's issues. What's your analysis of that?

DREW GILPIN FAUST: My analysis?

JIM LEHRER: About the connection. Of the connection.

DREW GILPIN FAUST: Of the connection?

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DREW GILPIN FAUST: Well, I think that issues of gender have been discussed widely at Harvard. But I think I was chosen clearly on the merits, and I wish to operate as president on the merits. I think, on one level, we might say that I can affirm that women have the aptitude to do science or to do anything, including being president of Harvard.

JIM LEHRER: So you believe you would have been chosen even if there hadn't been this flap with Larry Summers over these kinds of issues?

DREW GILPIN FAUST: I think I would believe that, yes.

A historian as president

Drew Gilpin Faust
President-elect, Harvard University
I think history gives you a real context within which to understand how to bring about change and how to bring about progress.

JIM LEHRER: You said with great pride today, "I am an historian." Why is that so important, when it comes to being president of Harvard or any other university?

DREW GILPIN FAUST: Well, I think it's an important perspective to take in any leadership role, because the future comes out of the past. And when you can look in the past for ways of approaching the future, for signals of how the future might be made imaginable to people who are resisting change or frightened about change, I think history gives you a real context within which to understand how to bring about change and how to bring about progress.

JIM LEHRER: And you -- one of your specialties, of course, within the Civil War, were kind of the role of women in Civil War times. Did that either consciously or unconsciously play some role in who you are now and the fact that you're sitting where you are, or going to be sitting in July?

DREW GILPIN FAUST: Well, I wrote a book about the experience of women in the slave-holding South during the Civil War, and that book is about people resisting change and how, even when the world turns upside down, people look for continuities, for things that are familiar.

I think that that book made me consider change and how to bring it about. And so, when I came to the Radcliffe Institute six years ago, I was very aware of the need to make change happen there. And I thought a lot about that book and a lot about what I learned in doing the research and writing of that book, as I crafted my actions at Radcliffe.

So insofar as Radcliffe was a predecessor to this current job, yes, I do think it had an effect.

Directions as president

Drew Gilpin Faust
President-elect, Harvard University
Universities are critical. And the chance to lead one and to contribute to that was just a thrill for me.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see your job as the president of Harvard to change things?

DREW GILPIN FAUST: Well, I think higher education in general and Harvard in particular are facing particular opportunities, challenges right now. And so the way we address those will involve certain kinds of important changes.

We want to do more with undergraduate education. We want to figure out how to do science across disciplinary boundaries. There are a whole series of such undertakings that will require us to step up and think of new ways to do those things.

JIM LEHRER: But is there one specific thing or one, two or three things that, when you considered a possibility, when the search committee and others at Harvard talked to you about the possibility of becoming the president of Harvard, were there things that went through your mind, say, "Hey, I would love to do this, I would love to do that, if I become the president of Harvard"?

DREW GILPIN FAUST: Well, I have to confess that almost everything we talked about, I thought, "This will be exciting, and that will be exciting," to work with the faculty on improving educational opportunities for wider varieties of individuals, to open the access to higher education. What an opportunity that represents.

To think about how disciplines are breaking down, and how we can reconfigure knowledge, and how an intellectual engagement means leading that kind of change, that was exciting, too.

I think also something that excited me a lot is that I have been at universities since I went to college, more years ago than I wish to confess. I have been teaching. I taught at the University of Pennsylvania for 25 years. I've been at Harvard now for six years. And just watching higher education and what universities are in the midst of was something that made me interested in making a contribution.

I think that there are so many contradictions in how Americans regard universities right now. We love them and hate them at the same time. We want to get our children into them. We struggle and strive to do that. And yet, at the same time, we say they're hidebound and they're not well-managed.

We accuse them of not having broad enough ideas, of not being open enough, and yet we also distrust the free flow of ideas sometimes and undermine that. And we need to commit ourselves to debate and inquiry and not to the direction, I think, that so much of the world is moving, which is polarization, of really unchallengeable certainties.

So universities are critical. And the chance to lead one and to contribute to that was just a thrill for me.

Harvard's reputation

Drew Gilpin Faust
President-elect, Harvard University
I think the wide range of excellence across fields and schools, the scope and stature of the intellectual engagement that Harvard faculty and students involve themselves in. I think that really is the sign of Harvard's importance.

JIM LEHRER: Does Harvard deserve the reputation that it has, as not only one of the leading universities in America, in many quarters, the leading university in America?

DREW GILPIN FAUST: Well, I can say, yes, I think it does, and I say that in part because I wasn't always here. And since I came here, I don't think there's been a single day when there wasn't something that just surprised and delighted me about this institution.

It might be something I discovered in the stacks of Widener Library, for me, particularly Civil War materials that were treasures that were hiding there, or a chance to interact with a dissertation student who'd just been so brilliant as to discover a whole new perspective in a dissertation chapter, or the undergraduate seminar I taught this afternoon, where the kids were -- it was only the second class of the semester, and they were so engaged and so lively, and so distinguished. It's a thrill to just move through this place.

JIM LEHRER: What was the seminar on today? What was the subject?

DREW GILPIN FAUST: It was on the Civil War. We were talking about the causes of the Civil War, the coming of the Civil War.

JIM LEHRER: And it was an undergraduate seminar?

DREW GILPIN FAUST: It was, yes.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, yes. As a practical matter, is there one single or two or three things that distinguish Harvard from, say, Brown, or Yale, or the University of Oklahoma, University of Missouri, and other major universities?

DREW GILPIN FAUST: I think the wide range of excellence across fields and schools, the scope and stature of the intellectual engagement that Harvard faculty and students involve themselves in. I think that really is the sign of Harvard's importance.

JIM LEHRER: So you understand why -- you said it a moment ago -- one of the many things you have to deal with is so many people want to go to college, obviously, and so many people want to go to Harvard. And you understand why, is that what you're...

DREW GILPIN FAUST: Yes, I do. I do. My daughter went here, so I understood why in a very specific way, when she was trying to get into Harvard a number of years ago.

JIM LEHRER: When they get out of Harvard, is there some thing about them that they know, that they have learned in a broad way about just a general course or a general purpose of knowledge that distinguishes them from other graduates from other schools, possibly?

DREW GILPIN FAUST: Well, I think one thing that they know is what the bar is, how extraordinary people can be. You have undergraduates writing novels, making scientific discoveries, starting companies. You have faculty members at the very forefront of science.

You have people who are really so extraordinary that you just think, "How can in any way" -- every day, you're challenging yourself to think, "How do I measure up to this? What is possible?"

So I'd say Harvard graduates leave here with a sense of the possible and the limit -- and a sense that there are no limits to what humans can do and that you can always be pushing, whatever limit you think might be there.

JIM LEHRER: Again, Dr. Faust, congratulations and my best to you.

DREW GILPIN FAUST: Thank you so much.