Drew Faust, Harvard’s First Female President

Walter Isaacson sits down with the first ever female president of Harvard University, Drew Faust, who helped steer the institution through choppy financial waters, and was at the helm when students alleged the admissions office discriminates against Asian Americans, and sued – a case which is still ongoing.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Harvard University has long been a bastion for the elite for its first 250 years, that meant only men. Harvard opened what would become Radcliffe, a separate college for women in the late 1800. But it wasn’t until 1963 that a woman got a full Harvard degree. The historian Drew Faust made history of her own when in 2007, she became the university’s first female president. She steered the institution through choppy financial waters and she was at the helm when students who allege the admissions office discriminates against Asian-Americans sued the university. That landmark case is still ongoing. Faust though has stepped down last year and she’s just been granted Harvard’s highest position, University Professor. She sat down with our Walter Isaacson to talk about her life and amazing career.

WALTER ISAACSON: Welcome to the show. Thank you.


ISAACSON: You know this day and age of Trump, we talk about Make America Great Again. That’s a great slogan and that harkens back to the wonderful 1950s. You’re immersing yourself in the history of the 1950s and your personal history there. What are you learning about that time when America was great and you were a member of the 4H Club?

FAUST: Well, for me, the ’50s weren’t such a great time. I grew up in rural Virginia as a little white girl at a time when being a girl had very constraining attributes and in a society that was puzzling to a young child who’d been told about the American dream and yet was confronted by division and exclusion of segregation every day. I remember chafing at some of the rules that applied to me and my family but did not apply to my three brothers. And I was in constant rebellion against that. My mother said to me, it’s a man’s world sweetie and the sooner you learn that, the better off you’ll be. So I don’t think that was such a great time.

ISAACSON: What helped you unlearn that?

FAUST: Well, I was — I feel that I was very lucky because as I grew older, worlds began to open before me and things began to change. And I got to be the beneficiary of many of those opening doors. So the change in attitudes that came from the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, the varieties of upheavals in American society in the ’50s and ’60s that are often looked at very critically now. I think we need to understand what they made possible and the lives they made different and the improvements in the human condition and human opportunity to come out of that period.

ISAACSON: So you’re writing then what will be both a memoir and sort of a social history of the 1950s. Tell me about that.

FAUST: Well, I’m just in kind of early exploratory stages. And so I don’t know quite how it’s going to turn out or how it will be shaped. But my sense of it is that it won’t be a traditional autobiography in which I say and then the next day I did this and the next day I did this. Rather I’m imagining doing it as a kind of set of episodes or vignettes united together by some overarching themes. I thought maybe I would tie

each of these episodes or vignettes to an object or a [13:40:00] photograph or something that would be a jumping off point for the consideration of

whatever that particular object or photograph might suggest.

ISAACSON: Let me pick one I know about.


ISAACSON: A letter you wrote to the president of the United States when you were nine.

FAUST: I was nine. And this reflected what I had been talking about with you a second ago which is the sense of unfairness. I felt that being a girl in a family where there were three brothers who were given privileges that I was told I couldn’t have because I was a girl. And I think that created to me this kind of sense of resistance to things that were unfair. And when I began to hear news about — I’m trying to pin down exactly what it was. Was it Brown v Board? Was it when we came to Little Rock? What exactly was I hearing on the news? But suddenly my eyes opened to the fact that the separations in my society were not random. Black people were not separated by their choice. This was a whole system of superiority and inferiority that was being enforced by white power. And I was horrified. And so I wrote a letter to President Eisenhower and I got a letter back from someone on his staff saying thank you for expressing your views. So I always had in my head that I had written this letter. And in the early 2000s, I was asked to write a little reminiscence about growing up in the south and becoming a historian of the south. And I thought to myself, did I make that up? Was this like everybody in France fought the resistance and, of course, I opposed segregation when I was a little kid? And so I went to search for the letter, I am a historian after all. And I went to the National Archives then realized not having worked on 20th Century history before this would be if it had existed in the Eisenhower Presidential Library. And lo and behold a librarian there found it and sent me an e-mail and said, “I will send you your letter.” I then was panicked and I thought what might I have said in this letter. So several days went by and then I received a letter and indeed, I’d written it. It was more religious than I had remembered. I sort of thought that the American Dream was going to be the basis of my argument. It was more God says we must be fair to black people, yellow people, white people, all are his children. That was the kind of tenor of the letter.

ISAACSON: And so you end up becoming very involved in race and even to go off to March in Selma, Alabama I think when you’re in boarding school, right?

FAUST: I was a freshman in college. I was 17. I had spent the preceding summer with a Quaker group in the South. And I had been in Birmingham and Orangeburg and various places where I’ve seen with my own eyes the kind of idealism and commitment that African-Americans and their allies were making to change society. And when I arrived at college that fall, I was not a happy freshman in college. I thought I want to be doing something more relevant. The Civil Rights Revolution’s going on in the south, what am I doing in college? And what am I going to do with my life and how can I continue this sense of idealism that had been so enhanced by my summers experience? And so when in March of my freshman year, those extraordinary T.V. shots came available to the American public of John Lewis having his head bashed in on that first March across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I, like many other Americans, said I just have to go to Selma.

ISAACSON: Let me ask you now how some of these experiences translated into your leadership at Harvard. You just testified recently at the affirmative action trial about Harvard’s admissions process. How important do you feel it is given the history of yourself and our country to have a race- conscious admission policy?

FAUST: I think it’s hugely important for us to be able to consider race as one factor among many in a holistic evaluation of a person because race matters and has mattered in the United States. And when we think about who a person is, and that’s what we try to decide in Harvard admissions, what are the varieties of influences on a person’s life and how does that fit that person to make contributions to the Harvard environment race is a significant part of who we are in the United States. And so I think that is critical. I also think it’s critical that we have a diverse population at Harvard that the variety of American life be represented in our student body because people learn from one another.

ISAACSON: So if you just did admissions mainly by SAT scores, you think Harvard would have more trouble accomplishing its mission?

FAUST: I think admissions by SAT scores would be a disaster because it tells you so little about an individual. It tells you that that individual is very good at taking tests and that can be — give you some kinds of insight. But there’s so many other things we want to know. Has this individual confronted hardships? Does this individual have a broad range of interests that might include music or public service or athletics? What kinds of different experiences has this person had that will influence the way they interact with others in our community? And none of that is rendered by the kind of objective reduction of a human being to a number through a test.

ISAACSON: And do you think that this lawsuit brought by Edward Blum and others on behalf of Asian-Americans who did not get into Harvard, do you think that they are fighting for those Asian-Americans or do you think they’re trying to destroy affirmative action on our society?

FAUST: I think I should let you ask them or let their actions define them rather than mainly myself.

ISAACSON: But when you give a personal rating which is the things you just talked about, what do you say to those who say those personal ratings have discriminated against Asian-Americans systematically?

FAUST: Well, we have to make sure that we have a broad range of input into how a personal rating is developed. But any rating is going to have different people performing differently on it. And so I think that it’s important that we sustain this commitment to the broad range of what an individual comprises.

ISAACSON: The Reverend Peter Gomes who you remember fondly, I’m sure who is a plumber professor of Christian morals and a preacher at Memorial Church, gave a strawman once about when you come to Harvard, we tell you how exclusive it is. We say it’s all about you got in, it’s exclusive. You get into these other places, Harvard is exclusive. They said, what we forgot to tell you is that it’s about inclusivity. Is that what you’re trying to make now or trying to make a mission of Harvard?

FAUST: This is so important, Walter. And it’s more important now even than when Peter gave that sermon because our student body has changed significantly. We’ve had a real expansion of financial aid so that 20 percent of our undergraduates now come from families that make less than $65,000 a year and they pay no tuitions or room and board. So we have students who would not have been part of Harvard before. We can’t say come this far and then we’ll put up all kinds of new barriers that exclude you from things. And so this issue of inclusivity and belonging has become one that is much more central to work — to our concerns. You can’t just make your population diverse. You have to make sure that once it gets there, all these different groups and socioeconomic groups, and ethnic groups, and so forth really feel that they have equal access to the opportunities and in life at Harvard.

ISAACSON: Do you worry about the assaults on free speech by some segments on campus?

FAUST: I worry about the assaults on free speech across our society. I think that we are so polarized, becoming so polarized, that there are just certain things that one group will not permit another group to say. To tolerate free speech, to encourage free speech means that there will be wounds, there will be things that are said that are offensive. We need to give the strength to students who are the recipients of that kind of assault, the courage to respond to it. But I think we can have interactions and respect on our campus that will underlie and support the expressions of free speech that can be a model for what I think is a threat throughout our society.

ISAACSON: Can you give me an example of what you had to confront that as president of Harvard?

FAUST: Well, a lot of it at Harvard as in other places has revolved around controversial speakers. And we’ve done a lot of work with our students saying it’s very important that we have controversial speakers and that we make clear where our disagreements with them are, that we have platforms and voices that articulate the weaknesses in this heinous speech. But to prohibit it is only to empower it. And so we’ve tried to plan very carefully for speakers who have been considered controversial. And that includes not just educating our students, getting leadership among students to set the right tone. It also means having the right place, making sure that you have control over the venue because there are a lot of people traveling around the United States who have nothing to do with Harvard or another campus who just want to come and make mischief. So often we’ll ticket these events so it’s only people in the Harvard community, not people, troublemakers from outside who are invited to come. So it has to be managed. But so far — and I always say this, knock on wood, I don’t see any wood to knock on, so far, these speeches have all gone well. The individuals have been respected. Questions have been asked that can be critical but have not been disrespectful. And there’s been on occasion someone who jumped up and yelled something and they’ve been quietly escorted out of the venue.

ISAACSON: Well, I like to remind people that it’s actually was much more volatile when you and I —


ISAACSON: Remember when — with George Bundy or Robert McNamara.

FAUST: Didn’t McNamara get kind of carted out of Cambridge and put on top of a car, made his life seem to be a bit under threat back there in the ’60s?

ISAACSON: Yes. So that gets to a question of why does history matter?

FAUST: Oh, wow. History matters because who are we if we don’t understand where we came from? How do we imagine a future if we don’t see a world that has been different in the past and can be different again? As president, I found myself often turning to history. And when I was a president, not a significant number of people said either to me or to others what does a historian know about how to run a university? But I always found when there was a problem, the first question I asked was, where did this problem come from? What are its roots? What’s at stake that I might not see if I don’t go back and look at its origins? And that seems to me so important. This also carries you through tough times. When we think about the history of our country, Hamilton, and what we learned about struggles that we experienced in the past about ideals that have inspired us through generations, about people who have done more than you can believe a human being could possibly do, those kinds of things move us forward. And it tells you, you’re not alone. You’re part of something bigger than yourself and how you contribute to the next chapter, that is such a privilege and it’s also so important.

ISAACSON: President Faust, thanks for being with us.

FAUST: Thank you, Walter.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour speaks with U.S. Reps. Pramila Jayapal & Debbie Dingell about ‘Medicare For All;’ and actress Lena Heady about her work with refugees. Walter Isaacson speaks with Drew Faust, the first ever female president of Harvard, who helped steer the university through a time of change.