When Larry Summers was named president of Harvard in 2001, the university was seeking a strong leader who could command all of its powerful fiefdoms while reasserting its unique “bully pulpit” in higher education. But during Summers’ five-year stint at the Harvard helm, he came to be viewed as more of a bully without the pulpit. His confrontational style had already produced many ruffled feathers when, in 2005, Summers speculated publicly that women might be innately inferior to men in math and science. The subsequent outcry provoked a drawn-out battle that ultimately led to his resignation. On Sunday, after a yearlong search, Harvard is expected to name Drew Gilpin Faust, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, as its new president. Faust, 59, would be the first woman president in Harvard’s history (and the fourth now among the eight Ivy League schools) as well as the first without a Harvard degree. But what may be most important at Harvard is that she is viewed as a decided counterpoint to Summers, a low-key administrator who both leads and listens—and who builds consensus without wielding sharp elbows. NEWSWEEK’s Samantha Henig spoke with Richard Bradley, author of “Harvard Rules: Lawrence Summers and the Battle for the World's Most Powerful University,” about the new president and the challenges she faces.
NEWSWEEK: Harvard always seems to be looking for a new president that’s different from its last one. Is that what led to the choice of Faust?
Richard Bradley: It’s hard not to look at Faust in the context of the Summers presidency. Summers got in trouble for his remarks about women in science and mathematics; Faust is, of course, a woman. Summers was never considered a great booster of the humanities; Faust is a historian. Summer’s governing style was-how can I put it nicely?—aggressive; Faust is said to be much more of a consensus builder. Even though Summers had taught at Harvard, he’d been gone for about a decade and was effectively a Harvard outsider; Faust was an internal candidate. So in almost every instance, if Summers was X, Faust is Y.
Will that work to her advantage?
She seems to be widely supported within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which is pretty much the group responsible for forcing Summers’ resignation. But she’ll have to prove herself to the people at the professional schools-the business, medical and law schools. Those are wealthy and powerful places, and they don’t really give a damn about Harvard College. They will question how well she’ll make the transition from being a big fish who has successfully run what’s really a very small pond to someone who oversees a huge and fractious collection of constituencies.
What else does her selection say about the Harvard presidency?
That it’s very hard to find someone who fits all or even most of the criteria Harvard wants. Drew Faust has a lot going for her but there are also some real question marks. Every one of the final candidates mentioned also had some pretty large question marks. That’s a testament to the fact that this is a very tough job and that the number of people qualified for all its responsibilities is minuscule. The corollary is that a number of people who seemed qualified—perhaps better qualified on paper than the final choice-wanted to nothing to do with it.
Why did so many potential contenders take their names out of the running?
It is unusual and potentially of concern to Harvard. It points to a sense that, for several reasons, this job may not be as desirable as it once was. First is concern over the implications of Summers’ ouster for an incoming president. Second is the real sense that there are other places where it’s just as good to be president and that the prestige gap between Harvard and Everywhere Else has narrowed considerably. Sometimes now when people say "You know, I already have a great job," they actually mean that. And they might even mean a better job than president of Harvard. That’s a new thing for Harvard.
Might Faust’s selection come off as a disappointment?
It will be a little tougher for the Harvard public relations machine to promote Faust as a presidential rock star than it was with Summers. I expect that the note they will hit hard is the historical nature of choosing a woman for the first time to be president of Harvard.
How big a deal is that, really? It’ll make four female presidents in the Ivy League, so she’s not exactly treading new ground.
I think it’s a pretty big deal. There are women who have done very well at Penn and Princeton and Brown, among others. But certainly Princeton and Brown are much smaller places and generally thought of as easier to govern. They don’t have the enormous graduate school presence, and I’ll bet you there’s not one American in 10,000 who could name who their presidents are. Harvard is a bit different that way. It’s a bigger job, and it’s a higher profile job. There are female governors and senators, but it’s still going to be pretty important when there’s a female president.
Why do women seem to be ascending in academia more easily than in the corporate world?
Some commentators suggest that feminine style of leadership is actually more conducive to running a university than the aggressive masculine style, which is funny because it’s attributing to gender a certain style of leadership. If somebody like Summers said that, it would probably raise all sorts of hackles. But maybe the implication is that females have a more socialized manner of talking, of consulting, of reaching out, than someone like Summers, who was schooled in the hypercompetitive, male-dominated, high-powered culture of graduate school in economics.
What particular strengths does Faust bring to the job?
She has kept such a low profile that it is unclear what her strengths are. People will tell you that she is a pleasure to work with, that she is nice, that she is a warm person, which I do not mean as damning with faint praise at all. Even at a place as large as Harvard, this matters. From what I hear she is quite good with alumni, which is a huge part of the job. She is good at delegating credit, which Summers was not. She has clearly shown some political skills: although she worked with Summers on a number of things, she always managed to keep her distance, not in a way that seemed disrespectful, but in a way that preserved her sense of independence.
Faust will be the first Harvard president without a Harvard degree. Is that significant?
I think it says something about the limitations of the candidate pool. It’s always been symbolically important to Harvard to send a message that the right person comes from the pool of Harvard graduates, with the implicit message that it would be a little embarrassing that you have to go outside Harvard to find the next president of Harvard. But at this point there were other criteria that mattered more, such as having someone who could come in without taking a long time to get up to speed. They lost a lot of momentum with Summers’ presidency-it’s pretty close to five wasted years. The university would have concerns about picking someone who would have to take a year to find out where the freshman union is.
Harvard just released a report, four years in the making, on a redesign of the undergraduate curriculum. What does that mean to Faust’s presidency?
Summers was heavily involved in the curricular reform until he realized it was going to be a disaster. At that point he tried pretty vigorously to disassociate himself from it and scapegoat his dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, whom he then fired. I expect that coming from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and having those people as her power base, Faust will be more likely to pick a strong dean to whom she would delegate the authority to implement that curriculum reform. That will be one of her first big decisions: who to appoint to that job.
Summers pushed to expand the sciences at the university, and many scientists hoped that the next president would be one of their own that would keep science as the top priority. Faust is a historian.
I doubt there’s anything that’s more important from Harvard’s perspective than continuing that agenda. So the fact that they picked a historian doesn’t mean that the sciences are somehow less important, it just means that they couldn’t find a scientist who satisfied their other needs. There will be enormous pressure on Faust to choose scientist for a high-level position, like the Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean or the provost.
What will she need to do immediately upon assuming office?
Her first order of business should be to establish that she is the president of the entire university and not just Harvard College, which is another way of saying that she is more than just the anti-Summers.