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Monday, February 12, 2007


So, the new President of Harvard has been selected, and it's not Elena Kagan.  Judging from her successful career as a historian and the Harvard press release, the selection of Drew Gilpin Faust at least warrants the benefit of the doubt.  As a devoted alum and former employee of the school, I wish her lots of luck and courage in taming an occasionally difficult beast of a school.  But I harbor some reasons to be cautious about her appointment and I hope readers will gently disabuse me of these hesitations.

For one thing, the amount of administrative and development experience she brings as Dean of the Radcliffe Institute is not overwhelming.  During my time at Harvard, when the Radcliffe Institute was known as the Bunting Institute, my sense was that it had been a relatively insignificant part of campus life as a whole, and could hardly be considered comparable to running the Law School or even the Divinity School for that matter.  No doubt the Institute and its Fellows have contributed mightily to the mission of advancing the study of gender and society.  But as I understand it, the Institute seems to have become an even "smaller" place during Faust's tenure there, in part because of budget cuts and the continued absorption of the rest of what was Radcliffe into the Harvard infrastructure.  Compared to the prospects of taking someone who has successfully run another university (e.g. Amy Guttman at Penn) or a substantial school (e.g., Elena Kagan at HLS), it just seems a bit odd. 

Additionally, Faust brings no connection to Harvard except for her last six years as a member of its faculty and her administrative role at the Radcliffe Institute.   A lack of substantial connection in itself is not and should not be dispositive, but Faust will be -- I believe -- the first President of the University without a degree from Harvard.  (She went to Bryn Mawr and Penn and comes from a family of long Princeton lineage.)  This "unusual" background is good for the cause of heterogeneity, but I wonder how good it is for development as well as understanding the school's known and unknown quirks.  Time will tell.  (Here's a question: does anyone know of any studies showing a relation between success at fundraising among university presidents and whether they went to the school they are leading?) 

Last, I wonder about Faust's training as a historian and whether that should weigh at all in the determination of who should be president of a university.  There's no question that lawyers, policy wonks, and economists are often presumed (perhaps mistakenly) to have the training and frame of mind that is helpful for running large (academic) institutions.  I am curious: are there advantages that historians bring? Or that this particular historian brings? 

Again, I have no special reason to doubt that Faust will be a distinguished President and I join Al Brophy and others in wishing her all the success in the world.  She seems to be, as Neil Rudenstine is, a fundamentally decent human being, as well as an accomplished scholar.  But I am not the only one who seems a bit concerned about missing possible audacity in leadership.  Mike Dorf has weighed in with cautious optimism too.  Meanwhile, back at HLS, the students are celebrating Elena Kagan's continued reign. I'm not surprised, but I'm not sure I'm heartened by that either.  What do you think?

Posted by Administrators on February 12, 2007 at 05:08 PM in Current Affairs | Permalink


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Former president of the University of Florida, and current Chancellor of UMass Amherst, John Lombardi, is a historian. He explained to my graduating class how this aided him in adapting to governance of the University of Florida. Basically he said that he was able to comprehensively research and analyze information relevant to governing a massive school that loved football, quite a change from his previous gig as Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at The Johns Hopkins University. Anyway, for my salt, I think personal characteristics are more important than disciplinary training.

Posted by: Bart Motes | Feb 15, 2007 2:25:05 PM

FYI -- the student organized party to celebrate Elena Kagan's continuing deanship at Harvard Law School was really touching. After a bunch of students stood up and told their favorite Dean Kagan memories, the Dean herself gave a very moving speech about how honored eshe is to be a part of the institution. The room was full of students and staff wearing t-shirts emblazoned with "I (heart) EK" --- it was really something!

Posted by: CBH | Feb 13, 2007 8:20:50 PM

Currier98, I know about Radcliffe. My point is that the Radcliffe Institute is not just the current name for what used to be the Bunting Institute, it's the current name for what used to be Radcliffe College.

Posted by: AF | Feb 13, 2007 12:53:39 PM

I'm only half kidding when I observe that, as a leading historian of antebellum sectional conflict in the United States, Drew Faust might be just the person to effectively manage the fractious politics of Harvard University.

Posted by: Sean Fitzpatrick | Feb 13, 2007 12:50:25 PM

AF: FYI the last time Radcliffe College issued a degree was 1998, and that was just a paper formality, that women undergraduates at Harvard-Radcliffe received Radcliffe degrees, while the mean received Harvard ones. Radcliffe hasn't had major educational program in terms of students since the early 1970s. It does have a lot of prime Cambridge real estate, a wondeful women's studies library, and lots of money, which is not insignificant.

What all this misses is that the President is not so important at Harvard. Day-to-day the various schools that make up Harvard are quite independent and the real power at the University for long-term decision making rests in the hands of the Board of Overseers of Harvard Corporation (America's oldest corporation, I believe).

Posted by: Currier98 | Feb 13, 2007 11:23:18 AM

As a Harvard alum and a lawyer, I disagree with just about everything you said. First, I don't see being the dean of HLS for three years as better preparation than being dean of the Radcliffe Institute (which, by the way, is not just the Bunting Institute but also Radcliffe College) for six. If anything, running Radcliffe, which has a much more open-ended, scholarly mission than the law school, is more comparable to running the university. Second, Faust is widely recognized to have mastered the "known and unknown quirks" of Harvard in her six years there -- the fact that she wasn't a student makes little difference, given that those quirks are mostly hidden to students anyway. As to fundraising, I suspect that's more a question of talent than pedigree. Finally, I'd echo the previous two commenters regarding the virtues of historians and the vices of economists and lawyers. Economists and lawyers are known for running governments. As the Summers experience shows, running Harvard is different.

Posted by: AF | Feb 13, 2007 11:12:20 AM

"Good historians often are much better at taking the long view than other academics are." So they're not as likely to sell their souls for short-term benefits, I suppose.

Sorry, best Faust joke I could come up with.

Posted by: Chris | Feb 13, 2007 11:06:13 AM

Considering the huge blind spots that your three examples-- lawyers, policy wonks, and economists-- tend to have, I'd imagine a historian is a significant step up.

Posted by: one l | Feb 12, 2007 10:42:46 PM

To trade in a few easy generalizations and stereotypes . . .

Good historians often are much better at taking the long view than other academics are. They are aware of what has been around and what happened last time than are others, and they are engaged with both large sweeping movements and individual contingency. It's also a discipline whose better angels listen carefully, resist overgeneralization, take nothing on faith, and are able to sift carefully through enormous archives. They are often also excellent at telling stories and crafting narratives.

Posted by: James Grimmelmann | Feb 12, 2007 10:03:45 PM

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