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Incoming Harvard president faces balancing act

Harvard University has unrivaled wealth and prestige, but the downside of its storied history is a patchwork of schools that make running the place one of the hardest jobs in 21st century higher education.
Drew Gilpin Faust
Incoming Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust is taking over from embattled leader Lawrence Summers, who was pressured to leave the university.Michael Dwyer / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Harvard University has unrivaled wealth and prestige, but the downside of its storied history is a patchwork of schools that make running the place one of the hardest jobs in 21st century higher education.

Incoming president Drew Gilpin Faust knows that first hand from watching her predecessor, Lawrence Summers, who was pressured out after five contentious years.

Now, she’s preparing to try her hand at the delicate balance of inspiration, ego-boosting and cocktail-party cajoling it takes to get Harvard’s 11 colleges and institutes and its 24,000 employees on the same page.

“You have to do it in somewhat indirect ways because you have to bring everyone along with you,” Faust said in a recent interview with The Associated Press, contemplating the “peculiar nature” of colleges.

“That challenge of movement and collaboration and to keep those things together is, I think, at the heart of every university presidency.”

With trees blossoming in Harvard Yard and commencement less than a month away, Faust’s crash course in governing the world’s wealthiest school — with an endowment sprinting toward $30 billion — is waning. The outgoing head of Harvard’s smallest unit, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, will take over July 1.

Faust said she has both “symbolic and substantive” plans for her first 100 days. She hopes to fill four vacant deanships and plans to start a major program to improve theater and visual arts on campus.

Ambitious goals
To succeed, university insiders say Faust will have to build many small circles of relationships and exert her power through graceful conversations with often disparate factions among the faculty. It’s an act that, if played right, will win Faust the ability to prod the university toward its most ambitious goals in decades: building a new Boston campus and overhauling the school’s core curriculum.

Her effectiveness will hinge on the relationship she develops with Harvard’s thousands of professors, who hold significantly more power than their colleagues at other colleges, said Provost Steven Hyman, the university’s equivalent of vice president.

“This is the antithesis of a military combat unit,” he said. “This is a group of independent, independently minded, scholars.”

When former president Summers took over in 2001, he said the school was beleaguered by the independence of its component parts, and university-wide initiatives often became jammed in one or another cog of the Harvard machine. As Faust takes over, the school has made few reforms to a system that allows individual deans to write their own budgets and make their own decisions, Hyman said.

Summers’ vision met resistance from many on the faculty, who began to criticize the former Treasury secretary’s brusque style.

The fallout from Summers’ comments that genetic gender differences may explain why few women rise to top science jobs likely hastened his ouster, but many observers say professors fearful of a presidential power grab were among the detractors.

“Summers was selected for that reason — so he could ram things through — and he rammed a little too hard and with a little too much disrespect,” said John Bethell, the retired editor of Harvard Magazine, who worked at the magazine for more than 30 years. “That is certainly not going to happen with Drew Faust.”

When the tempest following Summers’ comments flared beyond debate and toward rebellion, Summers tapped Faust to serve as troubleshooter. She chaired a task-force that studied gender issues on campus and won praise from both Summers’ supporters and opponents, Bethell said.

Her tasks as president will be even tougher.

Campus and curriculum changes
She will try to navigate a plan for a massive campus expansion — mostly of new science, research and art buildings that would go in Boston’s Allston section — through a thorny path of skeptical alumni, faculty opponents and unenthusiastic neighbors.

The school also is planning a major curriculum revamp, the first in a generation.

“The president and provost are the main people who are paid to think in years and decades,” Hyman said. “It’s very important for strong leaders not to be looking for the least common denominator — that which will offend the least amount of people — because then you are not moving the university forward.”

The other side of Faust’s bureaucratic challenge is working with her bosses: She answers to a seven-member board called The Harvard Corporation. Along with Faust and the university treasurer, there are five at-large members. Together, the group has very little formal accountability.

Power in private and in public
Who ultimately has the final say on the most important issues basically depends how those seven people debate, divide power and come to decisions. It’s a process that happens in private meetings, and one that Summers, on his way out the door, suggested is no longer suitable for 21st-century academia.

But Faust’s power is not entirely beholden to the opaque workings of the Corporation.

For one thing, she will sit on all committees that make the highly political decisions of granting, or denying, tenure to eligible professors.

And her most time-consuming, and arguably important role, is as Harvard’s fundraiser-in-chief. After all, it takes aggressive campaigning for cash to maintain and build its endowment; the single factor that most noticeably distinguishes Harvard from its peer schools in the Ivy League and beyond is its staggering wealth.

Hyman noted many of the biggest donors expect the ear of the president in return for their multimillion-dollar gifts. Said the provost: “The gifts that matter, to the scale that they can be transformative, depends on the face of the president.”