The Woman President
UPDATED: February 8, 2018 at 4:32 p.m.
As soon as she took office, University President Drew G. Faust wanted to make something clear.
“I’m not the woman president of Harvard. I’m the president of Harvard,” Faust proclaimed at a news conference held the afternoon of her confirmation as the University’s 28th president.
The statement reflected her determination early on to make clear her presidency would be more than just a nod to gender equity.
Reflecting on those words 11 years later, Faust said she did not—and still does not—think she should be considered a “special category.”
“The way it came to sit in my mind was, there are various sports records where somebody gets an asterisk because they have this many home runs but it was a longer season, or there’s some special dispensation so it doesn’t really count—I didn’t want to be the president with an asterisk,” Faust said in an interview in Dec. 2017. “I want to be as powerful, as effective, as respected, taken as seriously, as any man.”
Nonetheless, after more than a decade at Harvard’s helm, Faust—who announced last summer she will step down this June—sees her role a bit differently. Given white men had occupied the University's highest office for 371 years prior to her selection, Faust said she soon realized her appointment held a special significance for girls and women around the world. She realized being the "woman president" didn’t necessarily mean relinquishing her authority.
"It became very clear to me when I started getting all these letters from girls all around the world about how much it meant that I was president of Harvard, and I thought there’s a special responsibility for me here to demonstrate that this is possible,” Faust said in December. “I wanted to be the president of Harvard, but I recognized that there was this kind of parallel track where I was being the woman president of Harvard in a way that mattered.”
From then on, Faust made a point of visiting girls’ schools when traveling internationally, according to Christine M. Heenan, who worked closely with Faust as the former Vice President for Harvard Public Affairs and Communications for six years.
“In Beijing, in Tokyo, in Africa, she would speak about leadership and about believing in yourself and about aspiring to what you want to do and she did that very seriously,” Heenan said.
Throughout her presidency, Faust has placed considerable emphasis on equality of opportunity, which, according to Heenan, stems partly from her upbringing as the only girl among her brothers.
From her Massachusetts Hall office, Faust has made a concerted effort to increase the diversity of the student body, expand the University’s financial aid program, and advocate for undocumented students under the Trump administration.
Helen Haste, a visiting professor of Education at the Graduate School of Education, said that Faust’s “forward-looking” vision brought the University into the 21st century.
“I think Professor Faust brought Harvard into that kind of world where issues of contemporary and social importance were discussed openly and addressed and I think she’s done a great job of that,” Haste said.
Faust recalls the world of academia she stepped into as a young professor at the University of Pennsylvania in 1975 as one marked by “repartée and assumptions” about women that Faust likened to those in the television series “Mad Men.”
"People made remarks about women, people assumed things about women, and it was a commitment that you had to affirmatively have to kind of maintain your dignity in the face of that,” Faust said.
Four decades later, widespread allegations of workplace harassment have brought enduring gender power imbalances to the fore. Sexual harassment allegations have taken down powerful men in the media, government, and corporate worlds. The stream of accusations, which began with allegations against Hollywood titan Harvey Weinstein in Oct. 2017, catalyzed the social media campaign asking women to post stories of sexual harassment with the hashtag #MeToo.
Though the field has changed quite a bit since the beginning of Faust’s career, academia, too, has seen some effects of the #MeToo movement, albeit muffled ones.
In a University-wide email sharing an annual report by the Office of Dispute Resolution and the Title IX Office on sexual assault prevention and response in Dec. 2017, Faust brought up the #MeToo movement and condemned sexual harassment.
“Sexual harassment and sexual assault degrade human dignity, and they have no place at Harvard. The powerful forces of presumption and hierarchy shape our lives and our communities in profound ways,” Faust wrote. “Over the past few months, this reality has been underscored by revelation after revelation of sexual misconduct by individuals across the country, and we have witnessed an unprecedented movement on social media and elsewhere to share experiences, seek support, and pursue justice.”
More recently, at a Faculty meeting Tuesday, Faust emphasized the importance of using available resources on campus and urging “members of our community to both speak and listen.”
“With the emergence of the #MeToo movement, we’ve been made highly aware of how widespread incidents of sexual harassment are,” Faust said. “Sexual harassment violates fundamental values of justice and fairness. It threatens our efforts to build an environment where everyone can learn and flourish.”
Some hypothesize that academia’s entrenched hierarchies help explain the #MeToo movement’s relatively muted manifestation to date, given they can inhibit women from speaking out and can help hide harassers.
“I think in a way, harassers can hide better here, because the power structures are so deeply embedded,” History of Science and Women, Gender, and Sexuality lecturer Leena M. Akhtar told Fifteen Minutes, The Crimson's magazine.
Yet Harvard has made strides toward mitigating gender disparities under Faust, according to Judith D. Singer, the Senior Vice Provost for Faculty Development and Diversity. Singer said Faust’s work on gender issues began well before she stepped into Massachusetts Hall.
During her years as the dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Faust made improving the status of women at the University a priority. And Singer said Faust worked to establish the Radcliffe Institute not only as a place for advanced study, but also as a forum for celebrating women in the United States.
“That has been part of her research agenda and part of her administrative agenda for her entire time at Harvard,” Singer said.
Prior to her presidency, Faust oversaw the efforts of two campus task forces on women in 2005: one University-wide group and another focused on science and engineering. Those committees recommended creating Singer’s office, funding for recruitment programs, and enacting substantial changes to childcare support and maternity leave policies.
The Faculty Development and Diversity Office now runs recruitment and talent-spotting training programs with Harvard’s various schools. The University also now spends over $1 million each year on subsidizing childcare costs for its faculty and has policies providing parental leave to both male and female employees, according to Singer. And Harvard has created a procedure for making tenure track extensions available to individuals who must take parental leave.
“As the chair of the task forces on women, she put in place even before she was president a whole set of activities in motion that when she became president she was able to continue,” Singer said. “It is a quite clear part of her agenda to diversify the faculty both with respect to gender and with respect to race and ethnicity.”
The standing of women at Harvard has changed noticeably beyond just the numbers, Singer said. She recalled a conversation she once had with a longtime male dean at the University.
“He used to think that when he walked into a room and there were a lot of women in the room, this wasn’t a seat of power,” she said. “When President Faust became president, he realized that if he walked into a room and there weren’t some women in the room, he wasn’t in a seat of power. That’s a real shift.”
Despite this progress, significant gaps in female leadership at the University remain. Only two of Harvard’s 15 deans are female, and only 5.4 percent of tenured faculty and 13.6 percent of tenure-track faculty of are women of color. Some women faculty members report they still feel disadvantaged on the tenure track and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences has struggled with the phenomenon of women professors leaving the University.
In Nov. 2016, some professors prepared an internal report showing the retention rate for women faculty in science, engineering, and mathematics departments at Harvard is almost 20 percent lower than it is for male faculty.
Still, Singer said she thinks Faust’s presidency will have a lasting impact on the University’s quest for gender parity.
“She’s leaving a different Harvard,” Singer said. “There’s nothing like having a woman at the top to say that women can lead.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following clarification:
CLARIFICATION: February 8, 2018
A previous version of this story indicated that the University provides maternity leave to both male and female employees. To clarify, Harvard provides parental leave to both male and female employees.
—Staff writer Kristine E. Guillaume can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @krisguillaume.
—Staff writer Jamie D. Halper can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @jamiedhalper.