Harvard's First Female President Reflects On Her Tenure

Jun 12, 2018
Originally published on June 12, 2018 11:01 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In 2007, Drew Gilpin Faust made history. She became the first woman to be president of Harvard University. A recent column in The Boston Globe said, what should be celebrated isn't the moment when a woman makes it into the boy's club of power and influence but rather when she gets to successfully complete the job. Well, after 11 years, Drew Gilpin Faust has now completed the job. She's retiring as president of the university, and the Library of Congress is announcing today that she has also won the million-dollar John W. Kluge Prize for Achievement in the study of humanity.

President Faust, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

DREW GILPIN FAUST: Thank you so much.

SHAPIRO: You have said that you did not want to be known as Harvard's first woman president but simply as its president, and I have to think that as a historian, you appreciate as well as anyone how significant it is to have been the first woman to lead the oldest university in the United States. And so why was it that you didn't want to attach that title to your time as president?

FAUST: Well, the comment I made that you're alluding to occurred in a press conference right after my appointment was announced in February of 2007. And I was asked a question about what it was like to be the woman president of Harvard. And I responded almost intuitively - I hadn't planned this answer in advance - saying I'm not the woman president. I'm the president because I wanted to fully inhabit the office and be the woman who was president of Harvard.

But I was immediately challenged to balance that response by letters from young women around the world saying how much it meant to them that there was a woman president of Harvard and essentially what a role model I was and would be. And so that made me very aware of needing to fully inhabit, as you suggest in your question, the responsibility, the opportunity of being the first woman president of Harvard and using that platform in a way that would encourage others to dream and to aspire and to believe in themselves.

SHAPIRO: You oversaw Harvard during a time of tremendous change on college campuses in the U.S., including at Harvard, with debates over free speech and the legacy of slavery and college debt. I'm especially interested in the way you took on the debate over Harvard's role in slavery because you are a historian who studied the Civil War. How did that shape the positions you took on the debate over how to recognize the legacy of slavery at Harvard?

FAUST: Part of what I think helped me was just the knowledge that slavery was not just about the South, that New England and Cambridge, where Harvard is located, were places in which slavery had played a significant role and even continued to play a significant role after slavery was abolished in Massachusetts in 1783 because of continuing economic ties with slavery. So I felt there were questions that Harvard could and should answer about its own past in a way that would be unburdening for the institution because we would understand our origins and our identity and our legacies more fully.

SHAPIRO: Can you remember a specific teachable moment where you were either in a meeting or a one-on-one conversation and realize that through your own expertise in this area you had an opportunity to correct a misconception or educate somebody about something they were incorrect about?

FAUST: Well, it wasn't so much being incorrect. It was more a matter of just opening eyes and people saying, oh, my gosh, I never realized that. For example, the house in which I now live as president, and will live for a couple more weeks, was built in 1767 by someone who made his money in the Caribbean in sugar plantations. And essentially, this property during its early days in the late 18th and early 19th century had 11 enslaved laborers who lived and worked both in the house and in the fields. So to reconfigure our thoughts about colonial Massachusetts, which we often see as the origins of American liberty, to understand how closely slavery and liberty were intertwined is an important revelation.

SHAPIRO: There must be a great - I don't want to say pleasure but at least satisfaction in the realization that your whole academic life and career prepared you for being president of Harvard at this moment that no one could have anticipated when the issues you were studying are at the very center of the debates that were happening all over the campus.

FAUST: When I was named president, a lot of people would say to me, you're a historian. What does that have to do with being president of a university? And I felt from the first moment of my presidency that having a connection to the past and understanding the way the past gives us insight into the present, understanding how change happens, how some people oppose change, how some people promote change, how a leader can enable change - all of that has been invaluable.

SHAPIRO: You recently delivered your final commencement address as university president, and I'd like listeners to hear a little snippet of what you told the Harvard students.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FAUST: We must be a place where facts matter, where reasoned and respectful...

(APPLAUSE)

SHAPIRO: And then there was a very long applause that we're going to shorten here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FAUST: Where reasoned and respectful discourse and debate serve as arbiters of truth.

SHAPIRO: Given how long that applause was, it certainly struck a chord. Are you just talking about Harvard or about the country more broadly?

FAUST: Well, I'm talking about the world more broadly. We have people doubting the findings of science. We have people saying things that aren't true are true. And the foundation of the intellectual work we do is to try to come to what Harvard's motto is, veritas, through the reasoned exchange and rigorous challenging of one another's ideas, through the experiments in the laboratories, through the research that illuminates new aspects of whatever subject we may be inquiring about. And that is our - our basic product is truth and facts. And so to undermine truth and facts and undermine the processes of arriving at them is to challenge the fundamental work we do.

SHAPIRO: You officially leave the role July 1. I'm sure you're going to take a break, but when back-to-school time rolls around and students start arriving on campus, how do you expect you'll feel not being president of the university for the first time in more than a decade?

FAUST: Well, first of all, I plan not to be here.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) OK.

FAUST: I have a sabbatical. And I wonder - and I will have to discover - the extent to which I have my mind focused on Harvard or I'm able to focus on the wonderful new life that I plan to lead as a historian again and as someone who is not completely consumed by the responsibilities of being president of Harvard. So we'll see, but I'm excited to have the chance to do a lot of things that I haven't had the chance to do over the last 11 years.

SHAPIRO: Well, President Faust, congratulations on your tenure and on your prize and thank you for speaking with us today.

FAUST: Thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: Drew Gilpin Faust - the outgoing president of Harvard University and recipient of the Kluge Prize for Achievement in the study of humanity. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.