Right Person Right Time: The Appointment of Harvard University's First Female President Was a Historic Moment for the Nation's Oldest University. but Some Critics Call It the Result of Political Correctness Gone Too Far

By Pluviose, David | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, March 22, 2007 | Go to article overview

Right Person Right Time: The Appointment of Harvard University's First Female President Was a Historic Moment for the Nation's Oldest University. but Some Critics Call It the Result of Political Correctness Gone Too Far


Pluviose, David, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


The appointment of Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust, the first woman named president of Harvard University, marks a diversity high point in the storied history of the nation's oldest college. At age 9, she famously wrote to U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower calling for an end to segregation. And in her current status as a noted historian of the Civil War and Black culture, Faust has shown a profound understanding of the dynamics of race in America. Currently dean of Harvard's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Faust earned a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania and worked her way through the faculty ranks before moving on to Harvard.

Faust's appointment means that half of the presidents of Ivy League universities are women. Nevertheless, Dr. Amy Gutmann, Penn's president and an ardent supporter of Faust, says the Ivy League has a long way to go when it comes to promoting diversity across the board.

"None of us imagined that, in our lifetimes, four out of eight Ivy League presidents would be women, let alone considered that those presidents would be us," she says. "Now it is all the more important that this expansion of opportunity be demonstrable for members of other groups who have been discriminated against throughout history."

Faust's appointment comes as a relief to many critics of her predecessor, Dr. Lawrence Summers. His detractors point to several incidents during his five-year reign at Harvard that they say demonstrated his disdain for diverse scholarship. Early on, Summers permanently marred his relationship with much of the arts and science faculty after a verbal confrontation with Dr. Cornel West, then a noted professor of Black studies at the university. During the heated exchange, Summers questioned the quality of West's academic work, criticizing him for recording a spoken-word CD. Summers also raised the ire of a number of faculty members by rejecting two separate proposals to launch a Hispanic studies institute in the mold of the university's renowned W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African-American Research.

However, the final straw came in January 2005, when Summers questioned whether "intrinsic aptitude" may be to blame for the lack of female representation in science and engineering disciplines. The comments sparked a national uproar, prompting Summers to create several task forces designed to assess gender equity at Harvard. He tapped Faust to be a leading member of those task forces, and devoted $50 million of university resources to address the deficiencies the groups reported. But, for many members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Summers' efforts were too little, too late. FAS passed a no-confidence vote against Summers on March 15, 2005, paving the way for his resignation about three months later.

Many of Summers' critics applaud Faust's ascension to the presidency, saying the decision is proof that Harvard is interested in doing more than just talking about gender equity.

Dr. James E. Samels, CEO of the higher education consulting firm Education Alliance and author of Presidential Transition in Higher Education: Managing Leadership Change, calls Faust's appointment "Poetic justice, in the sense that Harvard got the best woman available for the job. I think that it was unfortunate that [Summers] had fallen prey to a lack of homework on women's aptitude in science, and I think that it's not lost on anybody that it's poetic justice that [Faust] should have the first presidency held by a woman of Harvard in its 350 years of venerable heritage and mission."

Many of Summers' supporters, however, contend that a vocal minority of overly politically correct FAS members pushed Summers out for exercising his rights of free speech. Dr. Stephen H. Balch, president of the National Association of Scholars, is among a group of academics who view Faust as an underqualified feminist who was handed the presidency to mollify the university's critics. …

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