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Woman at the top

Drew Gilpin Faust '68 steers Harvard's future
by Robin Parks

How to paint the history of one woman’s life onto the canvas of a three-centuries-old institution? We could begin with the day privileged young Americans are often told, “your life is just beginning.”

Bryn Mawr, 1966. Off to a woman’s college, since the doors of Harvard were closed to Drew Gilpin and her blossoming intellect and passion for social justice, as were the doors of Yale and Princeton.

“If I’d come here”—the president of Harvard gestures gracefully to the walls of the president’s office in Massachusetts Hall—“I would not have been allowed into the undergraduate library. My high school classmates who went to Radcliffe found themselves second class citizens at this university, very decidedly.

“When I got to Bryn Mawr there was nothing second class. I was immediately told ‘your work is so important’.”


The “work” of the future leader of Harvard took place in three spheres, a vivid Venn diagram of Faust’s future contributions to the world. First up, history. Known to her classmates as a serious student, Faust graduated from Bryn Mawr magna cum laude with  honors in history.

Second were the chaos and possibilities of 1960s social activism. Faust brought to Bryn Mawr an acute sensitivity to race and class bred in her Southern childhood. The 9-year-old Faust who had written to President Eisenhower to protest segregation continued this activism at Bryn Mawr. She joined a march in Selma led by Martin Luther King, Jr. She protested in demonstrations against the Vietnam War, and spent sophomore Hell Week on a hunger strike.

“In those days,” Mary Patterson McPherson, Ph.D. ’69 told The Boston Globe, “some students were in an all-out pitch, and those who were very activist could also be somewhat unpleasant.” McPherson was dean at that time. “Drew was so much more sensible than that. She was a wise person.”

Third was the work of leadership: Faust was sophomore class president and then student government president. A photo in the Akoué ’68 yearbook shows Faust with her cohorts. “I was the president of self gov, holding my nose.” She laughs. “Smell no evil, I suppose.”

By the time Faust entered the Ph.D. program at the University of Pennsylvania, she was a mature young woman ready for deep research and the rigors of productive scholarship, with an increasingly clear vision of the importance of history to the betterment of the world.

In 1975, Faust earned her Ph.D. in American civilization at UPenn and that same year joined the faculty. She settled into UPenn, became the Walter Annenberg Professor of History, and married historian Charles E. Rosenberg in 1980.


“I’m often asked, did I ever imagine myself as president of Harvard when I was six years old. It’s just a laughable question,” she says. “Things have changed so much it would have been impossible to have imagined what would open up for women. My life has unfolded one step at a time, one door opening at a time.”

But at 40, Faust experienced what could have been a new closed door: cancer.

“When I was diagnosed with breast cancer out of the blue, I had just turned 40. I don’t have a family history of it; it’s not something I had been led to worry about. People asked, ‘don’t you feel, why me?’ What I felt was, well, why not me?”

Ever resilient, Faust says she felt very lucky. “I had a kind of cancer that could be contained. I had terrific medical treatment at University of Pennsylvania.” Her voice breaks. “I was given excellent care.”

Faust says she learned a lot during that time. “About the world. And about my relationship to the world.” She is quick, though, to counter this sunny statement with mention of a “famous Barbara Ehrenreich essay” which vehemently opposes the notion that there is any good arising from a diagnosis of breast cancer. Faust says, “I understand her anger at efforts to turn a diagnosis of breast cancer into a time to exchange teddy bears. On the other hand, I have to say it changed my life. It made me change my notion of what
risk entails.”

Faust told the Globe that after the diagnosis, “taking an intellectual risk seems like nothing.” She also credits the diag­nosis with inspiring the topic of her latest book, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the Civil War, due out in January.

“People ask me if writing my book made me sad,” she says. “There are parts of it that are enormously sad. But I feel so moved by the triumph of the human because of the end that death represents.” Faust quotes a line from a poem by Donald Hall: “It is fitting and delicious to lose everything.”

Instead of losing everything, Faust thrived at UPenn, happily married, raising a daughter.

“I remember afternoons watching her play softball or tennis or soccer on these kinds of green golden afternoons of fall,” she says, gazing out the window to the coeds rushing across the Harvard campus. “Having a child at home and being involved in her school, that was a different life than the one I live now.”

Tipping Point

In 2001, Faust became the first dean of the Radcliffe Institute. After a few years, she began plans to host a summit of “women at the top” who lead or have lead an Ivy League university. She couldn’t have known then that when the summit finally took place in 2007, she would not be confined to the role of moderator. A standing ovation accrued to the circle of six women on the stage, including President Elect of Harvard Drew Gilpin Faust.

“I think there will never again be in a presidential search committee in the Ivy League any discussion of, ‘oh, can we have a woman, what is it going to mean, how will people react.’ We’re done with that. That’s a tipping point.”

Unfortunately, when Faust considers the numbers of women in science careers and administrative positions, she says, “we still have important changes to accomplish. And on the issue of minorities, we’re doing much worse. We have a great length to go in even approaching a tipping point in
that regard.”

Faust witnesses growth and change aimed at tipping those numbers at Bryn Mawr, where she continues as a trustee. Though still a women’s college, still small, still deeply committed to the liberal arts, Bryn Mawr has, Faust states, “changed enormously since I was there. It was an explicitly non-feminist institution. The assumption was that Bryn Mawr made you as good as men.”

She notes that the choice now to attend a women’s college is “unusual, nonmajoritarian. That in itself makes the student body different.”

The Bryn Mawr student body is much more diverse, Faust notes, “with lots of first generation immigrants. That points to another dimension of diversity: class. It’s a hugely different world now.”


The official beginning of Faust’s life as president of Harvard occurred on October 12, in the company of her Bryn Mawr professors Arthur Dudden, Richard Du Boff and Mary Maples Dunn, along with grade school and high school teachers, who all marched with Faust in the grand processional through the first college in America.

But in actuality, Faust has been many months at this new phase of her life. Have things turned out differently than she had anticipated?

She says, “I will say one thing. It’s like when you have a baby. You know the baby is going to take a lot of time. But until you have that little dependent creature, you do not know how completely overwhelming it is. Emotionally, the impact has been something I haven’t fully anticipated or understood.”

Oft quoted in the media is Faust’s mother, Catharine, who told her daughter that she needed to accept that it was a man’s world. But it was clear to her mother and all of her family that Faust was determined to lead a very different life from her legacy of Southern belle married to a Southern gentleman. Over the years, Faust has had many imaginary conversations with her mother, who died in 1966. When asked if she imagined her mother happy about the presidency, Faust shakes her head.

“I don’t know what she would think. Actually, I have more imaginary conversations with my father [McGhee Tyson Gilpin, who died in 2000]. When I was offered the Radcliffe job, he
was thrilled.

“He had little clichés for every situation, and they come into my head all the time. One is, ‘there’s no excuse for being lousy.’ That means you never treat anybody badly. There is never a time to act poorly to another human being. Another one is ‘anyone you walk away from is a good one.’ He used to say that after every family event.” She laughs heartily. “I often remember that when I have a tough meeting.”

McGhee Tyson was in the “horse business,” Faust says. “He always said, ‘go home a winner.’ When I was named president, a bunch of my cousins got together and sent me a wreath shaped like a horseshoe, like what the horse gets at the end of a race. This huge thing arrived on a stand at my house and the banner said, ‘Go home a winner!’

“He would have loved to see this piece of the story.”

A Boston Party

Seventy classmates of Drew Gilpin Faust ’68 gathered in Boston from all over the world this past summer to celebrate her appointment to the Harvard presidency.

“It was such a genuine, grass-roots upwelling of delight and good cheer,” says Kit Bakke ’68. “Our class went nuts when the announcement was made. Suddenly we were emailing each other like never before. We realized we just had to get together.”

Boston organizers included ’68ers Nicky Hardenburgh, Fran Welson and Debby Jackson Weiss (with unsung help from Mary Ann Beverly Emerson). They rented the Boston College Summer Guest House on the Boston College campus—taking up more than an entire floor—for a weekend, which concluded with a catered dinner hosted by Laura Steinberg ’68. The evening ended with a round of “Think Evil,” from their freshman show.

Faust says the event was “just overwhelming in the sense that it all seems like a lifetime ago, and yet we knew each other so well then.”

Beth Chadwick says that, “Thanks to the tireless work of the organizers, not only were we able to congratulate Drewdie, but also we were brought together again with our classmates under special and joyous circumstances.  It was participatory (very sixties!) and really fun!”  Hardenburgh adds, “As our souvenir glasses read, we were ‘celebrating one and all’.”

“A lot of amazing things have happened to me since I was named president,” says Faust, “but that was one of the most extraordinary.”


Read the Harvard inaugural address by President Drew Faust '68

To listen to the May 2, 2007 "Women at the Top: The Changing Face of the Ivies," moderated by Faust, go to this link for a streaming video (1:47 minutes).




Return to November 2007 Highlights





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