Saturday, February 10, 2007

Is Faust to be (or not to be) the first female president of Harvard?

Recent headlines have inspired a sense of déjà vu. When I attended Harvard, Derek Bok was the university's president and the tee-shirts for an organization I belonged to read something like this:

You've Finally Met Your Match
A Harvard-Radcliffe Woman

I've long since graduated, but Derek Bok is back in the President's office and a woman with Harvard and Radcliffe ties - Drew Gilpin Faust - may soon assume the position. Or so it is rumored.

Is Drew Gilpin Faust (the dean of Harvard's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and the Lincoln Professor of History at Harvard), to be or not to be named the first female president of Harvard University? That is the question whose answer many are waiting with baited breath to learn.

The wait won't be long. The New York Times reports: "Harvard’s 30-member Board of Overseers is to meet Sunday and is expected to give her final approval, according to the officials." Nonetheless, some reports have jumped the gun.

Appointing Faust, or any of the other highly qualified women candidates, 28th President of the 371-year old university would be both historic and ironic.

The milestone would be momentous because the Harvard presidency, considered "the most prestigious in higher education," has never been held by a woman. Selection of a woman would make Harvard (oft-touted as an academic trendsetter) the fourth of the eight Ivy League universities to have a woman at the helm. "Appointing a female to fill the top administrative position would be "a tremendous step for Harvard because in some ways this really was the last glass ceiling in higher education," said Susan Scrimshaw, president of Simmons College in Boston.

Appointing a woman would be ironic because one of the controversies that led the previous president, Lawrence Summers, to resign last year was sparked by comments that were commonly construed to be sexist. His remarks at a January 14, 2005 NBER conference session entitled, "Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce: Women, Underrepresented Minorities and their S. and E. careers," suggested that "innate differences," innate ability," or "natural ability" might account for the under-representation of women and girls in the upper echelons of science and mathematics.

Should a woman become Harvard's next president, she would (as Reuters reports) "steer the biggest changes to Harvard's curriculum in three decades and preside over the first phases of an ambitious multi-billion dollar campus expansion aimed at making Harvard a leading hub for biological and life sciences."

Summers said his comments were intended to provoke discussion. What they did was ignite a firestorm of criticism and contention. They also produced possibilities for positive change.

For example, weeks after making his remarks at the Science and Engineering conference, Summer "announced two university-wide task forces aimed at advancing female faculty and encouraging women in science." Additionally, his resignation may have made way for a woman to blaze a trail up the ivory tower and all the way to the corner office.

Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor, Judith McLaughlin (an expert in university presidencies), clarified:
Harvard is not choosing Drew Faust because of the women and science thing but because she is the best person for the job.

Can she do it? Sure she can. Is it going to be hard. Absolutely. But this is one very smart and politically savvy candidate.

Indeed, Harvard may have made a match.