EVER SINCE Harvard University president Drew Faust announced her intention to step down, I have been waiting for the dreamy encomia to the university’s first female president to appear. I am still waiting. Except for a predictable puff piece in the official Harvard Gazette, the world is so far commemorating Faust’s unremarkable 10-year tenure with silence.
To be fair, Faust had one job only: To not be Larry Summers, her outspoken, brilliant, and sharp-elbowed predecessor. She did it. This is the same task the genial Max Frankel faced when he took over editorship of The New York Times from the gifted and sulfurous Abe Rosenthal, in 1986. In his memoir, Frankel referred to himself as “Not-Abe.”
What were Faust’s other tasks, and how did she perform? Money reigns supreme in the groves of academe, and Faust kept Harvard’s voracious fund-raising maw properly fed. On the other hand, the Harvard Management Company, which oversees the university’s widely envied $37.6 billion endowment, was completely dysfunctional during her stewardship. It has been churning out mediocre investment returns and has had four different bosses in 10 years.
Can a Civil War historian be expected to ride herd over Wall Street cowboys, and the occasional cowgal? That’s a fair question. But if you are sitting in the big chair in Massachusetts Hall, the answer has to be yes.
What about the Harvard brand? It looks awfully strong to me. It’s true that Stanford is now posting Harvard-like numbers in the easily manipulable categories of admissions selectivity (both admit around five percent of applicants) and yield (accepted students who decide to attend). But for a Chinese provincial dictator determined to educate his overachieving daughter in the West, Harvard would still be a fine choice.
Here is a plus: The disgraceful shenanigans that have beset colleges such as Yale (students berating a house master for no apparent reason) and Middlebury (social justice warriors “no-platforming,” or disrupting a speech by political scientist Charles Murray, injuring a faculty member in the process) have been largely absent at Harvard. Maybe Faust’s incessant prattle about inclusiveness and diversity helps smooth the waters. Maybe the kids are just smarter. Who knows?
Here is a minus: Somewhat unexpectedly, Faust thrust her hand into a hornet’s nest when she embarked on a campaign against the college’s final clubs, fraternities, and sororities. Faust declared that club members would be ineligible to lead sports teams or to receive recommendations for prestigious fellowships, such as the Rhodes or Marshall programs.
The snotty clubs and frats are quite unpopular on campus, but — maybe the kids are smart — impinging on young women and men’s rights of assembly and speech has proved to be even more unpopular. Their gatherings are extracurricular. Why can’t I hang out with like-minded stamp collectors?, the anti-Faust logic goes. Factor in that many club alumni are rich and influential. It’s an as yet unresolved black mark for Faust, now bottled up in a college committee.
Faust’s predecessor, Summers, was the opposite of his predecessor, the subdued Neil Rudenstine. So perhaps Harvard’s ruling corporation will next choose a flamboyant, assertive president who will use the bully pulpit of a great university to help guide our nation out of our debilitating, collective crisis of ignorance.
Maybe it’s time to make the Harvard presidency great again.Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.