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Harvard students recall Faust’s impact on financial aid, social landscape

Though generally well-regarded, the tenure of Harvard president Drew Faust (center) at the university was not always applauded.Steven Senne/Associated Press/File 2016

When Victor Agbafe, a junior at Harvard, opened an e-mail labeled “Future Plans” from university president Drew Faust, he was shocked by its contents.

Faust announced on Wednesday that she would step down as president after an 11-year tenure.

In her e-mail, she noted that she led Harvard “through change and through storm” to make the university stronger — a statement many students said they agreed with.

“I think she’s going to leave a wonderful legacy behind at Harvard,” Agbafe, a committee chairman in Harvard’s Undergraduate Council said.

Faust, Harvard’s first female president, navigated the university through a series of challenges: a financial recession, a record-breaking $8 billion capital campaign, and the expansion of the university’s campus to Allston.

But for students, the defining issue of Faust’s legacy will likely be her impact on Harvard’s social landscape: the controversial crackdown on final clubs.

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The oldest all-male social clubs at Harvard, final clubs, which had long been criticized for fostering elitism, took on additional scrutiny when a report created by a task force commissioned by Faust condemned the organizations for their “deeply misogynistic attitudes” and disproportionate rates of sexual assault. As a result, the administration moved to bar members of single-sex student organizations from holding leadership positions in student groups recognized by the university, as well as from receiving endorsements for fellowships and becoming varsity captains.

“At first, a lot of students were very happy with that. Of course, it depended on where you fell in the social landscape,” Will Belfiore, a junior, said.

Belfiore noted that since the actual rollout of sanctions, students have found them “a bit too draconian,” but noted that Faust had made good-faith efforts to listen to students’ concerns.

“At the same time, she wasn’t bound to students as we’ve seen at some universities, where students have been pushing a particular agenda and the president has been forced to their knees,” he said.

Lulu Chua-Rubenfeld, a senior and the president of the Sab, a formerly all-women’s club that went co-ed in 2017, said her opinion on the administration’s crackdown on final clubs changed during her time at Harvard.

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“I think she made a brave choice,” she said. “I think ultimately trying to level the playing field and trying to create more social spaces on campus will be a really beneficial legacy.”

Faust’s move, however, was controversial. In an unprecedented move, the Porcellian Club released a statement blasting the administration’s position and compared its policies to McCarthyism, writing that forcing final clubs to accept members of the opposite sex could potentially increase sexual misconduct.

Robert Capodilupo, a junior, said he disapproved of Faust’s approach to social life on campus.

“[The administration] really doesn’t take into any account people who feel that these policies are overreaching, heavy-handed, an infringement on people’s rights to associate,” he said. “In the next president I hope to have someone who is willing to honestly listen to all viewpoints before putting forward policy.”

Other students recalled additional issues that roiled the Harvard campus during Faust’s tenure, including the university’s response to allegations of racism and the push to force the administration to divest from investments in fossil fuels.

Naima Drecker-Waxman, a senior and an organizer with Divest Harvard, said that as a recipient of financial aid, she was proud that Faust had made great strides in making Harvard more accessible. But she said, “we’ve been disappointed that when as activists we come to the table, there’s not a serious dialogue. We hope we’ll be able to build a more transparent relationship with the next president.”

Agbafe echoed her hopes that the next president will listen to students’ voices and encourage transparency.

“Harvard is grappling with history and where we go from here. I hope the next president can be open and have an open discussion on our history,” Agbafe said. “The history of Harvard is a great history, but it’s no small detail to note that there have been a lot of leaders who have done problematic things for our community, and I think we need to be transparent and open about that.”

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Catie Edmondson can be reached at catie.edmondson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @CatieEdmondson.