There was a lot of hoopla when Drew Gilpin Faust was named the first female president of Harvard University back in 2007. There always is when a woman gets the top job in a male-dominated, elite profession, whether it’s the highest rung in academia or not. But Faust was only the fifth woman to lead an Ivy League university.
Obviously, all the attention still focused on a female first centers on the basic fact that there are so few. The glass ceiling is still very much intact. And even when a woman manages to crash through, her tenure is often abbreviated, cut short by controversy, perceived faults in her “management style,” or some other problem that male counterparts would probably have been able to survive.
Last week saw the departure of Denise Morrison, the CEO of Campbell Soup, after several years of losses. That left only 23 female chief executives running publicly traded companies on the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index. That is 4.6 percent of the total, a figure that only edged above 5 percent for the first time last year. Those who remain include Mary Barra at General Motors, Indra Nooyi at PepsiCo, and Marillyn Hewson at Lockheed Martin.
This has also been a season of celebration of women because of the #MeToo movement. It’s been inspirational to see the bravery of women coming forward to name their abusers and describe the sexual harassment and abuse they suffered. But this has also been a somewhat familiar narrative about women as victims.
Women as victims, women as flame-outs in the CEO suite, women as “difficult bosses” — these are the stories that get the most attention. In one of the recent stories about Morrison’s departure from Campbell, The New York Times noted that “female executives are much less likely than male executives to become the ultimate boss” and are often “pushed out or leave at every stage along the way.” The Times quoted a senior executive at Catalyst, a nonprofit consulting and research firm on women in business, saying that “there does seem to be something larger at work here. We’re slipping back.”
In her 11-year leadership of Harvard, Faust defied these trends and the typecasting. Looking at her tenure, which merits attention, there are important lessons in her success as its 28th president. Yet she is going rather quietly into retirement, returning to her job and first love as an American history professor. Thursday marks her last Harvard commencement as president, and her departure has drawn little public notice.
Faust took over at an inauspicious moment, right as the financial crisis began battering Harvard’s multibillion-dollar endowment. Her predecessor, Lawrence Summers, had roiled the faculty and infuriated women by making public comments suggesting there were “issues of intrinsic aptitude” that prevented them from being stars of science. After she was named, I invited Faust, whom I did not know, to visit the Times, where I was the first female managing editor. She arrived directly from a fraught meeting with big donors at the Harvard Club of New York. She radiated nothing but calm resolve.
Rather than presiding over a period of economic decline, Faust ended up raising more money for her institution than any of her male predecessors. In 2014 came a record gift of $350 million for Harvard’s School of Public Health. The next year that gift was eclipsed by $400 million from a Wall Street titan for Harvard’s Engineering School. The fund-raising campaign Faust is completing this summer will likely top $10 billion.
Faust has put these riches to use, helping to fulfill her moral vision of making Harvard a far more diverse place, not only in terms of reducing racial and gender disparities but also bringing in many more students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Although the faculty is still largely white and male, she’s used Harvard’s riches to recruit new star faculty members. One has merely to utter the name “Stanford” to see the competitive gleam in her eye.
She’s avoided the media spotlight, and editors of The Harvard Crimson have wailed about lack of access to her. But avoiding the “first female” pedestal has been intrinsic to her success. She has said she didn’t want to be known as Harvard’s woman president, but simply as its president.
This hasn’t left her tenure devoid of social purpose; in fact, just the opposite. In an early speech, she implored Harvard’s graduating class to resist the easy lure of lucrative Wall Street jobs and often spoke of the need to study the humanities. When President Trump decided to crack down on DACA, Faust immediately denounced his decision and vowed to protect Harvard’s undocumented students.
Her management and personal style have been moderate and consistent, nothing flashy, from her simple bob to her measured Southern drawl. But underneath an outward plainness there is passion. This is a woman who, as a college freshman, skipped her midterm exams at Bryn Mawr so that she could march in Selma on Bloody Sunday. Naturally, she returned 50 years later to march again.
Racial justice has been central to the life and career of this native Virginian and Civil War scholar. Speaking at a morning service at Harvard’s Memorial Chapel, with no fanfare, Faust gave a stirring talk about how the Selma march had been for her a moment of total moral clarity. So it’s fitting that the commencement speaker at Harvard this year is Representative John Lewis, the civil rights hero who, as head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, led the 1965 march and was savagely beaten. He and Faust have become close over the years.
It’s important, for sure, that Faust was the first woman to be president of Harvard. But what’s much more important, and needs more celebration as well as study, is how for 11 years (a full and normal-length tenure), this 70-year-old woman held power and led an unruly and sometimes arrogant institution with unblemished success.
The spotlight needs to be redirected. Instead of showering hallelujahs on the front end, what should be celebrated isn’t the moment when a woman makes it into the boys club of power and influence, but rather when she gets to successfully complete the job. Those cases, as I know well as a short-lived member of the Women Firsts club, are the really rare ones. Attention must be paid.Jill Abramson is a senior lecturer at Harvard, where she teaches journalism, and is former executive editor of The New York Times, where she was the first woman to hold