DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

For the first time in 370 years, it seems Harvard University will have a woman at the helm. Tomorrow, the university's board of overseers is expected to confirm Drew Gilpin Faust as the new president. She's a historian and dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

NPR's Tovia Smith has our report.

TOVIA SMITH: Harvard has something of a habit of picking presidents who are the polar opposite of their predecessors. In this case, Faust, who's known as a scholar and a consensus builder, would succeed Larry Summers, the former Treasury secretary, whose confrontational style and controversial comments about women's innate abilities eventually led to a faculty vote of no confidence and his resignation.

Harvard Divinity School Professor Peter Gomes says Faust represents everything Summers was not.

Reverend PETER GOMES (Harvard Divinity School): I think what they're trying to do is find somebody who is able to get people to work together, instead of dealing with people who are ready to go to war.

SMITH: Indeed, after Summers outraged many with his comments about women, it was Faust who he named to try to mend fences and to find ways to promote women at Harvard. Word of her appointment as president has drawn praise from many, including sociology Professor Mary Waters.

Professor MARY WATERS (Harvard University): It sometimes over the 20 years I've been here felt like a man's club. And to have a woman to be the head of it is really very, very exciting.

SMITH: In another break with Harvard tradition, Faust was never a Harvard student. She got her bachelors from Bryn Mawr and a masters from the University of Pennsylvania, where she taught history for 25 year, focusing on the American South where she grew up. Most recently at Harvard she managed a very delicate task of creating the Radcliffe Institute from what was once Radcliffe College for women. And she slowly won over big donor alums who never wanted to see the college go.

Bruce Mann is a Harvard law professor and an old friend of Faust's.

Professor BRUCE MANN (Harvard Law School): Drew had the vision to take what had become an empty shell and actually make something intellectually vital out of it. And she was able to keep the resentful alums of Radcliffe College stitched into the new enterprise of what Radcliffe has become.

SMITH: Faust's next challenges would include overseeing Harvard's ambitious expansion across the Charles River into Boston and a major overhaul of its undergraduate curriculum. And she'd be managing a budget of about $3 billion and some 25,000 employees, which may be her biggest challenge of all.

Rev. GOMES: The Harvard faculty is not an easy bunch of people with whom to live.

SMITH: Reverend Gomes guesses the very public conflict, between faculty and former President Summers, may be the reason why many would-be candidates recently took their names out of the running for Harvard's president.

Rev. GOMES: This is not a faculty you can run. Nobody runs it. You can try but you will not succeed.

SMITH: Faust may have given a clue about how she might try when she paid tribute recently to Neil Rudenstine, the president of Harvard just before Summers. Faust praised Rudenstine by quoting Nelson Mandela, who said a leader is like a shepherd, staying behind the flock, letting the most nimble go ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.

Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.