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Harvard ready to make history, loud and clear

A woman is poised to succeed a president who fueled a gender debate.

February 10, 2007|Richard C. Paddock and Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writers

Harvard University is set to name the first female president in its 371-year history to succeed Lawrence H. Summers, the former Harvard head who contributed to his own downfall by questioning the ability of women to master science.

Drew Gilpin Faust, a Civil War historian and dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, is expected to be named Sunday as Harvard's 28th president.

Faust, 59, was praised Friday by friends and associates as an eminent scholar and a dynamic yet soft-spoken leader with a highly effective personal management style.

The appointment process is highly secretive, and Alan Stone, Harvard vice president for public affairs, said he could not confirm that Faust was selected. The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, reported Friday that the university's 30-member Board of Overseers would meet Sunday to affirm her selection.

Faust's appointment would be a breakthrough for an institution that did not have a single female faculty member in 1970 and did not abolish quotas restricting the number of female students allowed until 1975.

"I think it's a great moment in Harvard's history," said Maria Tatar, Harvard dean for the humanities. "She has a quiet charisma, and she is very likely to lead the place in bold new directions. She is not a self-promoting type. She does not seek the limelight but works for the good of the institution."

Women have made strides in the upper ranks of higher education in the last generation. If Faust is confirmed, four of the eight Ivy League schools will have female presidents. But men and women are far from equally represented at the helms of the nation's institutions of higher learning.

Nationwide, the American Council on Education reports in a study to be issued Monday, women make up less than a quarter of the university and college presidents. From 1986 to 2006 the number of female presidents rose from 10% to 23%, the study found, although the gains have slowed considerably since the late 1990s. The report concluded that women were most likely to head two-year colleges and least likely to head an institution that awards doctorates.

"I think the fact that the Harvard board would be appointing a female may well make others look more favorably on women candidates," said Claire Van Ummersen, a former college president and a vice president on the council.

Indeed, Harvard, founded in 1636, is widely viewed as the most prestigious American university. Seven U.S. presidents were graduates, and its faculty has produced more than 40 Noble laureates. Its actions often have outsized influence on the actions of other universities -- particularly their governing boards.

Harvard has been searching for a new president for nearly a year, since Summers announced that he would step down.

The former U.S. Treasury secretary, considered abrasive by some, lost the support of the faculty after questioning whether there were fewer women in science because they do not have an "intrinsic aptitude" for the subject.

E. Ann Matter, a former colleague of Faust at the University of Pennsylvania who is now associate dean for arts and letters there, described Faust as calm, reflective and deliberate.

"It's quite interesting that after the kind of trouble, the kind of controversies Dr. Summers was in, that they choose someone who is really the anti-Summers. He's bombastic, and she's very diplomatic," Matter said. "It will be quite a change."

Faust's appointment also sends a message, Matter said.

"They got a lot of heat over the things Larry Summers said and did -- and was reputed to say and do. This makes a very different kind of statement. She's a humanist, a historian -- and a historian who's written about women. And that's a very interesting choice for the president of Harvard," she said.

To ease the controversy caused by his remarks, Summers appointed two task forces to increase the role of women in science and on the faculty. Summers asked Faust to help lead both committees, giving her an even more prominent role at the university.

"The task force issued a very impressive report that sets forth a strategy for increasing the number of women and minorities on the faculty," said one administrator who spoke on condition of anonymity. "She was a very powerful presence behind the scenes."

UCLA history professor Lynn Hunt, who also worked with Faust at Penn, described her as a first-rate administrator and an excellent listener who can build a consensus. But she also can make tough choices.

"She is totally confident, the most relaxed person in the world, and she can make the right decision without her own narcissism or ego being involved in it," said Hunt, who has been friends with Faust for 20 years.

"I think she has all the makings of a great president," added University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann, who has known Faust for more than a decade. "She's got a strong backbone, and she knows how to lead by articulating a vision and inspiring people to collaborate."

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