Friday, February 09, 2007

harvard names new president

Harvard will apparently announce the appointment of Drew Gilpin Faust, a history professor and head of the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study, as its new President shortly. Faust succeeds Lawrence Summers, who (depending on your perspective) either resigned or was ousted following controversial topics on women in the sciences and other matters last year.

The choice of Faust seems encouraging on some levels. Like Amy Guttman at Penn, she appears to be a serious scholar, although having some executive experience as suggested above. Harvard thus continues to defy the tendency in higher education to appoint professional administrators or glorified fundraisers to academic positions.

That said, the selection of Faust, and the process that produced her, are disappointing in a number of ways. University sources described her as a "consensus-builder," which in my experience usually means someone without a lot of ideas of their own. Coming after Summers, who had been hired precisely to challenge the accepted wisdom at Harvard and elsewhere, she appears to constitute something of a retreat on this score. That much of her administrative, although not necessarily scholarly, experience relates specifically to gender issues contributes to the suspicion that this effect was intentional.

Indeed, the choice of Faust--who marks the fourth (of eight) female Ivy League presidents--has mixed implications for gender on several levels. Maureen Dowd has noted a pattern in which women are named to higher positions just at the point where they begin to lose their attraction. While it may be a coincidence that a "consensus-building" woman is chosen as a reaction to an outspoken, internationally prominent man, it is nonetheless a depressing one. The impression is difficult to avoid that the people (mostly men) who run Harvard and similar institutions are using women the way that oil companies use green advertising campaigns: to provide an image of change when their purpose, in fact, is to avoid it.


At 11:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of such institutions, the words or William Shakespeare are apt: "Though I am not naturally honest, I am so sometimes by chance."


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