Reflecting on Inclusion and Activism with Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust
As she finishes her tenure as President of Harvard University, Drew Gilpin Faust is thinking about history — the country’s, the university’s, and her own. In addition to being President, Faust is the Lincoln Professor of History in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. She previously served as founding dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and the Annenberg Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. She has written six books on the American Civil War.
Throughout her academic and professional life, Faust has committed herself to understanding and challenging historical injustices in her community. As a college student, she participated in a civil rights march in Selma; as Harvard President, she has led major reforms in the university’s financial aid and recruitment programs.
Faust joined Dean Michelle Williams in the Voices in Leadership studio to candidly discuss the challenges and opportunities they have seen in higher education, national activism, and global health. As two of the university’s most prominent female leaders, they also agreed on the power of example and on the importance of inclusive leadership.
Prove your value
As the face of a well-known university, Faust has experienced her share of criticism. She recognizes that many people are disillusioned by universities’ opacity related to costs, partnerships, and strategy.
“I see many ways in which we need to explain our value and our values more fully, and to communicate better with the wider world. There are also things we need to do that respond to some of those criticisms in substantive ways.”
Faust sees the next ten years as an opportunity for higher education to pivot from its old institutions to a new model that is based on community-building and leadership in knowledge and research. Faust has expanded financial aid programs across the university to ensure that talented students from all economic backgrounds can contribute to this mission.
“I think this is a beautiful challenge because it enables us, in my view, to address an ideal that is something we are deeply committed to. But the challenge reminds us every day that it’s something we’re aspiring to, not necessarily something we have already reached.”
Lead through inclusion
Faust has sought to develop a university environment that invites a range of perspectives and voices. Faust says, diversity does not just refer to gender and race. It means welcoming more people who are first-generation college students, who represent a range of sexualities and gender identities, and who run the spectrum of political affiliations. Faust wanted to ensure that these students are not only accepted to Harvard, but also feel welcome when they arrive.
“Our structures, our responses, our understandings had not entirely kept up with those changes, leaving many students feeling that although they were present, they weren’t fully included.”
Faust established the Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging, which brought together faculty, administrators, and students from the College and graduate schools.
“I wanted both to bring people together across the schools to share more, to streamline some of the approaches that could perhaps be done best not in isolated ways but together.”
The Task Force has uncovered issues in areas like freedom of speech, availability of support services, and representation in university portraits and naming traditions. Faust says that the university has taken immediate action on many of these and is also developing longer-term strategies to address them.
Know the power of words and example
Dean Williams reflected on how the motto of the Task Force, “Pursuing Excellence on a Foundation of Inclusion,” carries power by making inclusion a condition for academic excellence.
Faust and Williams agreed on the power of words to achieve change as leaders. Faust pointed to the difficulty in reaching the balance between offering carrots and brandishing sticks, particularly as a woman.
“A woman is seen as twice as aggressive as she actually is, if you sort of blinded out the action or the words. And so [it is hard] trying to figure out the balance between cajoling and coercing.”
Williams and Faust agreed that while words matter, a leader’s attitudes and example are also powerful motivators for action.
Seek to build a new world
The first woman to become President of Harvard University, Faust has always had a desire to challenge the status quo.
“You’re going to own this world, and you want to own a different world from the one that’s being handed to you.”
Williams asked Faust to share one story which she felt explained Faust’s trajectory as a leader. Faust gave a gripping account of her decision to participate in the civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama. Growing up in a segregated community in Virginia, Faust had noticed racial injustice at a young age. She once wrote a letter to President Eisenhower urging him to support school integration.
By her freshman year of college, Faust had become more engaged in civil rights activities. In March 1965, state troopers in Selma, Alabama, resorted to brutal violence to break up a protest against discriminatory voting rules. “Bloody Sunday” was the moment that convinced Faust to take her activism to the next level. She and her then-boyfriend left the campus during mid-term week to join the marches in Selma.
“It was almost as if I had no choice. To be the person I thought I was, I had to get up and do that.”
Faust recalled sleeping overnight in a parking lot in Atlanta, staying with a family in rural Alabama, and receiving encouragement from the people she met along the way. While she was only allowed to participate in the first march due to caps on the number of marchers, Faust got a taste of violence herself: a National Guardsman came up and punched her in the breast as she walked to join a rally.
The experience clearly helped Faust secure her commitment to confronting inequality, even when it seems intractable. Ultimately, the movement that began in Selma culminated in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Retain your purpose
Faust says that even though she has recognized more nuance to issues as she has gotten older, she tries to maintain the same passion she expressed in her youth.
“[I hoped] that I could try to hold on to at least a bit of that clarity and singularity of purpose that I think so often — not always, but so often — is the province of the young.”
Faust urges young leaders to keep a sense of purpose as they navigate their role in society. She is inspired by leaders like Representative John Lewis, who was at the forefront of the civil rights movement, as well as modern activists like the students of Parkland, Florida.
She sees public health in particular as a field that gives students the chance to live their purpose.
“Public health offers an opportunity to have an impact on a whole population. That’s very attractive to our world-changing students who are committed to having the kind of impact that is so ambitious and so aspirational.”
Faust will step down as University President on July 1. A former professor of history, she plans to return to her roots and challenge herself to research and write about a new subject.
“My field has changed a lot. The tools to do research have changed a lot. I’ve changed a lot.”
Fortunately, Faust is experienced in responding to change. There is no doubt her words will continue to inspire reflection and action.
Story by Dana Sievers, a first year student in the Master of Public Health program in Global Health and Population at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, interested in adolescent health, water & sanitation, and health behavior change.
Story edited by Sohini Mukherjee, a second year student in the Master of Science program in Global Health and Population at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, interested in gender equity, maternal health, and health policy and governance.