Flying in the face of tradition

Harvard head has often defied convention

February 12, 2007|By New York Times News Service

Recalling her coming of age as the only girl in a privileged, tradition-bound family in Virginia horse country, Drew Gilpin Faust, 59, has often spoken of her continued confrontations with her mother "about the requirements of what she usually called `femininity.'" Her mother, Catharine, she has said, told her repeatedly, "It's a man's world, sweetie, and the sooner you learn that, the better off you'll be."

Instead, Faust left home at an early age, heading north to be educated at Concord Academy, a girls' prep school in Massachusetts, and at Bryn Mawr College, a woman's college known for creating future leaders, and to rise as a leading Civil War scholar. And yesterday, through the convergence of sweeping changes in higher education, her own achievements and the resignation under pressure of Harvard's previous president, she became the first woman appointed to lead the Ivy League university since its founding in 1636.

"One of the things that I think characterizes my generation - that characterizes me, anyway, and others of my generation - is that I've always been surprised by how my life turned out," Faust said in an interview yesterday at Loeb House after the university announced that she would become its 28th president, effective July 1. "I've always done more than I ever thought I would. Becoming a professor - I never would have imagined that - writing books - I never would have imagined that - getting a Ph.D. - I'm not sure I would even have imagined that. I've lived my life a step at a time. Things sort of happened."

Drew Gilpin was born Sept. 18, 1947, and grew up in the Shenandoah Valley, in Clarke County, Va. Her father, McGhee Tyson Gilpin Sr., bred thoroughbred horses.

Faust has written frankly about the "community of rigid racial segregation" that she and her three brothers grew up in and how it formed her as "a rebellious daughter" who would go on to march in the civil rights protest in the South and to become a historian of the region. "She was raised to be a rich man's wife," said one of her longtime friends, Elizabeth Warren, who is a law professor at Harvard. "Instead, she becomes the president of the most powerful university in the world."

Her father, her two uncles, her great-uncle, two of her three brothers and numerous male cousins all went to Princeton University, but because Princeton did not admit women in the mid-1960s, she went to Bryn Mawr. Majoring in history, she took classes with Mary Maples Dunn, a professor who would go on to become the president of Smith College and the acting dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and who would become a close friend and strong advocate.

Faust graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1968, magna cum laude with honors in history. She went on to the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned a master's in 1971 and a doctorate in 1975 in American civilization.

At Penn, she met Charles Rosenberg, a professor who is regarded as a leading historian of American medicine, and who became her second husband. Her first marriage, in 1968 to Stephen Faust, had ended in divorce in 1976. She and Rosenberg have two daughters, Jessica, a Harvard graduate who is a fact-checker at The New Yorker magazine, and Leah. Faust was a professor at Penn for 25 years, including five years as the chairwoman of the Department of American Civilization. She was director of the Women's Studies Program for four years.

Her fifth book, Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slave Holding South in the American Civil War, was awarded the Society of American Historians' Francis Parkman Prize for the year's best nonfiction book on an American theme. Her sixth book, which will be published by Knopf in 2008, explores the impact of the Civil War's enormous death toll on the lives on 19th-century Americans.

In 2001, as Dunn was stepping down as acting dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the remnant of Radcliffe College, which had been absorbed into Harvard in 1999, Faust became the dean. She made major organizational changes, cut costs and laid off a quarter of the staff, transforming Radcliffe into an internationally known home for scholars from multiple disciplines.

"We used to call her Chainsaw Drew," Warren said.

When Lawrence H. Summers, the Harvard president, got into trouble two years ago over his comments about women in science, he asked Faust to lead an effort to recruit, retain and promote women at Harvard.

Asked yesterday whether her appointment signified the end of gender inequities at the university, Faust said: "Of course not. There is a lot of work still to be done, especially in the sciences."

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