News / USA

Harvard's First Woman President Settles into Role

Drew Gilpin Faust is prestigious university's 28th president

Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust stands beneath a bust of the founder of the university, John Harvard
Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust stands beneath a bust of the founder of the university, John Harvard


Susan Logue

Harvard University is arguably one of the most prestigious universities in the world. Founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1636, it is among the oldest in the United States.

In 2007, Harvard named historian and scholar Drew Gilpin Faust its 28th president. She is the first woman to hold that position.

Role model

Other American universities have had women presidents. But when Harvard named Drew Gilpin Faust as its first woman president, the world took note.

“At a press conference right after the announcement of my appointment, I was asked something about what it was like to be the first woman president of Harvard,” Faust recalls. “My response, which I had not predetermined, was to answer that I wasn’t the woman president of Harvard, I was the president of Harvard.”

Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust pauses during applause after being inaugurated as the first woman to lead Harvard. ( Friday, Oct. 12, 2007)
Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust pauses during applause after being inaugurated as the first woman to lead Harvard. ( Friday, Oct. 12, 2007)

But Faust soon realized that being the first woman to hold that position did matter to a lot of people.

“The response to my appointment from young girls and women all over the world, from the parents of young girls, was so moving,” she says. “They found in my appointment an indication of hope and aspiration that they or their children could embrace."

That, she says, made her recognize "that being the first woman president of Harvard has a lot of significance and that it is meaningful, and I ought not to forget that.”

Breaking barriers

While Faust serves as a role model for young girls today, she had no one to look to as she was growing up. She never dreamed of a life in academia, let alone becoming president of an Ivy League university.

“I grew up at a time where very little was expected of women,” she says. “It was anticipated that probably I would marry and be a wife and mother. There was little discussion what I’d be when I grew up beyond that.”

President of Harvard University Drew Gilpin Faust
President of Harvard University Drew Gilpin Faust

Her mother, who never worked outside of the home, was not one to encourage Faust to higher ambitions. “My mother was very much a part of traditional views of women,” Faust says, adding that her mother seemed quite angry to have limited options for herself.  

“Something she said to me quite often when I was being rebellious or imagining something was possible for myself that she didn’t think was possible, she would say, ‘It’s a man’s world, sweetie, and the sooner you figure it out the happier you will be.’”

But Faust was able to take advantage of the growing wave of new opportunities for women in the 1960s. Sadly, Faust's mother didn't live to witness her daughter’s success. She died when Faust was 19.

Early influences

Faust grew up surrounded by history in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

She lived on Lee Jackson Highway, named for two Civil War generals who fought for the south, in an area where many battles had been fought between the Union and Confederate armies.

She recalls playing Civil War endlessly with her brothers. "I always had to be Grant, because my older brother got to be Lee, and it was a long time before I discovered that actually Lee had lost and Grant had won.”

But the War Between the States became more than a game to Faust. She is a noted scholar of the American South and the Civil War.

Her most recent book, "This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War," was named one of the “10 best books of 2008” by the New York Times.

Cost of learning

Since becoming president of Harvard, Faust has made it a priority to ensure that the cost of an education at the elite private university does not prohibit talented applicants from attending.

The annual tuition, room and board for a Harvard undergraduate is more than $50,000, but the majority of students pay much less.

Faust says 60 percent of the students receive financial aid from the university. “And, of those students, the cost of education is just about $11,000 a year. And for students from families with incomes under $60,000 a year, there is no parental contribution expected at all.”

Model education

Faust’s responsibilities as president of Harvard have taken her to many corners of the globe. She says American higher education is seen as a model in many other countries.

She recalls meeting with a group of university presidents in China last year.

“What they wanted to talk with me about was the liberal arts and humanities and how they could introduce some of those perspectives into their higher education system, in order to bring the kind of imaginativeness, curiosity and creativity that they saw as characteristic of American higher education.”

It is, Faust says, a lesson for Americans to keep in mind. In this troubled economy, many are searching for immediate economic return when they graduate. But education, she says, should prepare people for a lifetime, not just a single career.  

You May Like

Video Debt-ridden Refugees Await Onslaught of Lebanese Winter

Aid agencies are attempting to reduce potentially devastating consequences of freezing conditions and snowstorms that killed eight last year, including three Syrian refugees

Photogallery Belgian Security Measures Foreshadow New Normal for Europe

Rising threat of terrorism, disaffected Muslim populations and open borders, along with refugee, migrant crisis, are creating perfect storm for Europe, which some analysts fear continent is ill-suited to weather

Americans Think About Strange Stuff at Thanksgiving

Tattoos, hookah bars and doughnuts? Google Maps lays out what people really have on their minds during the holiday

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against ISi
November 24, 2015 3:04 AM
The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs