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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.