- The Washington Times - Monday, July 6, 2009


Drew Gilpin Faust started as Harvard’s president when the university’s prosperity seemed limit less. With its ballooning wealth, Harvard planned almost frenzied growth, from a building boom into Boston to vast increases in student financial aid.

Billions of lost endowment dollars later, though, Mrs. Faust faces a much different reality.

“We can’t have chocolate and vanilla and strawberry. We have to decide which one,” she said.

It’s a question few at Harvard expected Mrs. Faust to be forced to answer in the infancy of her presidency.

Her appointment in 2007 was hailed as a historic turning point for the 373-year-old university. Mrs. Faust, then the dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and a Civil War scholar, would be the first woman to step into the country’s most high-profile academic presidency and appeared perfectly suited to cool tensions within the faculty after the controversial five-year tenure of Lawrence H. Summers.

She would have the nation’s richest endowment to work with - $34.9 billion in 2007.

By last fall, the crashing economy began to pull down even the country’s most famous university. Its endowment fell to $28.7 billion, and the university estimated it would drop 30 percent for the fiscal year that ended Tuesday. The steep decline is particularly difficult for Harvard, which gets about one-third of its budget from endowment earnings.

Much of Mrs. Faust’s time now is spent figuring out how Harvard can weather the downturn, through layoffs, early-retirement packages, cuts in services, even changes to breakfast menus for undergraduates. She said further reductions in the endowment distribution next year will mean more cuts.

“People say to me often now, ‘This must not be what you expected,’ and my response is that it would be foolish not to expect surprises in a university presidency,” Mrs. Faust said recently, sitting in her office in Massachusetts Hall.

“I’ve used the metaphor of marriage about this, saying I signed on for sickness or health or richer or poorer. And it’s turned out to be quite a ride,” she said, laughing.

Most faculty members and students still strongly support Mrs. Faust, despite a general unease on campus about Harvard’s finances. For many, Mrs. Faust’s warm and inclusive demeanor remains a welcome change from her predecessor.

Mr. Summers, now President Obama’s top economic adviser, was pressured to leave after a series of high-profile clashes with faculty - conflicts that worsened after his comments that innate ability may partly explain why few women reach top science posts.

Mrs. Faust cited listening as a key component of her leadership, not an easy task at a university notorious for its segmented colleges, schools and institutes, all with their own management.

She said part of her desire to look at all complexities of an issue comes from her background as a historian. Her most recent book, “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War,” looked at how the vast numbers of soldiers who lost their lives during the Civil War changed how Americans understood and coped with death. It was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for history.

“I think historians understand how we’ve been affected by attitudes and assumptions that have shaped our institutions and our families and our socialization,” she said.

She cited her decision earlier this year to save money by pausing construction of a new $1.2 billion science building, the first phase of a planned 50-year expansion into Boston’s Allston neighborhood across the Charles River from Cambridge. The university is now reviewing how much - if any - of the project to continue.

“It’s a very fraught question. It involves the city, it involves the community, it involves constituencies with totally different interests,” she said. When the decision is made, she said, “I think that people will feel that we’ve really thought it through in a considered and responsible way. Moreover, I will know that we will have thought it through.”

Mrs. Faust has been criticized, though, for being too cautious at the beginning of the economic crisis and for failing to strongly communicate her vision for a new, leaner Harvard. Anger spread on campus last week, for example, when Mrs. Faust announced the layoffs of 275 employees.

Regardless of how much anger bubbles on campus over layoffs, budget cuts and faculty reductions, Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz said Mrs. Faust also has a great deal of good will, which should help her weather the economic downturn.

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