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School unity tops new Harvard chief’s tasklist

Harvard University president-elect Drew Gilpin Faust must unify the school, a task none of her predecessors could complete.

Jun 08, 2007, 01.56 AM IST
BOSTON: Harvard University president-elect Drew Gilpin Faust must unify the school, a task none of her predecessors could complete.

Harvard’s ruling board urged the 59-year-old Faust to transform the university's 11 schools into a cohesive entity from a collection of institutions that share geography in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Greater unity has been a goal for a half-century of leaders, including former US treasury secretary Lawrence H Summers, whose five-year presidency collapsed last year under pressure from faculty members.

In an interview, Faust said turning Harvard’s parts into a coherent whole will be crucial to harnessing intellectual power, maintaining the school's pre-eminence among students and researchers, and responding to what she described as the biggest revolution in scientific knowledge in 400 years.

“We still haven’t managed to figure out how to do that, and now we’re in a different world intellectually,” said Faust, who will become Harvard’s first female president on July 1. “If we don’t do it, that’s at our great peril. It means we really can't have the kinds of collaborations across disciplines that are the essence of where learning is.”

Attempting that task led Summers to a series of confrontations that resulted in his resignation in February 2006. Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which passed a no-confidence resolution in 2005, was preparing a second one at the time of his resignation.

“It is a daunting task,” said Richard Hunt, 80, who served five Harvard presidents as a professor and as university marshal for 42 years before he retired in 2002. “I think if anybody can do it, she can. She has a lot of good will, people see her as the anti-Summers.”

Harvard has nine faculties, with 13,171 members serving 11 schools and colleges, and the world’s largest university endowment at $29.2 billion. The schools, such as for law, all operate on different schedules, Hunt said.

“It is, by far and away, the most-decentralised institute of higher education in the world,” Hunt said. Faust said Harvard has to become better at working across academic disciplines, administratively and in other areas to fully take advantage of the role it could play in what she calls an era of unparalleled discovery. Harvard has established a planning committee, with representatives from the medical and public-health schools and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, to plot the university's approach to science.

“Harvard needs to be far more one university than it ever has before,” Faust said. Science “is an area in which structures need to catch up with realities of knowledge and how knowledge is unfolding.”

She is aware of Harvard’s role in the world. The university has educated seven US presidents, three Canadian prime ministers. It has turned out business leaders such as Jeffrey Immelt, the chief executive officer of General Electric, the world’s second-biggest company by market value, and chief executive officer John Hess of Amerada Hess Corp, the fifth-biggest US oil producer.

Faust’s credentials include a bachelor’s degree from Bryn Mawr College, a women’s school in suburban Philadelphia. She earned her master’s and doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. With her appointment, four of the eight Ivy League schools have female leaders.

“What keeps me up at night?” Faust said. “To make sure that we do all we can to fulfil the extraordinary responsibilities that have been given to us.” In preparation for this week’s commencement ceremonies, Faust said she found a speech by James Bryant Conant. He led the school for 20 years and retired in 1953.

Conant described how he spent much of his presidency trying to unify the schools and constituencies. Though he believed he failed, he said that “sooner or later, some president would come along and make Harvard more than the sum of its parts,” Faust said. “Every president comes in with that very high up on the agenda,” said Hunt, who also served past presidents as the school’s chief protocol officer.

Other items on Faust’s agenda include a planned expansion into the Allston section of Boston, across the Charles River from the main campus. The 250-acre project will provide 10 million square feet of building space. A 695,000-square-foot science building will house stem-cell, bioengineering and computing researchers.
Faust likened it to “building a city.” An arts centre and a research facility will bring together several scientific departments. The expansion gives her an opportunity to mix disciplines while reshaping the campus as a whole, she said.

“We have the space in which we can reimagine what universities ought to be and reimagine universities for the 21st century,” Faust said.

The day-to-day tasks of running Harvard could challenge Faust’s ability to create the type of university she and the governing board envision, said Gabriel Kaplan, a public-policy professor at the University of Colorado in Denver. The Allston expansion is both an opportunity and a burden, he said.

“Her plate is fuller that it ordinarily would be,” Kaplan said.

Faust will also have the opportunity to reshape the university's administration by appointing four deans and filling a new executive vice president position. Yesterday she named Michael Smith, an engineering dean, to head the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which comprises about 700 undergraduate professors and instructors.

The new president also gets the chance to re-emphasise undergraduate instruction. The arts and sciences faculty voted last month to accept the first overhaul in the core curriculum in 30 years, and a committee recommended more emphasis on teaching.

“Here we are living in the middle of this, in an institution that is a leader in education and science, and we have to figure out how to make this revolution happen in the best-possible and most-productive way,” Faust said.
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