Campus & Community

University is accountable to past, future

5 min read

In inaugural address, Drew Faust takes long view

Gusts of wind shook raindrops from the trees and fluttered the fall’s first yellow leaves onto the heads and shoulders of the Tercentenary Theatre crowd below, but in spite of the weather, those who came to see and participate in Drew Faust’s historic inauguration as Harvard’s first woman president retained their high spirits.

Sidney Verba, the Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor, who conveyed greetings to Faust on behalf of the faculty, expressed what seemed the feelings of all present when he said, “I have never seen the faculty as united as it has been in welcoming Drew Faust as president of Harvard.”

The ceremony featured elements that hearkened back to Harvard’s earliest beginnings — the University’s collection of antique silver, the keys and seals, the book of early college records, the Charter of 1650, and, of course, the venerable “President’s Chair,” which, remarked Senior Fellow James R. Houghton, who escorted Faust to her symbolic seat, was “rumored to be the most uncomfortable chair in existence.”

In addition to Verba’s brief speech, there were greetings by Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, where Faust taught before coming to Harvard, and by the pioneering African-American historian John Hope Franklin. Gutmann drew laughs as she began her remarks: “We are witness to historical change in the making. For the first time in 371 years, Harvard has chosen for its president [pause] a Southerner — and a woman.” The 92-year-old Franklin expressed his faith in Faust’s leadership ability, but added that he looked forward to the time when she would return to the community of historians.

Greetings were also conveyed by Undergraduate Council President Ryan Petersen ’08 on behalf of students, by Beverly Sullivan of Alumni Affairs and Development on behalf of staff, and by Gov. Deval Patrick on behalf of the commonwealth. Petersen expressed the hope that Faust’s administration would usher in a new era of student participation in University decision making. Sullivan, a 38-year veteran of Harvard, assured the new president that “we are proud to be members of your team.” And Patrick told her that “the 21st century is hungry for the leadership you can provide.”

Following Faust’s installation, conducted by Houghton and Board of Overseers President Frances Fergusson, it came time for the new Harvard president to speak. She began with a caveat: “Inaugural speeches are a peculiar genre,” she said. “They are by definition pronouncements by individuals who don’t yet know what they are talking about.”

Faust said she would not list specific goals or programs but rather address larger concerns facing higher education. “It is a time to reflect on what Harvard and institutions like it mean in this first decade of the 21st century,” she said.

Faust described American higher education as being “in a state of paradox — at once celebrated and assailed.” Critics attack it for its high cost, its neglect of students, and its squelching of open debate, yet at the same time universities are loved and supported by alumni, revered by the American public, and greatly respected by the rest of the world.

“This ambivalence, this curious love-hate relationship, derives in no small part from our almost unbounded expectations of our colleges and universities, expectations that are at once intensely felt and poorly understood,” Faust said.

America’s identity has been tied to education, to the creation of a national aristocracy of talent chosen, as Thomas Jefferson said, “without regard to wealth, birth, or other accidental condition of circumstance.”

Over the past half century, in trying to fulfill this vision, higher education has undergone a revolution, Faust said, expanding its benefits to those who were formerly excluded, and to a large degree that effort has succeeded.

“My presence here today — and indeed that of many others on this platform — would have been unimaginable even a few short years ago,” Faust said. “Those who charge that universities are unable to change should take note of this transformation — of how different we are from universities even of the mid-20th century. And those who long for a lost golden age of higher education should think about the very limited population that alleged utopia actually served.”

The public demands that universities be held accountable, but it is unclear what they are to be held accountable for, she said.

“Let me venture a definition. The essence of a university is that it is uniquely accountable to the past and to the future — not simply or even primarily to the present.”

Instead, a university is about “learning that molds a lifetime, learning that transmits the heritage of millennia, learning that shapes the future.”

But such a definition incurs certain difficulties. “By their nature, universities nurture a culture of restlessness and even unruliness. This lies at the heart of their accountability to the future,” she said. “The expansion of knowledge means change. But change is often uncomfortable, for it always encompasses loss as well as gain, disorientation as well as discovery.”

Faust said that as participants in the mission of the university, “We must commit ourselves to the uncomfortable position of doubt, to the humility of always believing there is more to know, more to teach, more to understand.”

The advance of knowledge, and the change and uncertainty it brings, may place those in higher education in an uncomfortable position, but it is a position that must be defended if institutions like Harvard are to survive, Faust said.

“It is not easy to convince a nation or a world to respect, much less support, institutions committed to challenging society’s fundamental assumptions. But it is our obligation to make that case: both to explain our purposes and achieve them so well that these precious institutions survive and prosper in this new century.”