Campus & Community

A sense of direction

4 min read

Faust opens academic year with conversation covering humanities, diversity, more

Community, safety, and passion were at the top of the agenda for President Drew Faust on Tuesday at Sanders Theatre as she discussed challenges facing Harvard at the start of a new academic year.

In response to questions from Harvard Overseer and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof ’82, Faust talked about the University’s efforts to increase the diversity of its community, to eliminate sexual violence on campus, and to encourage students to study a broad array of subjects — including those in the humanities — to discover or pursue their passion in life.

The humanities gained center stage right away, as Kristof jokingly asked whether students interested in language, literature, religion, arts, and philosophy were discouraged today by the prospect of a future as “dog walker” for computer science-studying classmates.

Nothing could be further from the truth, Faust said. The humanities, she said, give students an understanding of the world, and problem-solving insight that has proved valuable to several leaders she’s encountered, including the mayor of London, a U.S. national security adviser, and a U.S. senator.

“An extraordinary number of important leaders in this country and elsewhere have come from humanities backgrounds,” Faust said. “It gives you a basis for thinking, for judgment, for adaptability. … So whatever realm of life you may want to go into, humanities give you such an important set of perspectives.

In response to a question about a perceived student pipeline to Wall Street, Faust encouraged students to use their time on campus to search for areas of interest to them. She recalled her own college days, when she skipped a midterm to take part in a Civil Rights march in Selma, Alabama.

Faust, who said she felt privileged to have grown up in the 1960s, also acknowledged that, as Harvard’s president, she is sometimes on the other side of the table from passionate students arguing for their beliefs. One such area she addressed Tuesday was the call for Harvard to divest fossil fuel company stocks from its endowment as a way to address climate change.

Faust said she respects students for standing up for their beliefs and doing what they think is necessary to make the world a better place, but she also made it clear that she did not believe divestment was the proper action. Harvard is most likely to make a meaningful impact through its teaching and research, she said. Divestment, she said, is unlikely to make oil companies change their behavior.

She added that manipulating the endowment for political purposes could be viewed as a conflict with the University’s nonprofit status, giving ammunition to those who want to tax endowments to boost government coffers.

“I have great admiration for students who take on these causes and want to make a better world,” Faust said.

Among the important initiatives Faust emphasized was the effort to address sexual violence on campus. She said the School is working to raise awareness, prevent sexual violence and, if it does occur, support its victims.

“Sexual violence has no place on this campus,” Faust said. “One of the most important things is to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Kristof delved into the University’s $6.5 billion fundraising campaign, asking whether Harvard really needs more money. Faust answered that the endowment, a portion of which is used to support the University’s annual budget each year, supports important initiatives ― including financial aid, which has opened Harvard to students of all economic backgrounds. Further, she said, new financial support is needed if the University is to embark on new endeavors. She cited last week’s announcement of a $350 million gift to the Harvard School of Public Health as enabling new initiatives in areas where they are urgently needed, such as those combatting the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.

Faust said last year’s “I, too, am Harvard” campaign not only raised awareness of the University’s diverse student body, but also made the point that increasing diversity alone is not enough.

“Diversifying the community is not the same as creating an inclusive community,” Faust said. “We recognize we’re not where we want to be.”

Kristof asked whether encouraging political diversity is also important, and Faust said that the free exchange of ideas — even ideas that may be unpopular with students and faculty — is supported actively at Harvard.

Her last response offered advice for young women entering Harvard. Student surveys, she said, show that female students have lower expectations than their male counterparts. She urged those students to fight against that trend, seek opportunities, run for student government, and take full advantage of their time on campus.

“Don’t underestimate yourself,” Faust said. “Reach. Don’t be afraid to reach.”