Tomiko Brown-Nagin and Drew Faust, the current and former deans of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, discussed the history and future of the celebrated center, an intellectual incubator of ideas for scholars and artists from a range of backgrounds, on its 20th anniversary.
The hourlong discussion Friday was the featured event of Radcliffe Day, an annual celebration of alumni and of achievement that typically unfolds under a large tent on Radcliffe’s campus, but was moved online due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“As we bear witness to the devastating impacts of COVID-19, we at the institute have an opportunity and a responsibility to bring together our most innovative thinkers and to pursue a more equitable and sustainable public health and social infrastructure,” said Brown-Nagin of the cultural inequities the crisis has highlighted. “This crucial work can happen, and it is happening at Radcliffe because the institute is nimble enough to pursue its mission in new ways and focused enough to advance old ideas despite the challenges all around us.”
During the talk Brown-Nagin asked Faust, Harvard president emerita and the institute’s founding dean, to take listeners back to its earliest days. Then-University President Neil Rudenstine persuaded Faust to take the job in 2000, she said, enticing her with what he envisioned for the new institute and its role at Harvard and in the wider world.
Rudenstine made clear that this would be a chance to “build something new within a structure of tradition and support,” said Faust, “a kind of safety net of intellectual excellence and experience. And also I felt that Harvard needed to get women’s issues right … I thought if we could get that right in this leading institution of higher education, it would have such reverberations beyond the institute.”
Faust said she also was drawn to the multidisciplinary nature of the center, with its mix of artists, historians, authors, and scientists in a single community, and to the institute’s embrace of inclusiveness and diversity. Both themes would become central to her tenure as Harvard’s 28th president. “There were aspects of the mission of Radcliffe that influenced my approach to Harvard very deeply,” said Faust, the Arthur Kingsley Porter University Professor.