On Sunday Feb. 11, Harvard University named Drew Gilpin Faust the school’s first female president in its 371-year history. With Faust’s election by the school’s governing body, women now preside over four of the eight private institutions that make up the Ivy League, a group of schools that has traditionally signified academic superiority and hegemonic social norms.
When Faust takes over on July 1, she will assume what many consider to be the most esteemed job in higher education, presiding over a university with 24,000 employees, a $3 billion budget, and an endowment of nearly $30 billion.
Faust’s appointment is all the more interesting when one considers the man she was chosen to replace: Lawrence Summers, whose five-year presidency ended after a faculty vote of no confidence last February.
Summers drew fire after a January 2005 speech in which he said that “innate differences” make women less capable of succeeding at math and science than men. In his address at the National Bureau of Economic Research, Summers also asserted that women may be less prone to advance to top levels in science because of an unwillingness to work long, arduous hours after having children.
Chancellor Denton was right in her criticism, as Summers’ comments were prejudiced, ignorant, and hurtful to many. While women have historically been an oppressed group in many realms, the tide has slowly begun to shift in the past several years with, as Denton mentioned, more women ascending to high-profile public positions.
Faust’s appointment as president of Harvard UniversityÂ­—probably the most emblematic institution in American higher education—is all the more symbolic given the prestige of her new job. Yet, amongst all the back-patting and warm and fuzzy sentiment, it is crucial to keep the words of both Summers and Denton in mind.
Summers’ statements from just two years ago serve to remind us that prejudice and sexism still pervade many aspects of our society, and this is a problem that will not go away with a certain number of high-profile appointments, but only with large-scale, institutionalized change.
Before her untimely death, Chancellor Denton dedicated herself to bringing about major improvements in the opportunities afforded to minorities and women in higher education. As a society, it is imperative that we continue to push for the realization of Chancellor Denton’s vision, and not let a couple of glamorous job postings convince us that everything is okay.
The appointment of Drew Gilpin Faust is a large brick in the wall of gender equality, but that wall is still far from complete.