On Day of Revelry, Faust Sets 'Compass' for Harvard

In speech invoking history and higher education, president avoids sketching road map

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Cristina V. Fernandez

Former Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers presents a set of Veritas stamps to Drew G. Faust, who was installed as the University's 28th president on Friday.

"I stand honored by your trust, inspired by your charge," Drew G. Faust told thousands of spectators as she took the podium for her installation as Harvard’s 28th president on Friday afternoon.

In a rainy and blustery Tercentenary Theatre, Faust drew from the past to discuss the evolving role of universities and Harvard's responsibilities as a leader in higher education.

As expected, Faust explicitly avoided laying out a road map for her tenure in her 30-minute speech, calling inaugural addresses "by definition pronouncements by individuals who don’t yet know what they are talking about."

"Lists seem too constraining when I think of what today should mean," Faust said early in the speech to a crowd that included members of her extended family and representatives of universities around the world. "They seem a way of limiting rather than unleashing our most ambitious imaginings, our profoundest commitments."

Instead, Faust invoked John Winthrop and used her address to provide a "compass to steer by," a web of broadly conceived priorities for the University.

"This is a moment that is meant to encompass a whole presidency, a decade say, of what I think is important and the values that are going to motivate me and shape every single thing I do," Faust told The Crimson in an interview Thursday.

Making Harvard open to students of all backgrounds remains one of the fundamental challenges facing the University, Faust said in her speech, echoing her pledge last month to consider ways of expanding graduate school financial aid.

"Issues of access and cost persist—for middle-class families who suffer terrifying sticker shock, for graduate and professional students, who may incur enormous debt as they pursue service careers in fields where salaries are modest," Faust said.

In addition, Faust spoke of taking advantage of an increasingly global culture in which knowledge—a university's stock in trade—is a universal currency.

"Just as we live in a time of narrowing distances between fields and disciplines, so we inhabit an increasingly transnational world in which knowledge itself is the most powerful connector," Faust said.

Faust’s priorities echo those listed by former president Lawrence H. Summers in his installation speech in 2001. Summers, like Faust, stressed the importance of internationalization, strengthening the sciences, and expanding financial aid to students.

But Faust's speech was also distinctly her own, reflecting her years spent in academia as a historian of the Civil War.

"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,” Faust said.

Perhaps most telling was an anecdote Faust used to close her speech. She read from a recently unearthed letter from former Harvard president James B. Conant ’14 written 50 years ago and marked for the University President at the outset of the 21st century "and not before."

"It was addressed to 'My dear Sir,'" Faust said, causing the audience to erupt into laughter and applause. "Conant wrote with a sense of imminent danger. He feared an impending World War III that would make, as he put it, 'the destruction of our cities including Cambridge quite possible.'"

And while Conant, according to Faust, expressed confidence that Harvard would uphold the same core values if it continued to exist, Faust cited "a widespread lack of understanding and agreement about what universities ought to do and be," arguing that the institutions are "at once celebrated and assailed."

"It is a time to contemplate what Harvard and institutions like it mean in this first decade of the 21st century," Faust said.

Criticisms of higher education, Faust said, have resulted in a greater demand for accountability at universities. But, she continued, the measures currently used to judge the institutions, including graduation rates and admissions statistics, do not consider the university's broader purposes.

"We must recognize our accountability to the wider world,” Faust said, “for, as John Winthrop warned in 1630, 'we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.’ ”

—Staff writer Claire M. Guehenno can be reached at
—Staff writer Laurence H. M. Holland can be reached at