Recalling her coming of age as the only girl in a privileged, tradition-bound family in Virginia horse country, Drew Gilpin Faust, 59, has often spoken of her continued confrontations with her mother “about the requirements of what she usually called femininity.” Her mother, Catharine, she has said, told her repeatedly, “It’s a man’s world, sweetie, and the sooner you learn that the better off you’ll be.”

Sarah Royce
Faust

Instead, Faust left home at an early age, heading north to be educated at Concord Academy, a girls’ prep school in Massachusetts, and at Bryn Mawr College, a woman’s college known for creating future leaders, and to rise as a leading Civil War scholar. And yesterday, through the convergence of sweeping changes in higher education, her own achievements and the resignation under pressure of Harvard’s previous president, she became the first woman appointed to lead the Ivy League university since its founding in 1636.

“One of the things that I think characterizes my generation – that characterizes me, anyway and others of my generation – is that I’ve always been surprised by how my life turned out,” Faust said in an interview yesterday at Loeb House just after the university announced that she would become its 28th president, effective July 1. “I’ve always done more than I ever thought I would. Becoming a professor – I never would have imagined that – writing books – I never would have imagined that – getting a Ph.D. – I’m not sure I would even have imagined that. I’ve lived my life a step at a time. Things sort of happened.”

Yesterday morning, she said, she found herself lying in bed thinking, “Today I think they’re going to vote for you for the president of Harvard.”

Drew Gilpin was born on Sept. 18, 1947, grew up in the Shenandoah Valley, in Clarke County, Va. Her father, McGhee Tyson Gilpin Sr., bred thoroughbred horses.

Faust has written frankly about the “community of rigid racial segregation” that she and her three brothers grew up in and how it formed her as “a rebellious daughter” who would go on to march in the civil rights protest in the South and to become a historian of the region. “She was raised to be a rich man’s wife,” said one of her longtime friends, Elizabeth Warren, who is a law professor at Harvard. “Instead she becomes the president of the most powerful university in the world.”

Her father, her two uncles, her great-uncle, two of her three brothers (including Tyson) and numerous male cousins all went to Princeton University, but since Princeton did not admit women in the mid-1960s, she went to Bryn Mawr. Majoring in history, she took classes with Mary Maples Dunn, a professor who would go on to become the president of Smith College and the acting dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and who would become a close friend and strong advocate.

It was significant, Dunn said, that Faust had been educated at Concord Academy and Bryn Mawr. “I think these women’s institutions in those days tended to give these young women a very good sense of themselves and encouraged them to develop their own ideas and to express themselves confidently,” she said. “It was an invaluable experience in a world in which women were second-class citizens.”

Faust graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1968, magna cum laude with honors in history. She went on to the University of Pennsylvania, where she received a master’s in 1971 and a doctorate in 1975 in American civilization.

At Penn she met Charles Rosenberg, a professor who is regarded as a leading historian of American medicine, and who became her second husband. Her first marriage, in 1968 to Stephen Faust, had ended in divorce in 1976. Faust was a professor at Penn for 25 years, including five years as the chairwoman of the Department of American Civilization. She was director of the Women’s Studies Program for four years.

In 2001, as Dunn was stepping down as acting dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the remnant of Radcliffe College, which had been absorbed into Harvard in 1999, Faust became the dean. She made major organizational changes, cut costs and laid off a quarter of the staff, transforming Radcliffe into an internationally known home for scholars from multiple disciplines.

“We used to call her Chainsaw Drew,” Prof. Warren said.

When Lawrence H. Summers, the Harvard president, got into trouble two years ago over his comments about women in science, he asked Faust to lead an effort to recruit, retain and promote women at Harvard.

Asked yesterday whether her appointment signified the end of gender inequities at the university, Faust said: “Of course not. There is a lot of work still to be done, especially in the sciences.”

What would her mother, who never went to college and died in 1966, have to say about her appointment? “I’ve often thought about that,” she said. “I’ve had dialogues with my dead mother over the 40 years since she died.”

Then she added with a rueful smile, “I think in many ways that comment – it’s a man’s world, sweetie – was a bitter comment from a woman of a generation who didn’t have the kind of choices my generation of women had.”

Could Coleman have gone to Cambridge?

Although University President Mary Sue Coleman repeatedly said she wasn’t interested in the Harvard presidency, she seemed a perfect fit.

Harvard insiders told The New York Times last month that the university was looking for a president with experience in academia. The experts also said Harvard was likely to choose a woman for the first time in the school’s history – in part to heal the wounds caused by previous president Lawrence Summer’s controversial suggestion that women might be innately inferior in fields like math and science.

That’s exactly the type of candidate they chose.

Drew Gilpin Faust, whose selection as Harvard’s next president was made official yesterday, is a career academic.

It could have been Coleman, though. Coleman was an accomplished chemist before she made the transition to administrative work and was herself the first female president of the University of Michigan.

Although Coleman’s name appeared on several lists of candidates, with one gambling site listing her odds of becoming Harvard’s next president at 18-to-1, she signed a five-year extension on her contract last summer.

“I’m not going anywhere,” she said in an interview with The Michigan Daily in the fall.

GABE NELSON

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