Drew Gilpin Faust, like her literary namesake, must have made a deal with the devil to become president of Harvard University.

How else could a Civil War and gender studies expert with just five years of administrative experience take the reins of the nation’s most prestigious university?

After previous Harvard President Lawrence Summers’s suggestion that women might be inherently inferior in math and science, Faust appears to be a candidate apologetically chosen by a Harvard search committee desperately trying to maintain the school’s reputation.

The question remains: Why pick Drew Gilpin Faust over a candidate like Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan? Was it politics? Popularity? Regardless of the search committee’s thinking, it was a dubious decision. Coleman, despite her constant public insistence that she wasn’t interested in the job, would have been a better choice.

Coleman has more than 10 years of experience as the president of the University of Michigan and the University of Iowa. At Michigan, she oversees a $5.7 billion endowment, more than $300 million in annual state funding and thousands of employees.

As dean of Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Faust currently supervises 81 staff members, 15 professors and a $16 million budget.

A career academic who has written several books about the American Civil War, Faust took charge of the Radcliffe Institute in 2001, just two years after the former women’s liberal arts college merged with Harvard. She is also the current chair of Harvard’s $50 million Task Force on Women Faculty. Before coming to Harvard, she was chair of the women’s studies program at the University of Pennsylvania.

Members of the search committee have praised her as an effective and popular administrator, but even if her policies are wildly successful, Faust’s gender will likely overshadow her accomplishments in the eyes of Harvard faculty and administration. Some higher education experts have publicly questioned whether there could be such a thing as too much feminism.

“Dr. Faust comes to the presidency of the world’s most distinguished university out of a career whose foremost characteristic has been its strong feminist bent, rather than executive experience,” said Steve Balch, president of the National Association of Scholars, in a written statement.

In a vitriolic column in the City Journal, columnist Heather Mac Donald criticized the Radcliffe Institute as “one of the most powerful incubators of feminist complaint and nonsensical academic theory in the country.”

Although critics have labeled Faust as merely a political choice, Faust has been quick to defend herself.

“I’m not the woman president of Harvard, I’m the president of Harvard,” she told the Associated Press last week.

Perhaps she could learn a lesson from Coleman, who established herself as the first president of the University of Michigan with poise. Like Faust, she played down the importance of her role as Michigan’s first woman president.

“This is a hard job, a stressful job – for men and women,” Coleman told The Michigan Daily after she was named president in 2002. “I think the pressures are the same.”

Although Coleman could also be called a feminist – she has often preached the importance of achieving gender equality in higher education – she’s a different kind of feminist.

Rather than writing about discrimination against women, Coleman overcame that discrimination to become a prominent laboratory chemist – a field traditionally dominated by men.

While Faust is known for books with titles like “Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War,” Coleman authored or co-authored hundreds of scholarly papers with titles like “Characterization of purine nucleoside phosphorylase from human granulocytes and its metabolism of deoxyribonucleosides.”

Notice a difference? Disregarding the merit of each woman’s work, Coleman’s can’t be dismissed by cynics as feminist ramblings.

Coleman could have lent a scientist’s perspective to Harvard, which is currently preparing to begin construction on a new campus for groundbreaking science research in the Allston area of Boston.

Imagine what critics will say when Faust gets involved in debates about the new science campus. “What does a women’s studies professor know about science,” some will ask. “What does any woman know about science?” the less abashed ones will shriek.

By choosing a relatively inexperienced candidate from an often-disrespected field, Harvard left the door open for critics to assert that Faust was chosen more for her gender than for her skills.

Faust’s experience in academia and administration has smeared her reputation in a society where contempt toward feminism has taken the place of contempt toward women. What Harvard really needed was a woman like Coleman, who rose to the top of a respected scientific field without drawing attention to her sex.

Harvard is ready for a woman president.

It just isn’t yet ready for a women’s studies president.

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