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Drew Gilpin Faust Has Attacked Harvard’s Diversity Problem

The elite institution’s first female president has been on the job for seven years and has transformed its student body.

Drew Gilpin Faust Has Attacked Harvard’s Diversity Problem
Drew Gilpin Faust President, Harvard University Faust forward: “Harvard makes major contributions to training and educating the leadership class, and we want to make sure that that group of leaders represents the broad range of humanity and ability.” [Photos by Graeme Mitchell]

FAST COMPANY: A number of Harvard initiatives over the past decade have focused on increasing access to the university. Why?

Faust: There are many reasons. First, we want to offer Harvard’s resources to the most talented students, whatever their backgrounds, whatever their financial circumstances. We want generous financial-aid policies that are clear and understandable, so that people with aspirations will think of Harvard as a possibility for them.

When we introduced the changes in the financial-aid program about 10 years ago, we really tried to get the message out very clearly, so people could say, “Well, if I come from a family that earns under $65,000 a year, there’s no parental contribution.” That’s really clear. Now, additionally, if you come from a family where income is up to about $150,000 a year, you pay no more than 10% [of family income].

Having a diverse student body educates everyone. That will be the world in which our students will ­operate after they graduate.

We also think that Harvard makes major contributions to training and educating the leadership class, in political life, in academic life, and public service, and we want to make sure that that group of leaders represents the broad range of humanity and ability. It’s an issue about the quality of the educational experience, and it’s an issue also about justice.

What changes has this push created at Harvard?

To give you some numbers: 10 years ago, about 48% of undergraduates were on financial aid; now 60% are. About 20% of the class is in the group of $65,000 and below, so their parents are not paying anything. That’s a shift in the demography and background of the class. We’ve tried to identify students who have talent but haven’t necessarily had some of the opportunities that more well-resourced applicants might have. For example, we might identify a student who seems to have a lot of potential in science but is attending a high school where there are no laboratories. When a student like that comes to Harvard, we need to play catch-up and introduce them to what it means to work in a lab or what kind of math skills they need to have. That’s changed some of our teaching.

You’ve made a big effort to get the word out, to reach schools and geographic areas you would not have focused on before.

Yeah. Dean William Fitzsimmons designed a whole set of travels and outreach to go along with the program. He also has a cadre of students who reach out to their communities and act as ambassadors. Some are even hired by the admissions office.

This increased-access program started a little before your tenure. What was the most difficult decision you’ve faced in expanding it?

In 2008–09, Harvard’s endowment fell by 27%. We made major cuts in budgets across the university. We did not cut financial aid. In fact, we increased it, because we found so many families coming in midyear, saying, “This package I got no longer works, because my dad just got fired,” or whatever it might be.

Did you find any resistance to that?

To be honest, some faculty said, “My program is really important. Where do I rank?” We explained that the basis of what we are, the foundation, is attracting talented students, and therefore, that is going to be a priority.

What else does Harvard need to do in terms of diversifying access to the university?

We’ve increased the numbers of women faculty by about 25% in the past 10 years, but they’re still only, I think, about 28% of the faculty overall, 24% of the tenured faculty. That’s something we continue to push on. We always ask the review faculty, “What women in this field did you consider? Did you cast the net as widely as possible to make sure that everybody of talent was considered?” We have developed elaborate training processes for people on search committees: how to cast a net widely, how to avoid using gendered language in letters, how to read recommendation letters with a sophisticated eye. A generation ago, a major professor would call the other major professors in his cohort and say, “Who’ve you got?” And that would be it. That never happens now.

Let’s talk about the importance of liberal education, especially now. I recently moved out to Silicon Valley, where everything that supposedly defines progress has to do with new technologies. Clearly that’s all very important, but should it overshadow the importance of a ­liberal education?

Let me invoke one of Silicon Valley’s heroes, Steve Jobs, who would show a slide of two “street signs” at an intersection: technology and liberal arts. This was someone who turned to design as the critical differentiator for a technical product. The liberal arts were very much a part of what enabled him to be as innovative and as inventive as he was.

I was talking to [Google executive chairman] Eric Schmidt about this just a month ago. We don’t know where the world’s going. Technology is disrupting so many traditional assumptions, employment options, economic foundations that we don’t know what kind of jobs students are going to have a decade from now. People need to have the skills and adaptability that will make them flexible enough to be successful in a world that we can’t predict. So what are those kinds of skills?

Imagination. Insight. Perspective. So much of that comes from a breadth of experience that you can get through reading history, reading literature, thinking critically about yourself, challenging your taken-for-granted assumptions, and seeing that they may all change in a second because other people have challenged them in other times and places. There’s a contingency that you come to understand through the liberal arts that is very much a part of our world, that best suits students for a lifetime of continuing to learn and adapt.

I was very struck by this on one of my first trips to China after becoming president. I sat down with a group of Chinese university leaders, and many from institutions that were business-oriented or science-oriented. They said, “We don’t have enough of the humanities and the liberal arts in China. Our students don’t know how to ask questions. They take too much for granted. They don’t know how to use their imaginations to get beyond where we are to where we want to be.” I was astonished.

Overall, what have you been most surprised to learn in your first seven years running Harvard?

Well, one thing I’ve come to understand is how important listening is to leadership. When you’re listening, you’re getting information. You’re being given the gift of understanding where someone is, and leadership is about moving people from where they are to where you hope they’ll go.

The other thing–and this seems in some ways at odds with what I just said–is that I am struck by how challenging it is to communicate messages in a large organization. You have to say them again and again and again. As a history scholar, if I publish something, I don’t ever say it again. If I gave a speech that said the same thing as one of my published articles, everyone would shake their heads and say, “Well, she’s done with. She doesn’t have anything new to say.” But a leader needs to have a message that can be identified, understood, and incorporated by the constituency you’re trying to lead. So you just have to keep saying the same things over and over again.

What do you do with your time off?

My most recent indulgence has been Breaking Bad. I also did the whole House of Cards series in two weekends. It’s all pretty evil, but disappearing into otherworldly television series is a good escape.

About the author

Evie Nagy is a former staff writer at FastCompany.com, where she wrote features and news with a focus on culture and creativity. She was previously an editor at Billboard and Rolling Stone, and has written about music, business and culture for a variety of publications.



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