Inauguration of Drew Gilpin Faust as Harvard University's 28th President

October 12, 2007

Greetings for Higher Education at the Inauguration of Drew Gilpin Faust as Harvard University's 28th President

It is truly an honor for me to extend to Drew Gilpin Faust the greetings of her fellow university and college presidents. To them, I join my fellow Radcliffe alumnae and Harvard alumni who also salute Harvard for having the wisdom to entrust its presidency to an award-winning teacher, path-breaking scholar, and bridge-building leader—professor, historian, and dean, now President Drew Gilpin Faust.

Whenever I return to the campus of my alma mater, I find it comforting to recognize so much unchanged. Harvard Yard remains as beautiful and Widener Library stands as majestic as ever. But I find it exhilarating to consider just how much has changed, and to be—along with everyone here today—a witness to historical change in the making. For the first time in 371 years, Harvard has chosen as its president a Southerner, and a woman, indeed a rebellious daughter of the South, not to mention an alumna of Bryn Mawr College and the University of Pennsylvania.

Cotton Mather, Harvard Class of 1678, would surely see Satan’s hand in the arrival of a strong woman to the presidency of America’s oldest University. But judging from the transformations that this rebellious daughter of the South wrought as founding Dean of the Radcliffe Institute, we among the living are free to shout “Hallelujah! Let the rebellion spread throughout Harvard and beyond!”

The same spirit that propelled Drew Faust to champion equity in education for minorities and women is precisely what Harvard and all universities and colleges need to tackle the most pressing challenges confronting higher education today. Let me highlight just a few.

The first is how higher education in this age of increasingly extreme socio-economic inequality can truly be an agent of equalizing opportunity, rather than a bulwark of privilege. Only if we find ways of welcoming many more of the most talented students from middle- and low-income families and many more disadvantaged minorities will American higher education remain the best in the world, as well as a foundation of this country’s global competitiveness and commitment to justice.

In her scholarship and teaching, Drew Faust has exposed the perverse ways in which the beneficiaries of social privilege assume their own natural genius and inherent authority, and readily rationalize oppression rather than grant others their rightful independence. In Drew Faust, Harvard has a leader with the passion as well as the intellect to open Harvard’s gates wider to the most talented, regardless of social pedigree, in order to educate a free and equal citizenry for the 21st century.

But what kind of education are great universities called upon to deliver? To understand AIDS in Africa, obesity in America, or ethnic conflict around the world, universities today must integrate a vast body of knowledge and understanding that is as global in its reach as interdisciplinary in its roots.

Problems do not come with passports. The challenges Americans face will not be resolved by Americans going it alone any more than the challenges that Asians or Africans face will be resolved by Asians or Africans alone. No great idea today—whatever its origin—can remain foreign to an eminent university.

Moreover, most great ideas today—in science as well as the humanities, social science and the professions—bridge academic disciplines. We therefore need to lower, not raise, the barriers between schools and departments.

Harvard is not a freshman in these quests. It has created eminent interdisciplinary and interschool centers. And Harvard has graduated more than its share not only of U.S. Presidents and Supreme Court Justices, but also of world leaders and Nobel Prize winners. Indeed, we celebrate one more just today.

Yet for Harvard to remain the most eminent university in the 21st century, it must become ever more interdisciplinary and global in its teaching, scholarship, and public service. Here too, Harvard has had the wisdom to choose in Drew Faust a president whose intellect is interdisciplinary and whose character is cosmopolitan.

Today, Harvard reinvents itself, taking on a new character—the character of a rebellious daughter of the South who has been fearless in standing up for equity and excellence in education, utterly faithful to the cosmopolitan ethos of the academy, and above all passionately devoted to the cause of “VERITAS” for which Harvard nobly stands.

Brava, Fair Harvard, for placing presidential power in such able hands! Bravissima to Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s President of Reinvention!