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A message from Harvard Corporation Senior Fellow William F. Lee Regarding President Drew Faust

Dear Members of the Harvard Community,

By now you have likely read President Faust’s message announcing her intention to step down as president at the end of the next academic year. My fellow Corporation members and I greeted this news with a number of emotions, the strongest of which was gratitude: for her wisdom, her vision, her courage, her integrity, and her remarkable leadership of this remarkable university.

The story posted in the Harvard Gazette does a wonderful job of recapping some of President Faust’s many accomplishments during the time that she has led Harvard. I will not attempt to reiterate or summarize the long and impressive list of achievements here, but I do urge you to read the story when you have the opportunity because it reminds us just how much Harvard has progressed and flourished during her tenure.

Before touching briefly on what comes next, I’d like to offer a few personal observations about President Faust, as a person and a president.

I remember vividly joining a dinner in 2006 with fellow members of the Presidential Search Committee—I was one of three members of the Board of Overseers appointed to join the six members of the Corporation—to hear from the deans of Harvard’s various schools and faculties about priorities for the search. I was seated next to the dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study—Dean Drew Faust. We had never met. Over the course of our meal, I was deeply impressed by her contributions to the larger discussion, all of which reflected wisdom and insight. But, more important, we had the most interesting personal discussion concerning our upbringings, our families, the Civil War, and a book she was in the process of completing—a book that would go on to be a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. From that day to this, I have repeatedly witnessed how the qualities that impressed me at that first meeting—her intelligence, her depth, her warmth, her compassion, and her extraordinary ability to communicate, including her ability to listen to and understand what others are saying—are evidenced in all she does and in how she leads.

For the last ten years, she has approached every day with a singular purpose: to ensure that Harvard remains the preeminent academic institution in the world by constantly driving Harvard forward.

In 2017, many of us might forget how challenging that task was for the first several years of her presidency. She came into office after a period of strife and controversy on campus, and she quickly restored trust and a sense of common purpose. She was also able to introduce her own personality and leadership style—characterized by calm, candor, and listening—to the campus as she ensured forward progress.

But just over a year later, Harvard faced an even more profound challenge—as did the rest of the world—in the form of a global financial crisis. While the crisis challenged every major research university, Harvard was particularly hard hit. Drew acted swiftly and decisively to minimize exposure, curtail risk, and chart a disciplined and responsible course forward. She made hard decisions—and unpopular ones.

She also insisted on modernizing the governance of the University, and she did. She assembled a leadership team of top-shelf talent from within the academy, from industry, and from the non-profit sector. She recruited superbly talented, diverse, and collaborative deans. And, most critically, she trusted and empowered them all to carry Harvard forward. In return, they trusted her, and they, too, gave Harvard their all, inspired by her example.

Notwithstanding the profound challenges early in her tenure, Drew never lost sight of her vision for Harvard. She relentlessly pursued those initiatives she believed would make the University still better—One Harvard, the expansion of financial aid, the growth of science and engineering, the support of innovation and entrepreneurship, and a rededication to the arts and their critical role in a true liberal education—with just the right mix of patience and prodding, optimism and urgency.

Let me recount one final vignette. At the press conference announcing her appointment as Harvard’s 28th president, Drew was asked by a reporter how it felt to be “Harvard’s first woman president.” She answered quickly and decisively that “I am not the woman president of Harvard. I’m the president of Harvard.” At the time, it was viewed as a great response; score one for feminism and equality. What I have come to appreciate, however, is that her comment revealed something much deeper: her strong aversion to labeling people, her belief that Harvard must honor both inclusion and individuality, and her insistence that every person who is a member of this community knows and feels that he or she belongs, that “they, too, are Harvard.” That commitment—and her own path-breaking example—has been a hallmark of her presidency, and Harvard is immeasurably better for it.

In the coming weeks, the Corporation will assemble a search committee, and we will have more to say about that process. Like Drew, we recognize that there is much still to be done and many challenges for higher education in general and Harvard in particular. Indeed, there is much on which Drew intends to focus and much to be accomplished in the next year. For today, I wanted each of you to know that working with and beside her has been one of the most extraordinary and rewarding experiences of my career. I hope you will join my fellow Corporation members and me in offering President Faust our profound thanks and deep admiration for leading this venerable university “through change and through storm.”

William F. Lee, Senior Fellow