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Drew Gilpin Faust is dean of Harvard's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.
Drew Gilpin Faust is dean of Harvard's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. (Globe Staff Photo / Wendy Maeda)

In Faust, early bold streak

In September 1967, just shy of her 20th birthday, Drew Gilpin Faust led a delegation of Bryn Mawr College students to ask trustees to abolish their 2 a.m. curfew.

At the women's college near Philadelphia, students had to sign a log when they went out at night, saying where they were going and with whom. When they returned to campus in darkness, "lantern men" guided them to their dormitories. Amid Vietnam War protests, the civil rights movement, and the sexual revolution, they felt that their world was opening up and the college had no right to rein them in.

Faust, who was student government president, and other student leaders met with a handful of trustees in a small conference room in an Atlantic City hotel that, to everyone's amusement, was filled with Miss America contestants. Faust would win the trustees over with a quiet, confident, persuasive style that many say led Harvard University to tap her two weeks ago as its next president.

She didn't make grand declarations or raise her voice as she made the case to trustees that the young women were responsible adults.

"In those days, some students were in an all-out pitch, and those who were very activist could also be somewhat unpleasant," said Mary Patterson McPherson , a former Bryn Mawr president who was a dean at the time that Faust spoke to the trustees. "Drew was so much more sensible than that. She was a wise person."

Faust, 59, has always been viewed as a leader in the worlds she has inhabited -- her hometown in rural Virginia; at Concord Academy in Concord, Mass.; Bryn Mawr; the University of Pennsylvania; and Harvard, where she spent her career as a Civil War historian and dean.

Some Harvard professors and alumni have questioned whether Faust has the fortitude or experience to take on the university's notoriously fractious faculty or oversee the building of a multibillion-dollar, science-focused campus in Allston. But Faust's friends and colleagues say she has proven she can handle those challenges. Since childhood, they say, she has exuded wisdom and toughness.

The early years on Virginia farm
Catharine Drew Gilpin was born on Sept. 18, 1947 , in New York City to the former Catharine Mellick , a New Jersey socialite, and McGhee Tyson Gilpin , a Princeton graduate from Virginia who became a thoroughbred horse breeder. Her parents, who met on a fox hunt, lived near New York before she was born.

The family later moved near Millwood, in Clarke County, Va. Known as "Drewdie," she was raised mainly at Lakeville Farm , a white farmhouse on hundreds of acres with a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. At Scaleby , their grandmother's estate nearby, she and her three brothers swam in the pools and read by the fire in the Georgian mansion, with crystal chandeliers and a ballroom on the top floor.

"The Gilpins are to Clarke County what the Kennedys are to Hyannisport," said Paul Jones , a retired school principal who once worked with Faust's uncle. "You would go by Scaleby and look at how the other half lived."

The family matriarch, Faust's grandmother, Isabella Tyson Gilpin , was the daughter of a former US senator, and granddaughter of a railroad financier who once owned slaves. Though she indulged her grandchildren, Gilpin also insisted on strict protocol for such things as curtsying and eating a cracker without spilling crumbs, friends and family said.

At the private, coed Blue Ridge Country Day School in Millwood, the chubby-cheeked Drewdie was a precocious child with stellar grades. She set records for reading books, devouring more than 80 in one summer, according to former classmates.

On weekends, the family visited Civil War battlegrounds. Faust and her brothers played Civil War games with toy guns.

As a child, Faust grew troubled by racism. Her school and Episcopal church were all white. At home, the black servants used the back entrance and a separate bathroom, and the children called them by their first names, instead of Mr. or Mrs. When Faust, at age 9, wrote a letter to President Eisenhower opposing segregation, she didn't tell her parents.

"She'd see the bigger picture," said Ian Williams , a former grade-school classmate. "All the rest of us just went to school. I didn't really think, or care, that there weren't black people."

Faust also clashed with her mother about the role of women for years, until her mother's death when she was 19. Her mother was proud of her daughter's accomplishments, and had her own independent streak. She once worked in the Kentucky mountains as a courier on horseback, accompanying midwives delivering babies.

Her mother didn't protest when Faust joined the 4-H club and raised a beef cow. Still, she often warned her that it was a man's world, and she should get used to it.

"I think the expectation of me was that I'd grow up, get married, have a family, probably not even have a job outside the home," Faust said in an interview in her Radcliffe office. "I had bold notions sometime in my childhood that I wanted to be veterinarian . . . I wasn't sure I'd ever do it."

Budding leader finds inspiration
Her family sent her north to Concord Academy, a private boarding school, when Faust was around age 12.

"Everyone knew she didn't want to be here," said M. Tyson Gilpin Jr., her older brother, a lawyer who still lives in Virginia. "She left for prep school and really never came back."

At Concord Academy, then all girls, she found like-minded girls and a role model: headmistress Elizabeth B. Hall , wife of a Harvard professor.

"Mrs. Hall's point of view was much more that it's not a man's world. It's our world," said Sylvia Mendenhall , Faust's former English teacher.

Encouraged by Hall to be independent, Faust traveled to Eastern Europe one summer and spent occasional weekends out of town volunteering with a program to help the poor. She was elected senior class president and was so respected that even a new Concord headmaster, Hall's successor, sought her advice about the school.

Friends said the young woman, who by her late teens was nearly 6 feet tall, was also fun: She kept a turtle named Zelda and a pregnant hamster, whose babies drew shouts of mock horror when they scampered everywhere.

At Bryn Mawr, too, classmates saw her as a leader, electing her president of her sophomore class and later of student government. In a senior seminar, Mary Maples Dunn , then a Bryn Mawr professor and later president of Smith College, considered Faust more a teaching partner than a pupil.

Her passionate devotion to "establishing justice and equality in the world," as she described it during a speech at Bryn Mawr in 2001, sometimes led her to put activism ahead of academics. During her freshman year, after demonstrators were clubbed and gassed by police in Selma, Ala., she skipped midterms to go there with her boyfriend to protest. Watching the brutality on television was "like a wave that overpowered me," she said.

"You just felt, if anything ever matters in the world and I am a person that's going to act in terms of things that matter to me, this is the time to act," she said in the interview.

Friends say that Faust encountered sexism when she was rejected from the graduate program in Penn's history department, which then had no female faculty. Despite her top-notch grades, a professor told her they didn't want someone who was just following her husband, she has told colleagues. Her first husband, college sweetheart Stephen Faust , was in medical school at Penn. She would get her Ph D in American Civilization instead at Penn, then spend a quarter-century teaching at the university.

Colleagues said she exerted broad influence across the campus, including helping to choose a new president and writing influential reports about university issues. Professor Michael W. Zuckerman recalls Faust insisting in hiring meetings that female candidates be considered. "She was willing to risk people rolling their eyes in the corridor afterwards," he said.

But her primary passion was digging through archives for her research. She wrote several books on Civil War-related topics, delving into the lives of Confederate intellectuals and women. Her forthcoming book examines how the incredible death toll of the Civil War changed American culture.

She was also a popular teacher, known for bringing the Civil War to life by hauling armfuls of rifles to class. She often brought her dog, St. George Tucker , named after a pre-Civil War Virginia judge. The mutt mysteriously seemed to know when time was up: his stretch signaled to students that they could leave.

Learning to take on challenges
Friends say Faust is remarkably efficient, juggling work and personal life with apparent ease. She married her second husband, Charles Rosenberg , a fellow Penn professor and historian of science, in 1980.

She attended almost all of the games of their daughter, Jessica Rosenberg, in three sports and once organized a poetry festival at her school.

Jessica , born in 1982, graduated from Harvard in 2004 and is a fact-checker at the New Yorker. Faust is also the stepmother of Leah Rosenberg , a professor at the University of Florida.

In 1988, a diagnosis of breast cancer "reoriented" her life, she told Penn's alumni magazine, the Pennsylvania Gazette, in 1991.

"You learn so much about what matters to you," she said in the article. She made efforts to exercise more, and said that after surviving cancer, "taking an intellectual risk seems like nothing." She declined to discuss her illness with the Globe.

In 2000, after long resisting efforts to recruit her into administration at Penn and elsewhere, she accepted the deanship of Harvard's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, which had recently been converted from a women's college into a fellowship program and women's history library. Radcliffe had more than 80 staff members last year , a $17 million budget, and a $473 million endowment.

She believed that she could balance the job with her scholarship, but found that building a world-class research center was all-consuming.

"But I loved it," she said. "I really enjoyed problem-solving, working together in teams with people, setting goals and reaching them, watching something change in front of my eyes."

Faust exceeded the expectations of Neil L. Rudenstine , then president, who hired her.

Rudenstine said he was impressed by how much money she raised in a short time. He was also surprised that she overcame numerous hurdles, including the absence of laboratories, to attract top scientists and mathematicians to Radcliffe.

"I said, 'You've got to be kidding me. Drew, how are you going to get scientists to come?" he said. "She said, 'I will.' "

She and the science dean she hired found inventive solutions, including grants to pay for visiting scientists to travel back to their own labs.

People who knew Faust as a down-to-earth young woman were amazed to hear that she would become the first female president of Harvard. Yet they are not surprised to see her embrace the challenge.

"She was always looking ahead and reaching as high as she could. She was an amazingly strong kid," said Mendenhall . "She was smart enough to see opportunities and brave enough to seize those opportunities in a quiet sort of way."

Sacchetti reported from Virginia, and Bombardieri from Pennsylvania. Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at Maria Sacchetti can be reached at