On her first day as Harvard's president, Drew Faust quipped that she had found the way to unite the university's fractious faculty: Invite them over for ice cream.
That July day, she gave a self-deprecating talk, then strolled onto the grass in Harvard Yard and mingled with one group after another, attendees recalled. Faust, who had invited faculty, students, and staff at every level to the ice cream social, spoke with all who approached her. And, she listened.
"It defined her presidency," said James Kloppenberg, chairman of the history department. "I wandered by where she was and thought this was unprecedented for a Harvard president to make him- or herself available to anybody who wanted to chat."
Nearly six months into her presidency, Faust is earning high marks on campus for her nonconfrontational, welcoming style and spirit of openness. She has brought stability to a campus rocked by the stormy five-year tenure of Lawrence Summers, according to more than a dozen faculty and students. Faust has been visible, chatting with professors at a dinner for new faculty, attending student theatrical performances, and having dinner or tea with students in informal gatherings at residence halls.
And while Faust has not faced a major controversy, she showed signs of strong leadership this month when she announced a sweeping financial aid initiative, faculty and students said.
"The fact that it happened so quickly after she took the helm is an excellent sign that Harvard is back on course," said David Laibson, an economics professor who co-led a letter-writing campaign in 2005 in support of Summers. "We need someone who will both take bold steps and create stability. She is doing both."
Faust, previously the dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, took over a campus divided. Summers had numerous detractors among the largest group of faculty, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, but plenty of supporters in the professional schools.
Summers, who was treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, provoked several professors with blunt statements. In 2002, he sparked an exodus of four professors from the African-American studies department after criticizing well-known scholar Cornel West for recording a rap CD. In 2005, Summers again riled faculty by inferring that women lag behind men in science and math careers because of innate differences between genders. He resigned in 2006 as the arts and sciences faculty pushed for a second no-confidence vote.
At Harvard, the president chairs the general faculty meetings of the arts and sciences school, and Faust has won over many with a style that has both an air of authority and inclusiveness, faculty said. In contrast, Summers was more argumentative and confrontational as he led the meetings.
"She knows what she's doing, yet she listens," said Ingrid Monson, a professor of music and African and African-American studies. "You feel like she's not simply arriving at the meeting telling us what to do."
"She is extremely diplomatic in the way she deals with the faculty," said Diana Eck, the department chairwoman of the study of religion.
Faust, who said through a spokesman that she was unavailable for an interview, impressed department chairs at a recent meeting when she said she planned to move deliberately and consult a wide variety of faculty and others as Harvard fine-tunes its 50-year expansion plan for its Allston campus, Eck said. By comparison, Summers gave the impression that he would move quickly on Allston and not necessarily consider faculty concerns, Eck and others said.
Allston community activists said they have not seen enough of Faust to judge her. But Mayor Thomas M. Menino said he has been impressed by Faust's affable manner with Allston residents at neighborhood events.
"She has no airs about her," Menino said.
Some of Summers's supporters feared that Faust would show too much favoritism to the arts and sciences faculty, but that has not happened, said law school professor Alan Dershowitz, who opposed the liberal arts faculty's treatment of Summers.
"She came into office with some barriers to overcome, not because of her but because of how she got there, and she's overcome them beautifully," Dershowitz said. Faust, he said, faced both faculty and alumni who wanted Summers to stay and who were not receptive to whomever would replace the man they admired.
He said he saw her in action this summer at a fund-raiser on Martha's Vineyard, where the majority of the alumni were fans of Summers. "She handled herself very well. It was her demeanor, her openness," he said.
Many students also were fans of Summers, and at Faust's installation ceremony in October, dozens of them gave Summers a standing ovation as he presented a university artifact to his successor.
Time will tell whether Faust will be as popular with students as Summers, said Brian Gillis, 23, a senior and member of the Undergraduate Council. Gillis was a member of Students for Larry, which lobbied to keep Summers in office because of his advocacy for improving undergraduate life.
"She has big shoes to fill in the sense of undergraduate perception," Gillis said.
Still, he said, it was "pretty cool" recently to see Faust attending a student performance of "The Mikado." He has met her and found her open, he said.
"I would never call President Faust 'Drew,' but I would call President Summers 'Larry,' " he said. "President Faust is on her way to having that level of familiarity with students if she continues to do things like show up at Cabot House for tea unawares."
Summers, students said, frequently met students en masse at open invitation events, to field questions. Faust has gathered primarily with smaller groups.
"She's visible and accessible," said Pallas Snider, a 19-year-old sophomore.
Faust scored points with students and faculty with her first major move on Dec. 10: an announcement that Harvard would offer more financial aid for middle- and higher-income families and replace loans with grants in financial aid packages. The changes built upon initiatives Summers began.
"Students and everybody else only will be able to measure how effective her initiatives have been by their results," said Ryan Petersen, a senior and president of the Undergraduate Council.
Linda Wertheimer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.