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Faust rides hopes, concerns of peers to Harvard's helm

CAMBRIDGE - Drew Gilpin Faust, who will be officially installed as Harvard's first female president today, should use her new bully pulpit to push for a more diverse faculty and administration and to unify a school often split by competing fiefdoms, professors and students say.

"I want her to both celebrate and promote Harvard's diversity," said Charles Ogletree, a law professor since 1985. "She is symbolic of the fact that it is a new day at Harvard."

Faust, who started as Harvard's 28th president in July, will be inaugurated in a 2 p.m. ceremony on the steps of Memorial Church before an audience of thousands, including Governor Deval Patrick, scholars from around the world, other college presidents, about 60 relatives, and past teachers from grade school through her days as a student at Bryn Mawr College and the University of Pennsylvania.

In interviews, the faculty and students expressed hopes that Faust, a Civil War historian and former dean of Harvard's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, would work more rapidly than past presidents to make Harvard more cohesive and to reduce class size. Students also lobbied for improving the social atmosphere on a campus that lacks a student center and extra space for big student events.

Faust, 60, faces high expectations that she can move Harvard forward with a more conciliatory approach than her predecessor, Lawrence H. Summers.

Summers, an economist and former secretary of the Treasury, ended his tenure in early 2006 after five years, the shortest stint for a Harvard president in 144 years. Past Harvard president Derek Bok served as interim leader while Harvard searched for a new president.

Summers created a firestorm after he speculated during a conference that women may lag in math and science because of innate differences in the genders. He also alienated black faculty and others early in his tenure when he criticized the research of well-known religion scholar Cornel West, who left Harvard's African-American Studies department for Princeton in 2002. Three others in the department left a few years later.

Faust should be able to quickly make strides in diversity at Harvard because of her track record, some professors said.

"She has a reputation as a scholar of mentoring lots of women scholars, including women of color," said Orlando Patterson, a sociology professor on the faculty since 1971.

Ogletree said he hopes Faust will work to improve the racial diversity of deans and department chairs, while Patterson said recruiting more female faculty members was critical.

Mirroring the wishes of some students, Patterson said that most of all he wanted Faust to emphasize the importance of teaching and to improve the student-to-teacher ratio.

"This is the richest university in the world," Patterson said, "and we really ought to be able to say that the ratio of students to teacher should be no more than 12, and every effort should be made for professors to be able to meet with students in a meaningful way."

Harvard, he said, aims for 18 to 20 students per class and allows introductory classes to climb beyond 300.

Ria Tobaccowala, a sophomore, said class sizes are so large in some cases that students are shy about showing up for their professors' office hours because they do not know them. "There's not enough communication between professors and students," she said.

Improving undergraduate education needs to be a major first step, agreed Ryan Petersen, a senior and the president of the Undergraduate Council, the student government.

Students need better teaching and better content - efforts he and others said began during Summers's tenure when committees began discussing ways to overhaul the curriculum and improve teaching.

Faust also needs to break down barriers among schools within Harvard, several professors said.

"The time has come to turn Harvard into a single university, and not just a collection of different schools with different salaries, different calendars, different rules on grading," said law professor Alan Dershowitz, who has taught at the university for 44 years.

For example, each school does its own fund-raising, and the divisions can create barriers for team teaching and research across the disciplines, Dershowitz said.

As Harvard moves some science operations to its expanded Allston campus, removing the boundaries among schools will become more important, said Eric Mazur, a physics professor since 1982. "The most fertile area for intellectual exploration is between disciplines," he said.

Although she has declined to publicize her priorities or the content of her inaugural speech before this afternoon, Faust has signaled her desire to create a more cohesive university.

In a Sept. 18 letter addressed to the university community, she wrote, "From engineering to theater, from interdisciplinary science to art to law, and in innumerable fields around and in between, we have opportunities not just to advance our efforts in discrete fields, but to work to become a university known more for bridges and less for walls."

Several students said they hope Faust's reputation for inclusiveness will spread to them. They want more of a role in decisions about the university, particularly about ideas to improve social life.

"Harvard should be more than purgatory for intellectuals to do their research," said Roy T. Willey IV, a junior. Students need a more well-rounded college experience, and Harvard should restore its previous recognition of fraternities and sororities as official student groups, Willey said.

Freshman Natalia Renta had no recommendations yet for Harvard's new president but expressed excitement about seeing Faust make history.

"It does make me incredibly happy that she is a woman," she said.

Linda Wertheimer can be reached at

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