After 370 years, Harvard gets first female president

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A quiet revolution has been completed amid the lawns and red brick buildings of America's oldest university, Harvard, where officials have chosen a woman to be their first ever president.

A year after Lawrence Summers, a former head of the US treasury, stepped down, the seven-member strong Harvard Corporation yesterday announced it had appointed Drew Faust to the position. Dr Faust is presently dean of the university's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

"This is a great day, and a historic day, for Harvard," the chairman of the search committee, James Houghton, said. "Drew Faust is an inspiring and accomplished leader, a superb scholar, a dedicated teacher, and a wonderful human being."

Dr Faust, 59, said: "Our shared enterprise is to make Harvard's future even more remarkable than its past. That will mean recognising and building on what we already do well. It will also mean recognising what we don't do as well as we should, and not being content until we find ways to do better."

Harvard may be both the wealthiest and oldest of the US universities ­ founded 1636 ­ but in terms of promoting women it has long lagged behind many of its Ivy League rivals, three of which are led by women. The appointment of Ms Faust has also drawn attention because of the behaviour of her successor and the manner in which he left. Mr Summers was all but forced out after claiming that natural ability may partly explain why women achieved such few senior positions in the world of science.

"The largest phenomenon, by far, is the general clash between people's legitimate family desires and employers' current desire for high power and high intensity, that in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude," he said, in a speech at a private lunch.

Not surprisingly his comments, in January 2005, triggered a storm. In March that year the university's faculty of arts and sciences passed a vote of no confidence against him and many people believed it was only a matter of time before he left. Ironically, Ms Faust was appointed by Mr Summers to head two committess looking at gender issues that were established in the wake of his comments.

As president of Harvard, Ms Faust, an historian of the US civil war, will oversee 11 schools and colleges with 24,000 employees and a budget of $3bn, and an endowment worth ten times as much. "She will need to scale up, and she's shown all the qualities that suggest she'll do that," Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, another member of the Ivy League, told the Associated Press. "I think she's an absolutely outstanding choice."

Carol Christ, president of the Massachusetts-based Smith College, which only accepts women students at undergraduate level, said: "It's a little like having a woman president of the United States. It's a very public symbol of the progress women have made in being seen as equal."

The Harvard Crimson, the university newspaper which broke the news of Ms Faust's appointment, noted in a recent article: "The new president will have to build consensus while making decisions bound to alienate, lead a 17th century institution facing 21st century problems, and respect Harvard's traditions while simultaneously making bold changes. Faust is a woman in a man's world ­ both as a historian of the civil war and now as the lone woman in a succession of 27 men. She is a woman who makes her living studying the past but who now must look to the future."