New Harvard president uses deft touch

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

When Drew Gilpin Faust starts her new job July 1 as president of Harvard University, she’ll benefit as a well-liked historian and administrator.

Some lessons to take from her rise:
  • Know your stuff. Faust is known as a first-rate scholar. A book she wrote on the Old South is “a long meditation on authority,” says another history professor. “She was thinking through a lot of big questions that will face her as a university president, equality and inequality, power and its uses, and what leadership requires: forgiveness, humanity and a generosity of spirit.”

  • Listen to everybody. Faust uses common sense as a consensus-builder, according to interviews with professors and administrators.

  • Reach out to newcomers. Making connections is one of her strong suits. Long before she landed at Harvard, she started welcoming new faculty, inviting them to meals and introducing them to other professors.

  • Practice your political dexterity. Faust served as an adviser to her predecessor, Lawrence Summers. Even as she counseled the controversial president, she steered clear of warring factions. Some see her neutrality as calculated.

  • Care. It undercuts the argument that you’re scheming. “Becoming president of Harvard is not a dream for Drew,” says a Harvard law professor. “She’s doing it because she cares about the university.”

  • Be flexible. As the former dean of science at Radcliffe, Faust let scientists spend just one semester at a time there because they had a hard time leaving their laboratories for long stretches. She also gave them extra travel money to go check on their labs every month.

  • Know yourself. Faust turned down a job as the dean of arts and sciences at the University of Pennsylvania because she wasn’t ready to leave teaching or scholarship. She took her first administrative position in 2000 at Radcliffe, which made her a dean under the Harvard umbrella. She later turned down offers from outside Harvard because she wanted to stick with what she knew.
—Adapted from “Harvard’s Historic Choice,” Robin Wilson, The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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