The speaker for this month’s “Conversations with Kirkland” series was none other than Drew Faust, president of Harvard University. On October 17, in an intimate setting with no more than about 30 students, President Faust answered a set of questions prepared by two moderators and an additional few from members of the audience.
The event was held in a town-hall style, with President Faust jumping from issue to issue dictated by the curiosity of the students. The questions touched upon more than a dozen issues, from her latest book on the Civil War to Harvard’s Allston development project. Nevertheless, President Faust’s answers to these diverse questions also revealed a couple of common themes that perhaps represent her vision for the university:
Learning for the Sake of Learning
As expected, one of the beginning topics of the Q&A was academic integrity. Faust navigated her thoughts on this issue well, pointing the audience to the root of the problem at hand. Speaking to the unhealthy amount of pressure that grades and GPAs put on Harvard students, Faust emphasized feeling “pleasure and satisfaction in work and learning” and said that it is crucial to “recognize how important the process of doing our own work is.”
A common theme ran in her answers about the common space construction projects all throughout campus. Currently, the area around the Science Center is fenced off for construction and the administration is looking to expand student space to the ground floor of the Holyoke Center. She described the beauty of having common spaces as “letting everyone take advantage of everyone else,” in terms of sharing ideas, intellectual passions, and experiences.
Faust’s answers to both questions successfully opened the window to her vision of Harvard as a place where knowledge by itself is appreciated, respected, and shared, regardless of the grade or reward these intellectual pursuits would result in. No matter the sour smell or the dusty air around the Science Center coming from the construction work, the intentions behind such projects are owed applause and support.
Harvard as a Leader in the International Community
Faust said that what surprised her most when she became president of the university was “how much in the public eye Harvard is.” She added that while the amount of attention could be “disquieting,” it was also an “opportunity” for Harvard to become a global leader in higher education.
Faust’s most famous achievement from the past five years of her presidency is most likely her initiative to significantly increase financial aid at the College. She said that such support for the financial aid program is needed to “support people from every possible background,” and to “sustain the level of intellectual excellence” at the university.
Meanwhile, Faust also said that the financial aid initiative also raised questions about the “balance of funds between financial aid and other initiatives at the university.” She said that the administration is constantly looking for ways to make “instruction within Harvard less costly.” This would involve the use of technology and other advanced teaching tools, opening up another opportunity for Harvard to lead the world in higher education improvement.
Where She Fell Weak
While Faust gave clear answers and had a unified vision for the university, there were also places during the Q&A where her answers were not as strong. These answers were also in response to questions about three of the most heated issues within the university, namely female involvement in academia, student mental health, and public service.
In response to a question about women and professorships, Faust gave a conventional and generic answer that emphasized “support for childcare” and encouraged “more women and minorities into the pipeline.” However, pipeline argument has been proven, time and time again, to fail in increasing the percentage of females in university faculties. Faust didn’t touch on the root of the problem preventing women from entering and being promoted in academia no matter how many of them have come through the “pipeline,” such as maternity and sexual harassment, just to name a few.
The same problem persisted in her answer to a question about increasing interest in public service on campus and after graduation, in which she said that students need to be shown “a smoother path to public service” in the face of more financially assuring careers provided by the financial and consulting sectors. However, Faust did not specify how this would be done or any specific potential initiatives that would make this possible.
Lastly, Faust did not comment deeply on mental health, an issue that came up two times during the event. She only reinforced the core problems within the larger issue, saying that “there should be no stigma about reaching out for health,” and pointed to efforts being initiated by Dean Hammonds, such as the new Committee on Student Stress.
The Q&A ended on a lighter note that a moderator asked Faust a question about her “dream Secret Santa,” to which she replied “no more outdoor Harvard celebrations in the rain” – a reference to the dampened 375th celebration last fall. While Faust failed to give substantial answers to questions about many of the central issues in the Harvard community, she also provided a relatively candid and remarkably clear vision for the school as shown by the common themes running throughout most of her answers.