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Faust, Drew Gilpin

Drew Gilpin Faust

In 2007 American scholar Drew Gilpin Faust (born 1947) became Harvard University's first woman president. A longtime scholar of American history and a specialist in feminist and American Civil War studies, Faust had spent her entire career in the academic world, and her appointment to the Harvard presidency became a benchmark moment in U.S. higher education. Among the eight schools of the Ivy League—the oldest, most prestigious colleges and universities in the United States—fully half were now led by women presidents. Just 50 years earlier, many of those same schools barred women from enrollment.

Born Catharine Drew Gilpin on September 18, 1947, in New York City, Faust was raised in the wealthy Shenandoah Valley area of northern Virginia. Her father, McGhee Tyson Gilpin (died 2000), was a thoroughbred horse breeder whose grandfather, Lawrence Tyson (1861-1929), had been a prominent senator from Tennessee. Her mother's family were denizens of Far Hills, New Jersey, a similarly elite enclave. Faust and her three brothers grew up in a part of Clarke County that had been home to several generations of Gilpins known for their prizewinning racehorses. Like most affluent families of the area, they had African-American employees in their household, and Faust recalled that at around the age of nine she became aware of the school segregation issue. The matter had been decided three years earlier, in the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, but the state and local authorities in Virginia were still resisting the federal order. She recalled asking the family handyman whether if she painted her face black—as his was—was it true that she would not be allowed to enter her elementary school?.

Civil Rights Activist

The nine-year-old Faust wrote a letter to President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) to voice her concern on the matter. Years later, as a scholar she wondered about her plea, and contacted the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas. She was astonished when her letter was found and a copy returned to her in the mail. “Dear Mr. Eisenhower,” it began, according to an article Faust wrote on it for Harvard Magazine, “I am nine years old and I am white, but I have many feelings about segregation.” She urged the president to bring school segregation to an end, asserting that “colored people aren't given a chance …. So what if their skin is black? They still have feelings but most of all are God's people!”

The letter to the White House marked Faust out as a rebel at an unexpectedly early age. As she noted in the same Harvard Magazine essay, in Virginia in the 1950s, discussions about race in households like hers were tantamount to talking about sex—both were taboo topics. Her parents found out about the letter “only when a formulaic acknowledgement arrived from the White House,” she wrote. “They were stunned—both that I should have written to the president and that I should have expressed the thoughts that I did.”

Faust's independent streak continued in her adolescent and teen years, when she fought bitterly with her mother over the freedoms her brothers were permitted while she was expected to conform to an idealized notion of young Southern womanhood. The rules for her included wearing dresses, not jeans, adopting a demure manner, and being “presented” to society at a debutante ball. Her mother frequently reminded her that her protests were futile ones. “It's a man's world, sweetie, and the sooner you learn that the better off you'll be,” her mother often told her, as Faust recalled in an interview with New York Times reporter Sara Rimer.

Earned History Degree

Faust began to break free of some of the conventions of her upbringing when she entered the Concord Academy, a private boarding school in Concord, Massachusetts, at the time an all-girls school. She excelled academically, and had she been born a boy, she might have entered Princeton University, from which her father, two of her brothers, two uncles, and a great-uncle had earned degrees. But the Ivy League school did not admit women as undergraduate students at the time. Instead, Faust's options were limited to either state schools or one of the so-called “Seven Sisters” schools formed in response to that long history of discrimination. These were the septet of elite women's colleges in the Northeast, and Faust chose Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania, which she entered in 1964. She was a rule-challenger there, too, and was active in the student campaign to repeal the campus's “parietal rules.” These rules governed the hours at which young women were expected to be inside their dormitories every evening, and they also restricted visits by men to the women's dormitories.

Faust went on to earn a master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in 1971, and a doctorate in American civilization in 1975. She joined that school's faculty a year later as an assistant professor, and progressed to a full professorship there eight years later. Penn, as it was known, was one of the Ivy League schools, but had a much longer history of admitting women and of hiring them as faculty members. In 1996 she was named director of the school's women's studies program, which was the same year that her seventh work of scholarship, Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War, was published. She was also active in numerous faculty committees at Penn, as well as within the larger community of academic professionals. In 2001 she was hired by Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a professor of history.

Faust's new job came with a second title in addition to her duties as a researcher and teacher: that of dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Harvard had once been a single-sex institution, but its adjacent Radcliffe College—one of the Seven Sisters—had educated several generations of women before Harvard became a coeducational school. The remaining Radcliffe address on campus was the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and its focus was on postgraduate research on women in society and on gender issues. As director, Faust helped revive the fortunes of the Institute, raising funds and recruiting new names to its fellows program.

Harvard President Scorned

Faust advanced to the Lincoln Professor of History chair at Harvard in 2003. In early 2005 a serious controversy erupted involving remarks made by Harvard's president, Lawrence H. Summers (born 1954). In a speech before a conference of the National Bureau of Economics Research, Summers addressed the issue of why there were so few women who served as chairs of science, math, and engineering departments at U.S. colleges and universities. Summers discussed several theories, one of which mentioned research into “intrinsic aptitude”—or the idea that women simply did not possess the same intellectual abilities as men. His remarks spread first throughout academia and then made national headlines, most of them centering around the inflammatory idea that the president of the most prestigious college in the United States did not believe that women were as smart as men. Women in academic positions across the country voiced vehement protests in the media, recounting the challenges and biases they had faced in their professional careers.

Harvard students and professors of both genders voiced criticism of the school's president for his remarks, and Summers subsequently chose Faust to head two newly established committees charged with the task of attracting more women to the sciences and to academia's top ranks. The rancor on campus continued, however, and Summers— who had been an unpopular leader even before the controversy—announced his resignation in 2006. A nationwide search for his replacement was launched, and Faust became the surprise frontrunner among several wellqualified candidates. In February of 2007, Harvard made the announcement that Faust was to become its next president, effective the following October. “Faculty members and officials familiar with the search said Dr. Faust's leadership style—her collaborative approach and considerable people skills—would be vital for soothing a campus ripped apart by the battles over Dr. Summers, whom many accused of having an abrasive, confrontational style,” noted Rimer.

“Education Is the Engine”

Faust's promotion once again thrust Harvard into the headlines, this time favorably. The appointment of a woman to lead the first institution of higher learning in the United States, founded in 1636, was deemed a historic turning point for American higher education. She was also the first Harvard president without a degree from the school in 335 years. Faust was sworn into office on October 12, 2007, and just weeks later she issued a new policy that again made positive headlines for the school: Harvard announced a new financial aid package that would provide tuition help to a much greater number of students, not just academically gifted ones from the lowest income households. “We've all been aware of increasing pressures on the middle class,” the New York Times quoted her as saying. “We hear about this in a number of ways—housing costs, both parents working, the difficulty of amassing any kinds of savings, just the increasing pressures as middle class lives have become more stressed …. Education is the engine that makes American democracy work. And it has to work, and that means people have to have access.” Harvard was able to take such steps in part because of its massive endowment of nearly $35 billion. (Endowments are donations made by alumni, and Harvard's had been wisely invested over the years).

Faust took office at Harvard just as her latest book was going to press. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, was published by Knopf in January of 2008, and received more media coverage than had her previous titles. Its focus was on the 600,000-plus casualties of the U.S. Civil War, and how such an enormous death toll impacted American society. Newsweek writer Malcolm Jones explained, “The Victorian idea of the ‘good death,’ in which the dying faced their demise with a peaceful frame of mind and in the company of loved ones, was intrinsic to beliefs about the primacy of home. Then, suddenly, the unthinkable—the notion that a son or husband could die hundreds of miles distant—became the reality.” During the Civil War, neither the Union nor the Confederate side had any identification system for its soldiers, nor were there any rules or guidelines in place about burying the war dead. In many cases, fleeing armies had to leave fallen comrades behind on the battlefield.

Years later a federal effort was made to establish national cemeteries in several states near famous battle sites, such as Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; the government also began to provide pensions for veterans and war widows. At the time, these actions reflected a major step in the responsibilities that the federal government assumed with regard to its citizens. During interviews about her book, Faust related that reading the letters of soldiers who had managed to write a letter back home as they lay dying was one of the most heartbreaking aspects of her research, but that “in some ways I don't find this book a depressing book,” she told Jones. “I find it an inspiring book, as I watch people struggle to deal with extraordinarily difficult circumstances and retain their humanity and affirm that humanity in the face of suffering and loss.”

Faust is married to Charles Ernest Rosenberg, an authority on the history of American medicine who teaches at Harvard. Their daughter, Jessica, is a Harvard graduate. Faust has often thought about her mother's words to her as a young woman, that the world was not a fair place, and considers herself fortunate to have been witness to such immense changes. As she told Rimer, “I think in many ways that comment—‘It's a man's world, sweetie’—was a bitter comment from a woman of a generation who didn't have the kind of choices my generation of women had.”


Christian Science Monitor, February 12, 2007.

Harvard Magazine, May-June 2003.

Newsweek, January 21, 2008.

New York Times, February 10, 2007; February 12, 2007; December 11, 2007.

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"Faust, Drew Gilpin." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Faust, Drew Gilpin." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . (December 16, 2017).

"Faust, Drew Gilpin." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved December 16, 2017 from

Faust, Drew Gilpin

Drew Gilpin Faust (Catharine Drew Gilpin Faust), 1947–, American historian and educator, b. New York City, grad. Bryn Mawr (B.A. 1968), Univ. of Pennsylvania (M.A. 1971, Ph.D. 1975). A professor of history at the Univ. of Pennsylvania from 1976 to 2000, she has written several works on the antebellum and Civil War South, including Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War (1997), which won the Francis Parkman Prize, and This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (2008). In 2001 she became the first dean of Harvard's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and oversaw the transformation of the former Radcliffe College into a multidisciplinary center for scholarly and creative work. Also a professor of history at Harvard from 2001, Faust was named president of the university in 2007, becoming the first woman to hold the post.

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"Faust, Drew Gilpin." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

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"Faust, Drew Gilpin." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 16, 2017 from