Last week, Harvard University announced it had appointed Civil War scholar Drew Gilpin Faust to be president of its storied institution. Faust, a woman, is noted for her early stand against segregation in the 1950s as a nine-year old Girl Scout growing up in the Commonwealth of Virginia--a very southern, Confederate, Dixiecrat, segregated state at that time.
Faust will replace Dr. Lawrence Summers who came under fire for suggesting that men are innately smarter than women, which is why there aren't as many women in the sciences as there are men. Summers tried to hold onto his job, but eventually the power of public outcry prevailed and he stepped down.
The appointment of Faust calls to mind a situation in the 80s when disgrace fell upon what was then considered an American icon on par with Mom, apple pie, and baseball--the Miss America Pageant. Founded in 1921, the pageant has become schmaltzier and less credible as an institution over the years, but in the 1980s, it was still a highly anticipated and watched event.
In 1984, that year's Miss America was a young woman named Vanessa Williams. Ms. Williams was, like her predecessors and sister competitors, beautiful, talented, intelligent; she possessed all the characteristics of a perfect Miss America. Until six months later, when it was discovered that Ms. Williams had posed for Playboy magazine. The media metaphorically stripped her to rags and public opinion finished the job. Ms. Williams was disgraced (albeit temporarily) and forced to resign her crown.
The next year, Sharlene Wells of Salt Lake City, Utah, won the vaunted title. Ms. Wells was everything Ms. Williams had been portrayed as not being. The most important being she hadn't posed for Playboy. As a lily-white, never-been-sullied, fifth child of staunch, conservative, "moral" Mormons, she was the perfect answer to the previous year's embarrassment. You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief that spread across the nation, saying, "Whew. We don't have to worry about this one." In some respects, it was almost an insult to Ms. Wells and her sister contestants. And yet, was it?
Certainly, the pageant folks knew Ms. Wells, a devout Mormon, would be less likely to have posed for Playboy than her predecessor. Undoubtedly, in the minds of the judges, she was low/no risk.
Perhaps the same could be argued regarding Dr. Faust? She's low/no risk because she believes that women (and all other minorities) are people, too. I dare say, Dr. Faust will be a breath of fresh air at stodgy Hahvahd. Hopefully, she will a bellwether upon which selections by other universities will be based when institutions of higher learning seek new leaders.
To read more about Dr. Faust, go here. And here.
Photo copyright: The Boston Globe