Monday, February 12, 2007

Drew Gilpin Faust: The 21st Century's Charlene Wells?

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


Sideon said...

I had forgotten about Wells. You summed up the 80's in a way I couldn't have vocalized.

Vanessa certainly came back and showed the world her considerable talents - she's always been one of my favorite singers and actresses.

Congratulations to Faust. It's about damn time, and yes, that stodgy school needs a breath of fresh air.

MWR said...

It seems pretty clear that Summers's comments about women in science and math were a useful pretext for those who wanted to get rid of him. If you examine what he actually said, and remember that he thought he was speaking as an academic to other academics, it's really hard to understand the tempest that resulted. Only when you remember that he was the brusque and unevenly popular president of the bellwether university in the world does it make any sense. Among other things worth noting about his comments, speculating about the dearth of women at the highest levels of academe involves looking at the extreme right-hand tail of the bell curve. What might be happening down there has probably nothing to do with an average person's natural aptitudes.

The problem for Vanessa Williams was not Playboy. Unclear if she could have weathered a simple Playboy spread (doubtful). The problem was that Penthouse obtained some photos she'd posed for some time in the past (surely with no intention of seeing them in a national publication). She was with another model. In . . . how to put this delicately . . . lingually-challenging poses.

JMK said...

MWR: I can't speak to the motives of those who were gunning for Summers. Obviously, he played right into their hands, though. And, as always, the media played right along, too. While it's true we never got the whole story, it seems at least tacitly true that Summers said or implied something he should have not said/thought through better.

As for Vanessa Williams--you're right about what, um, brought her down, so to speak. I'd forgotten it was actually Penthouse and not Playboy. Thanks for the correction!

Sister Mary Lisa said...

Hahvahd. Classic.