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Drew Gilpin Faust will live in Elmwood, the official residence of Harvard University’s president.
Drew Gilpin Faust will live in Elmwood, the official residence of Harvard University’s president. (Zara Tzanev for the Boston Globe)

The faint of heart need not apply

Harvard presidency comes with power, prestige, and stress

The job comes with a car and driver, a manse on Cambridge's "Tory Row," and a salary in the neighborhood of $600,000 a year. But presidents of Harvard University don't last as long as they used to. Lawrence H. Summers resigned after only five years, far short of the 20-year tenures that once were common. Summers's predecessor, Neil Rudenstine , lasted a decade, but sheer exhaustion forced him to take a three-month leave in the middle.

Now, Drew Gilpin Faust , named Harvard's first woman president yesterday, is about to discover why the nation's richest and arguably most powerful university is so stressful and difficult to manage. She will move only about 1,200 feet down Garden Street from her current Harvard offices. But Faust will go from managing a small think tank to juggling the demands of 2,500 faculty members, 20,000 students, and an annual budget of $3 billion -- all in the glare of the public spotlight.

"It just seems to me close to an impossible job," said John T. Bethell , a former editor of Harvard Magazine and co author of "Harvard A to Z." "I would have said it's a man-killing job. I don't know if it is a woman-killing job, but she is very courageous to take it on."

Yesterday, Bethell and other Harvard-watchers agreed that life will speed up dramatically for Faust as she prepares to move her family into the president's residence, Elmwood, and take the reins of the 371-year-old school.

From her office on the first floor of Massachusetts Hall -- located downstairs from a dormitory for freshmen -- Faust will attempt to lead a notoriously decentralized university. The historian will serve as the inspirational "closer" on major gifts, and will become an important voice for US higher education.

The Harvard Corporation encourages presidents to continue their academic work -- Summers taught a course each semester, while Derek Bok published three books during his presidency. But the juggling act can be overwhelming.

Rudenstine, Harvard's all-time champion fund-raiser, pushed himself so hard -- traveling endlessly and staying up until the wee hours writing personal notes -- that he took a doctor-ordered leave of absence in 1994 to recover from exhaustion and slight anemia.

When he returned, Rudenstine was careful to delegate more responsibilities, though he continued to write all his notes by hand instead of computer.

"The days are past where the Harvard president can do everything and be everything," said the Rev. Peter Gomes , head minister in Harvard's Memorial Church for more than 30 years. "She's 59 years old. At that age, you've pretty much learned all your tricks. . . . She'll have to figure out how to pace herself."

Complaints about the difficulty of managing Harvard have echoed through the university's halls for centuries. President Edward Holyoke , who died in office in 1769 at age 80, said, "If any man wishes to be humbled and mortified, let him become president of Harvard College," according to Bethell's book.

But Bethell believes that the job has become more difficult because of fund-raising demands, the rapid growth of the university, and the hectic pace of the Internet age.

Summers, a former US Treasury secretary and one of the youngest tenured professors in Harvard history, seemed bred for long-term leadership when he arrived in 2001, and the university rewarded him handsomely. In addition to the official residence, Summers received $595,871 in the 2004-05 academic year and he was assigned a driver and a black Lincoln Town Car -- with license plate "1636" for the year of Harvard's founding.

Summers had a lot of zeal for the job -- he was known to stay up until 4 a.m. with friends, brainstorming about the university's future -- but his brusque, sometimes provocative style made him a divisive figure, especially when he questioned women's ability for science or challenged the African-American studies department.

"He was prepared for the long haul, but the institution was not prepared for him," Gomes said.

Faust comes to office with a better reputation for people skills than Summers, but she has a steeper learning curve since she has never run a major institution. The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, where she is dean, has 87 employees compared with the 24,000 who work for Harvard University.

Faust herself seemed aware of the challenge, saying, "Our shared enterprise is to make Harvard's future even more remarkable than its past."

The next few years will be an interesting test both for Faust and for Harvard itself, Gomes said.

"If the job is truly impossible to be done nowadays and short terms are in order," he said, "we'll soon find out."

Scott Allen can be reached at allen@globe.com.

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