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Woman may emerge to lead Harvard

Radcliffe dean said to advance in search

A prominent female historian and Harvard dean, who has never run a major institution, appears to be the front-runner for the Harvard University presidency now that a Nobel prize-winning scientist has bowed out.

Drew Gilpin Faust , head of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study , is a Southern-bred scholar with a dry wit and unflappable demeanor, colleagues say. If chosen, she would be the university's first female president, named two years after former president Lawrence H. Summers speculated that women had less aptitude for science than men.

The university's two governing boards are meeting this weekend but appear unlikely to vote on a new president. Sources familiar with the search say Faust is the top candidate, but the search committee could still consider others.

Supporters say Faust, 59, commands respect for her scholarship, sound judgment , and power of persuasion. But some professors and alumni worry that she lacks the experience and record of bold innovation to run Harvard.

Faust's biggest administrative job is the one she currently holds. The Radcliffe Institute is the smallest academic unit of Harvard, and the only one with no students or full-time faculty. Last year Radcliffe had a $17 million budget, more than 80 staff members, and a $473 million endowment . Harvard had a $3 billion budget, more than 10,000 faculty and staff, and a $29.2 billion endowment.

The person considered the other lead candidate, Thomas R. Cech , president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, withdrew from consideration on Wednesday.

Alumni and others have said Harvard needs someone who can execute the university's bold agenda in a less confrontational way than Summers. His presidency was crippled by his battles with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and he resigned a year ago.

Faust's supporters -- including a former University of Pennsylvania president -- say her achievements at Radcliffe prove that she can do the job. Over the past six years, she transformed the remains of Harvard's former women's college into a modern research institute. She erased an annual structural deficit of more than $3 million, laid off a quarter of the staff, and transferred programs to other institutions without major upheaval. Now Radcliffe houses a women's history library and hosts 50 research fellows a year.

"You don't think of her as being a figure that has a lot of toughness to her. But she does," said Sheldon Hackney , a history professor and former president of Penn. "There's just zero doubt in my mind that she can manage institutions as large as Penn and Harvard."

Faust taught at Penn for about 25 years, specializing in the Civil War and the South.

Some professors, alumni , and others say that the other two internal candidates, law school dean Elena Kagan and provost Steven E. Hyman , could have been hurt by their ties to Summers, who hired them. He did not hire Faust, but she appeared to be a closer advis er to him than the others, according to two professors who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Summers tapped Faust to oversee task forces on women after his comments about their aptitude for science. Later, he wanted to make her the powerful dean of arts and sciences, according to several professors.

While some faculty and alumni are delighted at the possibility of a Faust presidency, others, who refused to be quoted, said they believe she would not be a strong leader. Several professors said they view her as more cautious than creative, prone to expressing middle-of-the-road ideas. Some of these critics worry that Harvard's search committee is so concerned about finding someone different from Summers that they are going too far in the opposite direction.

In the past, Faust has spurned bigger administrative jobs. Hackney said he tried to hire Faust in the late 1980s as dean of Penn's School of Arts and Sciences . She decided to focus on her research instead. About two years ago, he and others tried to persuade her to be a candidate for president of Penn, but she declined.

Before Radcliffe, she chaired Penn's history department for five years and directed the women's studies program.

Faust declined to comment. But in a 2003 Harvard Magazine article, she wrote that her convictions were honed in her native Virginia, where, as a child, she challenged sexism and racism. At age 9, upset by her all-white church and school, she wrote a letter to President Eisenhower asking him to end segregation.

The only girl of four children, she quarreled with her mother, who dressed her in "scratchy organdy dresses" and warned her that, "This is a man's world, sweetie, and the sooner you learn that the better off you'll be."

She rebelled instead. In the 1960s, she protested against the Vietnam War and skipped freshman-year mid terms to march for civil rights in Selma, Ala. She forged a place for herself as a woman with a man's name -- her real first name is Catherine -- who, because of her height, stands eye-to-eye with many men.

As an adult, though, she "abandoned activism for history," she wrote.

Walter Licht, chair man of the history department at Penn, said he had thought Faust would dislike administration because of her love for research. But he changed his mind when he ran into her at Harvard, a year after she took over Radcliffe.

"I just saw the twinkle in her eye. She was loving every second of it," he said. "She was like a new Drew to me."

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at msacchetti@globe.com. Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@globe.com.

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