CAMBRIDGE - Drumming and twisting to the beat, the Harvard Pan-African Dance and Music Ensemble rolled down the center aisle that divided thousands of plastic chairs in Harvard Yard, then parted as a beaming Drew Gilpin Faust emerged to officially become the university's first female president.
The troupe was among a diverse group of performers, speakers, and guests at Faust's inauguration yesterday afternoon, and their presence, combined with Faust's words, made it clear that Harvard's 28th president would use her high-profile position as a bully pulpit on gender and racial diversity and other issues in higher education.
Rather than give a list of priorities for Harvard in her address, Faust defended American colleges against attacks on their quality and said Harvard and other universities should become leaders in national conversations about education.
"My presence here today - and indeed that of many others on this platform - would have been unimaginable even a few short years ago," said Faust, 60, a Civil War historian and past dean of Harvard's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. "College used to be restricted to a tiny elite; now it serves the many, not just the few. . . . Ours is a different and a far better world."
Faust, speaking from under a large tent by Memorial Church, drew cheers with those words from the more than 8,000 people sitting below her or huddling on building steps unsheltered from occasional rain.
"If this is a day to transcend the ordinary, if it is a rare moment when we gather not just as Harvard, but with a wider world of scholarship . . . it is a time to reflect on what Harvard and institutions like it mean in this first decade of the 21st century," she said.
The speakers, performers, and invited guests included Governor Deval Patrick, author Toni Morrison, opera singer Simon Estes, University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann, and historian John Hope Franklin.
In an interview with the Globe before the inauguration, Faust said she opposed the stance of US Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who has urged colleges to do a better job of measuring academic growth. Spellings and others have said that US colleges are not preparing students well enough to compete globally and need to be held accountable for student performance.
Faust drew further applause during her speech when she described what higher education should and should not be. Colleges pursue new endeavors in learning and research "because they define what has over centuries made us human, not because they enhance our global competitiveness."
Faust replaced Lawrence Summers, who stepped down in 2006 after a five-year tenure and several clashes with faculty over statements he made about women in science and about a prominent African-American professor's research. Several speakers at the inauguration cited Faust's talent at bringing people together.
"We can be certain she will move this institution to a new level of achievement that will unite us all," said Franklin, a professor emeritus from Duke University.
Ryan Petersen, a Harvard senior and president of the Undergraduate Council, sparked raucous cheers from students when he said that it was time for Harvard to give students full participation in decisions. He referred to Faust's often-quoted account of how she resisted her mother's attempt to persuade her that it was a "man's world" and she would have to get used to it.
"I refuse to accept this is a faculty and administrators' world," Petersen said.
Three past presidents, including Summers, who was applauded by students, and Derek Bok, who was president for 20 years and became interim president after Summers departed, presented her with remnants of the university's past: silver keys, a volume with some of Harvard's oldest documents, and two Harvard seals.
As she concluded her speech, Faust dug into the past and mentioned a brown envelope given to the archives in 1951 by James B. Conant, the university's 23d president. Conant, who held the post from 1933 to 1953, wanted the letter presented to the president who would lead Harvard at the start of the next century.
"I broke the seal on the mysterious package to find a remarkable letter from my predecessor. It was addressed to, 'My Dear Sir,' " said Faust, emphasizing the last word to laughter and heavy applause.
Linda Wertheimer can be reached at email@example.com.