Aaron J. Garcia, a 2009 graduate of Harvard College, passed up offers from consulting and marketing companies paying $20,000 more than he gets teaching chemistry and physics in Brownsville, Texas on the Mexican border.
The 24-year-old Garcia, who prefers to be called A.J., says Harvard University President Drew Faust had a lot to do with his decision to work with disadvantaged students. She champions public service over private gain in her speeches, which affected him when he was defraying some of the cost of his tuition as an assistant in her office in Massachusetts Hall.
“She said that it was the responsibility of educated people and scholars to shape the world in meaningful ways, and this is what’s most meaningful to me,” said Garcia, who joined Teach for America, a New York-based nonprofit group that recruits the brightest college graduates for low-income communities.
Faust, 63, tells students they didn’t come to Harvard just to get rich. She announced plans this month to return the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps to campus after more than 40 years, invoking her gratitude to those who serve in the military. Last year, she appointed Nitin Nohria, a leadership specialist who urges management students to take an ethics oath, as dean of Harvard Business School and Martha Minow, an expert in human rights and equality, to lead Harvard Law School.
From the eight U.S. presidents among its alumni to the professors who invented the iron lung and performed the first kidney transplant, Harvard has a rich tradition of serving society that Faust wants to restore, said David Gergen, director of the Kennedy School of Government Center for Public Leadership.
Too Much Materialism
“She came in with a view that too many Harvard students were aspiring to financial-services careers that emphasized materialism,” Gergen said in a telephone interview. “She didn’t villainize Wall Street, but she wanted to get more balance in what the student body was doing, and she’s encouraged more graduates to give back through public service.”
About 18 percent of the class of 2010 applied to Teach for America and 14 percent of graduates with jobs were headed into education. In 2007, the year she took over, 6.1 percent of seniors applied to the teacher training program.
To be sure, the focus on public service coincided with a Wall Street panic caused by speculative bubbles in housing and leveraged lending that plunged the economy into the worst recession in 80 years. Harvard graduates bound for financial services and consulting fell to 20 percent in 2009, from 47 percent in 2007, according to a survey of graduating seniors by the Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper.
Similar trends were taking effect across the U.S., as the number of college seniors planning to go into nonprofit or teaching careers after graduation rose to 22 percent in 2010, from 14 percent in 2008, according to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The share planning to work in the private sector fell to 36 percent from 45 percent.
Faust is putting her stamp on the university by changing the leadership of the richest endowment in education and halting the biggest construction project in Harvard’s history, the $1.2 billion science center that her predecessor, Lawrence Summers, envisaged as the cornerstone of an expansion in the neighboring Boston community of Allston.
To bring stability to the budget after the $26.9 billion endowment lost almost a third of its value in 2009, she cut funding for junior-varsity hockey, basketball and baseball teams, reduced shuttle-bus schedules and stopped hiring of exam proctors. A budget deficit at Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, its biggest unit, was reduced to $35 million from $220 million in April 2009, and the endowment rose 11 percent to $27.4 billion in the year ended June 30.
Faust restructured the governing board, often called the Corporation, in December. The oldest incorporated body in the country and Harvard’s highest authority, the board was criticized by faculty for its secrecy. In the first substantive change in the institution’s government in 360 years, the corporation will be expanded to 13 members from seven, and Harvard may name three new members at the end of this academic year, and three more the following year.
The first woman to be president of Harvard, Faust is a career academic who emerged from relative obscurity to lead Harvard, compared with Summers, who served as U.S. Treasury Secretary under President Bill Clinton and later was President Barack Obama’s economic adviser.
“She isn’t tied to Harvard’s traditions and wants to push in some new directions, which I still think she will when we come out of this,” said Lizabeth Cohen, a professor of American studies at Harvard and Faust’s friend for 30 years. “It would be a tragedy if her whole presidency was damage control.”
While she has courted alumni as the college rolls toward a major fund-raising campaign, she hasn’t improved academic rigor or increased political diversity among faculty, said Harvey Mansfield, a professor of government in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
“There’s a lot at Harvard to be done and she’s not doing any of it,” Mansfield said. “We need to make Harvard more demanding. It’s academically too easy right now. Students are not worked hard enough.”
Faust has worked to ensure that the broadest possible spectrum of views is represented at Harvard, and that students are prepared to examine those diverse viewpoints with the best intellectual training, the university said in an e-mail. Harvard has increased access to freshman advising and implemented a curriculum, called General Education, aimed at connecting classroom experience to the world beyond, the statement said.
“Without question, our students are driven in their out of class pursuits, just as they are driven in their coursework,” according to the statement. Faust has also reached out to conservatives to speak at Harvard, including Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the statement said.
Faust said her efforts resonate beyond the university.
“The power of the president of Harvard is complex,” Faust said, sitting on a cream-colored couch that contrasts with the crimson walls of her office in Massachusetts Hall. “It’s a job that gives you a voice and a platform and an occasion to accomplish a great deal.”
Faust has been politically active since childhood. Born in New York City in 1947, she was raised in Clarke County, in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where Democratic Senator Harry Byrd Sr. said he’d rather close public schools than integrate them. At age 9, she wrote U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower a letter to protest segregation. She skipped freshman midterm exams at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania to make a 16-hour drive to Selma, Alabama, and join the protest marches there in 1965.
In 2001, Faust, by then a prize-winning Civil War historian, joined Harvard to run its Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study. Six years later, she became president of the university.
“I don’t think it was a totally ‘jump for joy’ situation,” recalled her friend Christine Ramsey, whom Faust visited soon after her appointment. “There was almost a sober awareness that her life was about to change.”
In her inaugural address, Faust stressed a relationship to the public, pledging an “unwavering belief in the purposes and potential of this university and in all it can do to shape how the world will look another half-century from now.”
Military service is one way for students to contribute, Faust said. Harvard announced March 4 it would bring back a naval ROTC program, after Congress voted in December to rescind the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that prohibited open homosexuality among service members. Harvard ended its relationship with the officer-training program in 1969 after protests by students against the Vietnam War.
“‘Serve’ is the word you use when you talk about the military,” Faust said. “These students make sacrifices while they’re here, because it’s a challenging program, and they know in this day and age that they’re likely to be sent to war zones. We’re all dependent on them, and I have tremendous admiration for them.”
Faust, whose father, grandfather and brother served in the military, said she had her sights set on ROTC’s return from the time she became president. She lifted the image of military service at Harvard for the first time in years, said retired U.S. Navy Captain Paul E. Mawn, chairman of Advocates for Harvard ROTC.
Value of Service
“She has an understanding and recognition of the value of service,” said Mawn, a 1963 graduate of Harvard College. “It’s a form of public service that goes beyond yourself.”
Stressing public service doesn’t mean being anti-business, Faust said.
“I believe in engagement of the public and private sector,” Faust said. “Business is about generating prosperity, and we have a number of students who are developing investment projects, devices or other programs that may ultimately serve society. Public service is a big tent and I don’t mean to leave anyone out of it.”
Undergraduates now discuss their options for public-service careers more openly, said Jonathan Warsh, student director of the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter.
“One night I walked into my dining hall at Lowell House and they’re organizing a volunteer week. Something like that wouldn’t have happened even a couple years ago,” Warsh said.
Garcia has no regrets about taking less money to teach at IDEA Frontier College Preparatory charter school in Brownsville, 50 miles south of his hometown, Raymondville, Texas, he said.
Two weeks ago, a 15-year-old told him she was interested in a career in chemistry, perhaps as a pharmacist. Garcia was surprised because the girl, whose parents and siblings have been jailed on drug charges, had said earlier she wanted to drop out of high school.
“She became invested in herself as a result of being in my classroom,” Garcia said. “I’m convinced that my legacy and imprint will be felt for many, many years among the students and in the community. I can’t ask for anything more than that.”