Leadership at Harvard, through Change and through Storm

Sumit Malik, Editor-in-Chief

When Drew Faust announced her intention to step down as Harvard University’s 28th President at the end of this academic year, she invoked “Fair Harvard,” the university’s alma mater, in reflecting upon the resilience of an institution that has found purpose and progress “through change and through storm.” Faust concludes her 11 years at the helm of Harvard with a legacy of intellectual progress, educational leadership, and forward-thinking. As she prepares to hand over the reins to Lawrence Bacow, the former President of Tufts University and a recipient of three Harvard graduate degrees, she leaves the university more innovative, diverse, and impactful than when she started. She also leaves an example of principled leadership with both the tenacity to address challenges and the versatility to harness them as catalysts for forward progress.

I remember Faust referencing rising “through change and through storm” once before, several years ago when I was entering Harvard College as a freshman in 2009, in her opening remarks for the academic year. At the time, she was two years into her tenure as President of Harvard and grappling with painful consequences of the financial downturn. The university’s endowment had declined by nearly 30 percent year-over-year, from just shy of $37 billion to $26 billion, driven by investment losses in a tumultuous market environment. Acknowledging the economic reality and its implications, Faust shared a vision for a nimbler, more efficient institution that could be realized without compromising principles of collaboration, intellectual honesty, and excellence. Adversity, she said, makes us stronger.

At Harvard Business School, we learn that managing organizations through periods of change is among the most critical responsibilities of a leader, but also among the most formidable. Empirically, a considerable majority of change initiatives are unsuccessful, a deficiency that persists despite extensive literature on the topic. Those that do succeed are characterized by clarity in the need for and nature of evolution, purpose-driven planning and implementation of proposed policies, ability to improvise in an uncertain environment, and commitment to continuous improvement.

Under Faust’s leadership, the university has become stronger. Notable among her numerous initiatives, her unprecedented financial aid policies, reflecting her conviction to push the frontiers of academic excellence irrespective of socioeconomic constraints, dramatically increased the affordability of Harvard College for middle class families. In addition to keeping college free for families earning under $60,000, the policy capped costs at 10 percent of income for families earning under $180,000. In a manifestation of the influence of her position in the higher education landscape, other major universities thereafter followed suit with programs to defray the cost of college education for the middle class. By striving to increase accessibility of high-quality education beyond the bounds of privilege, these policies pave a path toward greater aptitude, inclusivity, and diversity in the student body.

Faust’s ardent belief in equal opportunity is evident in her everyday demeanor. When asked by a journalist about the experience of being Harvard’s first woman President, she famously responded, “I am not the woman President of Harvard. I’m the President of Harvard.” As Harvard Corporation Senior Fellow William Lee observed in a letter to the Harvard community, Faust’s widely praised response is not only a tally in the column of feminism, but also a rejection of superficial labels, stereotypes, and preconceptions. The significance is that at Harvard, intellectual leadership is strengthened by diversity of thought, solidarity and strength can be found in differences, and individuality should be the norm.

In the spirit of harnessing a breadth of perspectives, Faust is credited with fueling interdisciplinary discourse, building bridges between Harvard’s historically decentralized academic programs in support of “One Harvard.” This emphasis has played out in many dimensions: rising cross-registration across Harvard’s schools; University-wide collaboration on programs like the South Asia Institute, the Center for the Environment, and the Data Science Initiative; and the introduction of dual degree programs like the joint Master’s degree program between the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Harvard Business School. The University has furthermore taken steps beyond its walls to educate its students, for example through Field Immersion Experiences in Leadership Development (FIELD) at the Business School, and to broadly support education in massive open online courses through edX and HarvardX.

As a student with the privilege of calling Harvard home for three degrees since Faust began her term, I am acutely aware and immensely appreciative of how far the university has come. After over a decade of service in academia’s most high-profile post, the impression that she has left on Harvard and the broader academic community sets a high standard for leaders who follow. In her installation address upon her appointment as Harvard’s President, Faust defined the essence of a university as “learning that molds a lifetime, learning that transmits the heritage of millennia; learning that shapes the future.” At Harvard Business School, where—in pursuit of the school’s mission—we strive to emulate “leaders who make a difference in the world,” we can decidedly look to Faust and her legacy.

Sumit Malik (HBS ’19) is an investor, writer, and entrepreneur. Professionally, his background is in venture capital and private equity at Warburg Pincus, strategy as a board member of Santander Asset Management Chile, and investment banking at Goldman Sachs. Personally, he writes for academic and popular publications and performs music and poi (light- or fire-spinning). He previously received an A.B., summa cum laude, from Harvard College and an S.M. from the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.