I've never met Drew Gilpin Faust, the new president of Harvard, and I confess to being unfamiliar with her work. But from what I've read about her, it sounds like Harvard made an admirable choice. A self-described "rebel," Professor Faust marched for civil rights, against the Vietnam War and refused the "scratchy organdy dresses" that marked the "man's world" of the South. As a nine-year old she wrote President Eisenhower a letter pleading for desegregation (Lisa Simpson would be proud!). As a tenured full professor and a noted scholar of the Civil War, she pointed to some of the deeply irrational, but deeply felt, popular appeals of the Iraq War (see Jon Weiner).
Given Larry Summer's bonehead remarks about women's genetic inferiority, Professor Faust's ascendency makes for compelling feminist symbolism. As many reporters cheerily observed, half of all Ivy League presidents are now women.
But hold the parade. For if Professor Faust's career were typical of women in the academy, she'd be making only 81% of what her male colleagues do. According to the latest AAUP report on gender equity (by Martha West and John Curtis), not only do women as a class earn less than men in the academy, they are less likely to be hired for full-time positions, less likely to be granted tenure and less likely to be promoted to full professor. They are, however, more likely to hold the non-tenure track, lousy pay, high workload jobs that have come to dominate the academy in recent years.
All of these disparities contribute to the stunning 19% salary gap between male and female faculty, which West and Curtis note "has remained virtually unchanged" since the late '70s despite that fact that women are getting PhDs in record numbers. Maybe Larry Summers can find a "genetic" explanation for this inequality. Savvier anti-feminists will say that women "opt out" of higher-paying, tenure track, research-oriented jobs. In my years in the academy, I've never met a woman (or man) who "opted" to teach 4-5 classes a semester at adjunct wages with no job security and minimal benefits. But even when one controls for variables like institution type, discipline, tenure, rank, degree, age etc., the AAUP notes a persistent, "unexplained" salary gap of several percentage points between women and men.
Conventional wisdom and history say that the President of Harvard has the capacity to act as a voice for justice beyond the confines of the Yard. In this case, let's hope that's true and that Professor Faust remains outspoken about war abroad and committed to women's equality at home.