The Harvard President Will See You Now (Ep. 218)

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Drew Gilpin Faust, the "pain-in-the-neck" little girl from rural Virginia who became the president of Harvard University. (photo: Harvard University)

Drew Gilpin Faust, the (self-described) “pain-in-the-neck” little girl from rural Virginia who became the president of Harvard University. (photo: Harvard University)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “The Harvard President Will See You Now.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.) It features an in-depth interview with Drew Gilpin Faust, and explores how a (self-described) “pain-in-the-neck” little girl from rural Virginia came to run the most powerful university in the world.

Faust was installed as the president of Harvard University in 2007. Her immediate predecessor was Derek Bok, a longtime Harvard president (from 1971-1991) who came back for one year as acting president after the short and stormy tenure of Lawrence Summers. Faust had spent 25 years as a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and later became dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. As a historian, her specialty is the Civil War and slavery; among her books are and Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War.

In the podcast, Faust answers some of the FREAK-quently Asked Questions we’ve put to people like Aziz Ansari, Boris Johnson, and Nate Silver. But we spend most of the time talking about things like:

+ Her background:

“I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in rural Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley in a conservative community in a conservative family, a traditional family, in which my mother said to me, “It’s a man’s world, sweetie, and the sooner you figure that out, the happier you’ll be.” So the expectation for young women in that environment was that they would grow up and marry and have children and that they would be subservient in significant ways to the aspirations, ambitions, and agendas of the men whom they married.”

+ Whether her appointment as Harvard president was a “token” female appointment in response to the volatile response over Larry Summers’s comments on the underrepresentation of women in the sciences:

“Well, I didn’t feel that I was a token appointment because I didn’t think that the Harvard Corporation would make token appointments. They’re not that kind of group. I felt that I had been chosen on the merits. But there were plenty of people who, outside of that realm, who’ve accused me of being a token appointment or alleged that I was a token appointment.”

+ What a university endowment is for, and what it’s not for:

First of all, an endowment is made up of gifts given to the university over time that are legally bound to certain uses. So some of the endowment is restricted to funding a French professor, or funding student aid. And that means that we have to use the income from that money for that particular purpose. And also at the same time preserve the corpus of the gift so it can continue to fund that in perpetuity.

We also talk about the amazing letter that the nine-year-old Faust sent to President Eisenhower:

alt : 02-12-1956_transcription.pdf

David Richter

Harvard President Drew Faust, asked about the value of education, cites the standard meme that "the differential between" the lifetime earnings of a college graduate and a high school graduate "has increased." But Wharton professor Peter Cappelli's recent book, "Is College Worth It?" cites statistics that call that meme into question. Cappelli points out that there were periods (like the 1960s and 1970s) when the average salaries of high school and college graduates were almost exactly the same, and in general there is no guarantee that a degree will confer superior earning power. The "lifetime earnings" meme depends on the fact that one can accurately assess lifetime earnings only for people who have retired, in other words, people who entered the work force around 1970; it may be true for me but not for my children who entered the work force around 2010.


Also makes a lot of difference what field the particular education happens to be in. A college degree in a STEM field will just about guarantee a decent living. OTOH, a high school diploma and a skilled trade can make you just about as much. Witness my neighbors' kid who became an electric lineman: he may not make quite as much as I do, but I'd bet his earnings are above 90% of college liberal arts majors.

Average Random Joe

The paper is the valuable thing, hence the discussion on Freakonomics on fake degrees. I would love these guys to study the salary of people with fake degrees and real ones. Or do fake medical degrees have more malpractice than real medical degrees?

One problem I had was at 9 she derided segregation but then said how great her segregated school was. Albeit different lines, race and gender, but interesting she didn't even seem consistent.


This podcast has really been going downhill for the last year or so. This episode is a great example of that decline. What does this episode have to do with the premise of Freakonomics? What does the president of Harvard have to do with Freakonomics? Please get back to your roots guys before this podcast fades into obscurity...


I agree, this one was dull and without much a point. Kind of a light profile that didn't really go anywhere or reveal anything unexpected.

Steve J.

Wow, was rather surprised at the comments. I thought it was the exact type of thing certain people in charge of moderating comments would not allow to go through cause it wasn't typical praise or went against the whole "powerful woman" thing this episode was going for. Kudos for allowing these comments to be posted, because I had the same exact thoughts.

This podcast was probably a new low in the entire series, for reasons already detailed in prior comments.

David McCormick

Ms. Faust's answer to the "is college still worth it" question is a perfect one for Freakonomics to explore a bit more, a fantastic jumping off point for the essence of this approach to questions. Her points about the earnings and employment impacts in the recent recession for workers that are college educated vs not are well taken, but this is the superficial data IMO.

I would like to see how Levitt would go after what I think is the real question: how the same person, with the same education through high school, fares in the economy compared with going to college. Have all the other correlated factors really already been removed from this data, and assuming not, how can it be untangled to create parallel, almost identical worlds where the exact same people who in one world go to college, in the other world do not. What happens?

Stephen J. Dubner

Hey David -- you might want to check out our previous two-part podcast about whether college is "worth it":


How did you find a copy of her letter to the president?