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Woman Historian Makes History at Harvard

By Joan C. Browning

Harvard University, founded in 1636, is the oldest, and with a $29 BILLION dollar endowment, the richest university in the United States.

For 371 years, Harvard University’s 27 presidents were white men chosen by a governing board dominated by rich white men.

This year, the selection process included students, faculty, and alumni. They found their new president on their own campus. They made history by choosing a woman as Harvard’s 28th president.

Al Neuharth, USA TODAY founder, wrote, "The announcement that on July 1, Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust, a 59-year-old free-spirited female, will become president of Harvard sent shock waves through the ranks of many alumni and benefactors last week."

"It’s about time," Neuharth wrote.

We in the Greenbrier Valley may be especially interested in Harvard’s new president. This historian grew up in the nearby Shenandoah Valley.

Faust is indeed a historian. She writes about folks like her ancestors—southern, slave owning, Civil War fighting aristocracy. She has written about Old South intellectuals, proslavery ideology and identity, mortality and meaning in the Civil War, and biographical sketches of slaveholders. Two of her books, a biography of James Henry Hammond and Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War, are widely used as textbooks.

In an autobiographical article, Faust wrote "I knew from the time I was a small child in Virginia that I lived in history." She writes about childhood memories of the Civil War all around her—in the Lee-Jackson Highway, ubiquitous Confederate-gray historical battle markers, and Confederate graves. "And my grandmother sought to inspire and instruct us with choruses of "I’m a good old rebel/That’s just what I am/For this fair land of freedom/I do not give a damn."

"I have always known that I became a southern historian because I grew up in that particular time and place. My sense of self, my story about how I became who I am, has always been situated in events now nearly a half-century old…"

She also came of age in the maelstrom of southern resistance to undoing the racial segregation that had been legally enshrined by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896. The 1950s battleground was around public school desegregation. Rebelling against racial injustice, in college she became a civil rights activist who marched in Selma in 1965.

When she decided to write about herself, Faust searched for a letter she had written at age nine. An archivist found it among the 23 million pages at the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas. He described it as "Letter by a School Child" written on Lincoln’s birthday in 1957 in which "…Miss Gilpin expresses her feelings about how Black Americans are treated and urges the president to make schools more open to minorities." In block letters on school ruled note book paper she wrote "Dear Mr. Eisenhower, I am nine years old and I am white, but I have many feelings about segregation. If I painted my face black I wouldn’t be let in any public schools, etc. Long ago on Christmas Day Jesus Christ was born. As you remember he was born to save the world... Colored people aren’t given a chance…So what if their skin is black? They still have feelings but most of all are God’s People!"

Faust wrote this letter when she was in the fifth grade of a tiny all-white school in Millwood, population approximately 200. "Neither race nor the civil rights movement was ever mentioned in our all-white local [Episcopal] church. By the middle years of the 1960s, my outrage at this stunning silence would lead me to abandon organized religion permanently."

Harvard becomes the fourth Ivy League university with a woman president. A few token women have occupied the presidency of West Virginia colleges. Fairmont State College once had a woman president. Shepherd University just named Suzanne Shipley its first female president. Joanne Jaeger Tomblin is president of Southern West Virginia Community College, probably the state’s best community college. And West Virginia University at Parkersburg, in my opinion the best model for delivering high quality, low cost, higher education in a rural state, is led by Dr. Marie Foster Gnage, a WVU regional vice president and WVU-P’s sixth president.

West Virginia University is now searching for a replacement for retiring president, David Hardesty. He has led the state’s flagship university to unprecedented growth and national prominence. A native West Virginian, his love for our university and our state has been a great asset. He reminds me that before people care what we know, they must know that we care. He cared. David Hardesty is a hard act to follow.

West Virginia University is prospering under leadership of another West Virginian born and bred, head football coach Rich Rodriguez. Coach Rodriguez grew up on a Marion County farm near Grant Town (population 257) and attended a small K-8 school. His mother told me that "It was a beautiful school. It had beautiful wood and was kept up well. The community loved the school, the PTA was very big, and people really did their thing" to support the school. He was one of 13 graduates in his 8th grade class. He played football at WVU and graduated in 1986.

It’s about time for WVU to choose a woman president. The perfect candidate is on WVU’s own campus, Dr. Mary Ellen Mazey, Dean of the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences. Mary Ellen [King] Mazey’s roots are in rural Greenbrier County. Her stellar educational career began at the two-room Organ Cave School. Like Drew Gilpin Faust and Rich Rodriguez, a small school in a small place gave Dr. Mazey a sense of self, a story about how she became who she is. Teachers at Organ Cave School prepared her well for achieving baccalaureate and masters degrees at West Virginia University, a Ph.D. in urban geography from the University of Cincinnati, and the Harvard University Management Development Program. She is eminently qualified and her love of West Virginia, and West Virginia University, is palpable.

Small schools in small places helped Drew Gilpin Faust, Rich Rodriguez, and Mary Ellen King Mazey learn who they are. Knowing who we are is one of a successful life’s most important lessons.