Off the Cuff

Harvard President: Zuckerberg Dropped Out, but His Staff Didn’t

Harvard President: Zuckerberg Dropped Out, but His Staff Didn't

Mark Zuckerberg may not have a university degree, but in order to run a successful multi-billion-dollar company, he needs people around him who do, said Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University.

When asked what she thinks about "billionaire dropouts," Faust said she is struck by their individual success but also by how such people require support from "legions of people who have training in a variety of fields" in order to maintain that success.

"Our famous drop-out Mark Zuckerberg—who, of course, founded Facebook—he needs accountants and he needs physicists and he needs a whole range of people who have had an education of a sort that he could skip over because of his brilliant insight about Facebook," she said. "So I think we need to think about the institutional context that enables innovation."

The 28th president of Harvard, Faust is also the first woman to hold the office since the University was established in 1636. She's the author of six books, including "This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War," which was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and was on the New York Time's list of "10 Best Books of 2008."

"Gender has always been a part of moving through the world for me and understanding how people responded to me," she said. "But I have also been supported in many ways, because I came along at a time when so many opportunities were opening up for women."

Faust knows she made history by becoming the first woman to head the university, but she does not consider the distinction a badge of honor.

"I wanted everyone around me to understand that I was the president of Harvard who happened to be a woman," Faust said, "but very soon after my appointment was announced, I started being inundated with letters from all over the world from little girls, from teenage girls, from young women, from the parents of women saying, 'It matters so much that you are in that space.'"

President since 2007, Faust has improved access to the university for students from a wide range of economic backgrounds by expanding financial aid. She also linked up with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in order to create an online learning partnership between the two universities.

Raised in Virginia, she's a historian of the American South and Civil War. Prior to Harvard, she spent 25 years at the University of Pennsylvania as the Annenberg Professor of History.

Even though it's been tough balancing work and family, her long academic career actually has helped, Faust said.

"I have never succeeded in figuring out how to balance work and family life very well. I was lucky through much of my time as a parent of a young, and then growing-up child, to be an academic with a lot of flexibility in my schedule," she said.

Faust also credits her husband with sharing their responsibilities as a couple, which made her home life easier. She's married to Charles Rosenberg, a professor of social sciences at Harvard and a historian of science and medicine. They have two daughters.