Drew Gilpin Faust used her inauguration as the 28th president of Harvard University over the weekend to defend American higher education from critics who allege students are not being taught enough, faculty are not held to high enough standards and the college experience costs too much.

Fourteen years after University President Richard Levin spoke in his inauguration address about internationalization, the University’s investment in the sciences and the physical rejuvenation of Yale and New Haven, Faust focused her speech more broadly on the purpose of a college education. Faust — the first woman to serve in Harvard’s top job — underscored the role of America’s colleges and universities in creating informed citizens of the world, rather than laying out any specific initiatives.

“It is a time to reflect on what Harvard and institutions like it mean in this first decade of the 21st century,” Faust said to a crowd of around 8,000 at the afternoon ceremony. In her speech, the respected Civil War historian said American higher education is “at once celebrated and assailed.”

She criticized government attempts to quantify colleges’ academic performance through the use of metrics such as graduation rates and standardized test scores and took issue with complaints that American universities are not doing enough to prepare their students to compete in the worldwide economy.

“The essence of a university is that it is uniquely accountable to the past and to the future – not simply or even primarily to the present,” Faust said.

Students and scholars engage in academic pursuits “because they define what has over centuries made us human, not because they can enhance our global competitiveness,” she said.

Faust acknowledged the importance of investing in science and financial aid, but she made few specific policy promises in her speech because she said listing goals would be too constraining. Inaugural addresses, she said, are “pronouncements by individuals who don’t yet know what they are talking about.”

Levin, who traveled to Cambridge for Faust’s inauguration on Friday, took a different approach 14 years ago. Levin talked in broad strokes in his inaugural address, too, but he listed several goals that have come to define his administration.

“We must focus even more on global issues if our students are to be well prepared for world leadership, if we are to be a world university,” Levin said.

In his speech, Levin also stressed the importance of investing in scientific research. The University has since invested upwards of $1 billion to expand its science programs since Levin became president.

Levin said Sunday that he had aimed in his address to lay out five points that would be the focuses of his administration – the rebuilding of Yale, the rebuilding of New Haven, environmental sustainability, investment in the sciences and Yale’s internationalization.

“I had a vision for things that should be priorities, and I tried to articulate them,” Levin said.

Faust succeeds economist and former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, who resigned last year after a rocky five-year tenure that was marred by a no-confidence vote from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in 2005 and a national controversy over remarks he made that suggested women were less gifted in the sciences than men.

Summers’ inaugural address in 2001 was also more specific in showcasing the newly-appointed president’s goals, which included expanding Harvard’s campus across the river to Allston — a project which is now underway — and recognizing the undergraduate program as the heart of the university.

Levin represented the community of university presidents in an address at Summers’ inauguration six years ago. University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann, a Harvard graduate, spoke at Friday’s ceremony.

Although Summers was in attendance on Friday, the focus was on Faust and her milestone as the first female president of Harvard. It was a momentous day that Harvard’s president a half century ago, James Conant, likely could not have imagined. Two weeks ago, Faust was given a newly discovered letter written by Conant to be opened by the first Harvard president of the 21st century. It began: “My dear Sir.”

“My presence here today would have been unimaginable even a few short years ago,” Faust said.

Faust, 60, was the dean of Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study before being appointed president. She took office on July 1, succeeding former Harvard President Derek C. Bok, who served as acting president since Summers resigned in June 2006.