Education

Harvard Appoints a Black Woman as President

Harvard University named Claudine Gay, its dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, its 30th president on Thursday.

Gay, who is Haitian-American, is the first person of color and second woman to fill one of higher education’s highest-profile roles.

“She has a bedrock commitment to free inquiry and expression, as well as a deep appreciation for the diverse voices and views that are the lifeblood of a university community,” said Penny Pritzker, senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation and chair of the search committee, in a letter to the university community. “We are confident Claudine will be a thoughtful, principled, and inspiring president for all of Harvard, dedicated to helping each of our individual schools thrive, as well as fostering creative connections among them.”

Lawrence S. Bacow said he’d step down from his role as Harvard’s president in June 2023 after five years in the position.

The selection of Gay followed a six-month search by a 15-member committee.

Gay has been a member of the president’s academic council, was the founding director of Harvard’s Inequality in America Initiative, and she has served on the Association of American Universities’ advisory board on racial equity in higher education. She also previously served as Harvard’s dean of social science.

Gay’s parents immigrated to the U.S. from Haiti. She received her bachelor’s degree from Stanford, then earned a Ph.D. in government at Harvard, where she won the university’s Toppan Prize for best dissertation in political science. She was an assistant professor of political science at Stanford and received tenure there in 2005.

A year later, she joined Harvard’s faculty as a professor of government.

In 2008, she became a professor of African and African American studies, and in 2015 she was named the Wilbur A. Cowett Professor of Government.

As of 2017, fewer than one in five college presidents across the country were people of color. Only 30 percent of them were women, most of whom were white, The Chronicle reported.

Search committees that conduct private meetings and perpetuate the “hidden curriculum” that’s often difficult for candidates of color to navigate contribute to the meager statistic, according to an October report from the College Futures Foundation.

“It’s wonderful that an institution with such a long history as Harvard, and such a complicated history over time, has chosen to pick a president of color and particularly an African American president,” said Eloy Ortiz Oakley, president and chief executive of the College Futures Foundation. “It sets the right example for other institutions, many of which look to Harvard as an example of who they want to be.”

Oakley was wary of overindulging in celebration, saying that Harvard only represents a small part of America’s higher-education system.

“While it’s good news, we’re hopeful that other major public institutions that are the bulk of America’s higher-education system, follow in the same direction,” he said.

Harvard’s search committee consisted of members of the Harvard Corporation and three members of the Board of Overseers, a 30-member group elected by Harvard degree holders.

The search began in July with an email sent to over 400,000 people — including Harvard students, faculty, and alumni as well as other higher-education leaders, government officials, and nonprofit workers — that asked for advice on the opportunities and challenges facing higher education. Harvard asked recipients what the most important qualities to seek in a new president were, according to the university’s website.

It also requested nominations.

The search committee then consulted with three advisory committees: a 15-person faculty advisory committee, an 18-person student advisory group, and a 17-person staff advisory committee, which all extended outreach to the wider university community.

The search committee received more than 600 nominees for consideration and, over a series of 20 meetings, deliberated on whom would become Harvard’s next president.

Their decision was then voted on by the Board of Overseers and subsequently announced to the public.

Gay officially steps into her role on July 1, 2023.

“As a woman of color, as a daughter of immigrants, if my presence in this role affirms someone’s sense of belonging at Harvard, that’s a great honor,” she said in a video on the university’s website. “And for those who are beyond our gates, if this prompts them to look anew at Harvard, to consider new possibilities for themselves and their futures, then my appointment will have meaning for me that goes beyond words.”


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