Harvard names Claudine Gay as president, first Black person at helm

Harvard University photo by Stephanie Mitchell
Harvard University announced on Dec. 15, 2022, that Claudine Gay, a scholar of political behavior, will become its 30th president in July 2023 and the first Black person to serve in that leadership post.

Harvard University announced Thursday that Claudine Gay, a scholar of political behavior, will become its 30th president next year and the first Black person to serve in that leadership post at the nation’s oldest institution of higher education.

Gay, 52, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, joined the Harvard faculty in 2006 as a professor of government and is now dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the Ivy League university in Cambridge, Mass.

She will take office on July 1, succeeding Lawrence S. Bacow, the university’s retiring president, Harvard said. Gay will be the second woman to serve as president.

“Claudine has brought to her roles a rare blend of incisiveness and inclusiveness, intellectual range and strategic savvy, institutional ambition and personal humility, a respect for enduring ideals and a talent for catalyzing change,” Penny Pritzker, senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation and chair of the presidential search committee, said in a statement. “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.”

Bacow, president of Harvard since 2018, announced in June that he would step down after this academic year.

The barrier-breaking appointment of Gay – the first person of color to be named as the university’s president – comes several months after Harvard released a searing report on the history of its entanglement with slavery and racial discrimination in prior centuries. In remarks in a live-streamed appearance at the university Thursday, Gay praised what she called Harvard’s “bold agenda for reckoning and repair.”

Founded in 1636 as the first college in Colonial America, Harvard now is an iconic university with a global reputation and more than 31,000 students in its undergraduate, graduate and professional schools. The university is perpetually in the center of conversations about higher education, including an affirmative-action case pending at the Supreme Court. In that case, justices are weighing a challenge to Harvard’s use of race as one of many factors in its holistic admissions. Harvard has defended its process as legal and necessary to pursue its goals for campus diversity – a position that many other selective universities share.

Gay said in a statement: “With the strength of this extraordinary institution behind us, we enter a moment of possibility, one that calls for deeper collaboration across the University, across all of our remarkable Schools. There is an urgency for Harvard to be engaged with the world and to bring bold, brave, pioneering thinking to our greatest challenges.”

Gay earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Stanford University in 1992 and a doctorate in political science from Harvard’s government department in 1998. She was on the Stanford faculty from 2000 to 2006 before joining the Harvard faculty. There, she has held appointments in government and African and African American studies.

In her research, Harvard said, Gay “has explored such topics as how the election of minority officeholders affects citizens’ perceptions of their government and their interest in politics and public affairs; how neighborhood environments shape racial and political attitudes among Black Americans; the roots of competition and cooperation between minority groups, with a particular focus on relations between Black Americans and Latinos; and the consequences of housing mobility programs for political participation among poor people.”

In a video produced for the announcement, Gay said: “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 is a great honor.”

Gay also suggested that she wants to promote deeper engagement with the world beyond Harvard. “The idea of the ‘ivory tower,’ that’s the past, not the future, of academia,” she said.