Claudine Gay: Daughter of Haitian Immigrants Becomes Harvard’s First Black President in 400-Year History

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On Thursday, Harvard University announced that Claudine Gay, the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, will be their new president. She will be the first Black leader of the university, succeeding Lawrence S. Bacow, who was the second woman to hold the position.

When she takes office in July 2023, Harvard will be facing a critical Supreme Court decision that could force them to make changes to their admissions process which has been criticized for its favoring of white and wealthy candidates while also using affirmative action to increase Black and Hispanic student enrollment. It has been noted that Dr. Gay’s specialty in minority representation and political participation in government, as well as her advocacy for diversity in hiring, will make her well-suited for the challenge.

Claudine Gay, a widely admired higher education leader and distinguished scholar of democracy and political participation, will become the 30th president & First Black President of Harvard University on July 1.

The daughter of Haitian immigrants, Gay received her bachelor’s degree in 1992 from Stanford, where she majored in economics and was awarded the Anna Laura Myers Prize for best undergraduate thesis. In 1998, she received her Ph.D. in government from Harvard, where she won the Toppan Prize for best dissertation in political science. A quantitative social scientist with expertise in political behavior, Gay served as an assistant professor and then tenured associate professor at Stanford before being recruited to Harvard in 2006 as a professor of government. She was also appointed a professor of African and African American Studies in 2007. She was named the Wilbur A. Cowett Professor of Government in 2015, when she also became dean of social science at FAS.

Since 2006, Dr. Gay has been a professor of government and African and African American studies at Harvard. Penny Pritzker, the chair of the presidential search committee, noted her leadership and devotion to sustaining and enhancing Harvard’s academic excellence. Henry Louis Gates Jr., the director of Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, described the announcement as “academic history.” He went on to laud Gay for her “first-class academic leadership” and her “rigorous scholarship”, and declared that under her guidance, Harvard will remain a model for upholding the highest standards of academic excellence and promoting equality.

Dr. Gay’s tenure as Harvard President will come with many challenges. She will have to manage the Supreme Court pending decision in the lawsuit filed against Harvard in 2014, which challenges the school’s use of ‘boosts’ to increase the racial diversity of its classes. She will also have to address local opposition to a campus expansion into the Allston-Brighton neighborhood, faculty complaints about increasing workload, and criticism of the Legacy of Slavery initiative. To meet these challenges, she will need to overhaul Harvard’s admissions process to eliminate favoritism bestowed on legacies, as well as boosts for donors and athletes who compete in certain sports. Dr. Gay has declared that Harvard will remain “unwavering in our commitment to building and nurturing a diverse and vibrant campus community,” and her tenure will be a test of her ability to live up to this mission.

Speaking after her election, Gay said,

“I am humbled by the confidence that the governing boards have placed in me and by the prospect of succeeding President Bacow in leading this remarkable institution. It has been a privilege to work with Larry over the last five years. He has shown me that leadership isn’t about one person. It’s about all of us, moving forward together, and that’s a lesson I take with me into this next journey. Today, we are in a moment of remarkable and accelerating change — socially, politically, economically, and technologically,” said Gay. “So many fundamental assumptions about how the world works and how we should relate to one another are being tested. Yet Harvard has a long history of rising to meet new challenges, of converting the energy of our time into forces of renewal and reinvention,” she continued. “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. As I start my tenure, there’s so much more for me to discover about this institution that I love, and I’m looking forward to doing just that, with our whole community.”

Gay is married to Dr. Christopher Afendulis, an expert in health care policy. They have a son.

The election of Gay as president marks the culmination of a robust and intensive search process. The process formally began in early July, with an email from the search committee to more than 400,000 faculty, students, staff, alumni, higher education leaders, and others well positioned to provide advice. Members of the search committee spoke personally with more than 150 individuals to solicit their advice and nominations and consulted with dozens of key faculty leadership groups and groups of alumni and friends from across Harvard’s Schools. The search committee met some 20 times, for hours at a stretch.

As chair of the search committee, Pritzker thanked the leaders of the various advisory committees for their work on the search.

“She will be a great Harvard president in no small part because she is such a good person.” — Penny Pritzker, senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation

“As we approach our 400th anniversary as an institution, I’m excited about Claudine’s energy and ambition for the University and her potential for transformational leadership,” said Paul Choi, president of Harvard’s Board of Overseers and a member of the search committee. “She is intensely focused on intellectual excellence and rigor and bringing together Harvard’s strengths to help address the biggest problems our society faces.”

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